By Regis Duvignau and Claude Canellas
BAYONNE, France (Reuters) - In the Basque Country town of Bayonne, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, French police are struggling to stem a growing flow of migrants crossing the snow-capped mountains that straddle the border between France and Spain.
Spain became a major entry point for Africans fleeing war and poverty after a populist government took power in Italy early last year and largely shut down ports to migrants.
More than 58,000 migrants landed in Spain by boat in 2018, according to the International Organization for Migration, nearly triple the previous year and eclipsing for the first time the numbers passing through North Africa to Italy.
Many head north and cross the French frontier hidden in trucks, riding buses or on foot, crossing mountains whose highest peak rises to 3,400 metres (11,000 feet) and where winter temperatures often fall below zero.
"My colleagues are professionals but they become despondent when they run searches, take migrants back over the border, only for them to re-enter. It's like emptying an ocean with a spoon," said Patrice Peyruqueou, a police official in France's southwestern Pyrenees-Atlantiques region.
Lack of resources meant police could not monitor all border crossing points around-the-clock, Peyruqueou added.
"SAVING MY SKIN"
The European Union has struggled to resolve tensions among member states over migration policy, even as overall numbers arriving from Africa and the Middle East have declined sharply.
With Spain a flashpoint, Bayonne, 40 km (25 miles) north of the border, is grappling with a humanitarian situation that is stretching the town's finances and pitting mayor Jean-Rene Etchegaray against the local interior ministry representative.
In the New Year, Etchegaray asked the local prefect for funds to help finance the running of a reception centre dubbed "La Pausa" where up to 150 migrants at any one time can rest for three days, receiving food handouts and donated clothes.
But the interior ministry's then local prefect, Gilbert Payet, refused support for the centre, arguing it helped encourage the movement of migrants across France.
Etchegaray was stunned. "It's a question of humanity," he told a local radio station.
Somali teenager Mokhtar fled his homeland 18 months ago, but not before a policeman shot the 18-year-old in the thigh and then his lower leg after word got around he intended to leave.
"He said that would make it harder for me to run," Mokhtar recounted. "I left to save my own skin."
The youngster followed a route increasingly used by human traffickers, crossing the Sahara desert to Libya before heading west along the coast to Morocco then making a perilous traverse of the Straits of Gibraltar. He then wound his way north through Spain before reaching the French border.
"I don't know how many times they took me back to the Spanish side," he said. Eventually, a motorist helped him cross. Now he dreams of a normal life.
"Just the other day," he said, "I had toothache and for the first time in my life I was taken to a dentist."
(Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)