Posted by: Jerry Garrett | July 30, 2017

Migrant Crisis Tearing Apart Historic Italian Border Town

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Ventimiglia (Jerry Garrett photo)

VENTIMIGLIA, Italy

July and August are supposed to be the height of tourist season here in Ventimiglia, an historic seaside town near Italy’s border with the French Riviera.

But the beaches are half-empty this year. Dozens of shops in the traditionally popular commercial center are closed down. Restaurants now employ greeters beeching passing pedestrians to enter. By 9:30 p.m. – even on weekends – most everything is shut down.

What’s the problem? Most people will agree it is the town’s burgeoning population of migrants, and the problems they bring. Most come from Africa – Sudan, Chad, Senegal, Niger, Eriteria, Algeria, Libya, etc. They don’t fit in at all.

The locals – hardly a cosmopolitan demographic – were initially surprisingly kind and accommodating. But what started as a temporary problem of desperate people, backed up here because they are being denied entry into France, has gone on too long; a backlog of nearly 1,000 people has formed, more are on the way, and the residents here have lost patience.

Hundreds of migrants sleep rough in the Roya riverbed – eating, sleeping, bathing, defecating and littering along the once-pristine banks of a scenic river that flows down from the coastal Alps.

Beggars panhandle at every door, on every corner, around the clock; hordes of them have become trinket salesmen, armed with Chinese-made tat and designer knockoffs, and they constantly pester everyone, like ants at a picnic.

The 50,000 or so mostly blue-collar residents here are not rich; they have little for themselves, much less others. The Italian economy, as a whole, is horrible; here it’s worse.

Local volunteers, charities and churches have tried to help with basic needs like blankets, medical attention and food. But too many people have now arrived; the city recently demanded that the swelling throngs be moved farther away from the overwhelmed city center to a nearby Red Cross camp. They didn’t want to go.

So, riots broke out in June, with police tear-gassing rampaging migrants (who demanded to be let into France). This mortified the populace. Now, the international notoriety the town has been blighted with is seen as the crippling blow to this summer’s vital tourist season.

When I started spending extended periods of time in Ventimiglia four years ago, it was an off-the-radar dream destination – the kind travel writers fantasize about.

Julius Caesar himself was reputed to have settled this area; the main drag, named after Marcus Aurelius, still leads to Rome. With breath-taking views of the French and Italian Riviera coastlines – including Monaco, azure waters, fabulous cuisine, low prices and an almost ideal year-round climate, it was pretty appealing.

The locals were kind, generous and welcoming.

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And then the migrants, refugees and asylum seekers started coming, in greater and greater numbers. They had no jobs, no money, no food, poor hygiene and little clothing. The Italian Navy had rescued many from treacherous crossings of the Mediterranean; authorities deposited them on Italian shores, and expected them to keep going farther into Europe.

For awhile, that was the case. But the system started to back up, as England, and then France, Switzerland, Austria and others started refusing to let them in. So this flood of humanity has backed up in Italy. And the blockage is most acute at Ventimiglia, which is now being tarred with the epithet “Little Calais”. (Italian cities farther from the border seem far less affected.)

Uncounted thousands have successfully made the illegal crossing through the porous border, but many of the most pathetic, unprepared and ill-suited to the journey fail.

The craggy crossing into France here is so treacherous it has come to be called the “Pass of Death”. Migrants can be seen at all hours marching along railroad tracks, dashing across the high highway bridges into dark tunnels, or even swimming in the azure sea toward France. Dozens have drowned, been hit by vehicles, crushed by trains, electrocuted, or just vanished in the rugged terrain.

If they make it to France, a massive police and armed forces presence awaits them. Every day hundreds are arrested, put in vans and buses, and taken back to be dumped in Italy – usually in Ventimiglia.

The Italians protest that it is illegal for the French to do this; the French claim they have a right to protect themselves. Four years ago, the border was unattended; now, on a high-alert day (whenever the French decide to declare one), it can take hours for anyone to cross into France. This has a truly chilling effect on Ventimiglia’s renown as a market town – with a revered six-day-a-week flower and farmers market, a Friday flea market that draws bargain hunters from as far away as Switzerland, and monthly antiques sales.

Among the shops that are still open, “70% off” sales are now common.

It’s not a sustainable situation.

But what will happen next? The French seem unwilling to back off their stance. Ventimiglia can’t absorb any more. It seems some kind of eruption is imminent.

Jerry Garrett

July 30, 2017

 

 

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