Migrants in the Alps: The dangerous trek to a new life

Migrants in the Alps: The dangerous trek to a new life
By Valérie Gauriat
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Over a nearly two year period, more than 3,500 migrants have braved the Alps to seek asylum in France

The Alpine village of Claviere in Italy is known to ski lovers in winter.

But on the spring day when 'Insiders' filmed there, an unusual police presence was on standby at its gates.

A few hundred metres away, on the other side of the Franco-Italian border, dozens of people had gathered to express their anger.

They assembled on the outskirts of the French village of Montgenèvre, in front of the border police station. The demonstrators were French and Italian citizens.

"A woman is dead!" one man shouted into a loudhailer.

"Blessing was found on Wednesday near the Presle dam in the Durance, the river that runs through Briançon. An undocumented, black woman - no-one had reported her missing."

Another protester used a megaphone to address a message to security forces.

"Police and gendarmes, after the cemetery in the Mediterranean, we don't want crossing this border to become a new deadly obstacle for exiles who want to come to France!"

Rescuers risk prosecution

Mountain dwellers regularly rescue those who brave the Alps to reach the region of Briançon, sometimes risking prosecution for doing so.

"We have prevented a lot of accidents," said Benoît Ducos, the man with the megaphone who had warned about the risks facing migrants on the summits. A mountain rescuer, and member of the Tous Migrants association, he was summoned by the police for helping a family, including a pregnant woman, in one of the area's dangerous mountain passes last march.

"Today, with winter at an end, we realise that it is no longer the cold and snow causing problems. It is the heavily reinforced police and military presence on this border that is forcing the exiles to make more and more detours and take more risks to get into France," lamented the mountain guide.

An investigation is underway into the death of the 20-year-old Nigerian woman. But protesters maintain that, according to her companions in misfortune, it was the result of a police chase in the mountains.

'Insiders' reporter Valérie Gauriat questioned an officer on duty, about these reports.

¨"It is not us, that is for sure!" he insisted.

"I'm telling you, I think it was a people smuggler."

But that explanation didn't satisfy those who had assembled to highlight the migrants' plight.

"This death was not inevitable! It was a homicide, with well-identified agents and accomplices." a young woman told the crowd, in Italian.

"First and foremost, the governments and their closed border policy. And every man and woman supporting them. Gendarmes, air and border police, Alpine hunters and now these ridiculous neo-fascist identitarians patrolling the paths and roads, hunting migrants."

Over a nearly two year period, more than 3,500 migrants have braved the summits to come and seek asylum in France.

In recent weeks, extra police and gendarmes have been sent to this region of the French Alps in the wake of a media stunt by the far-right in April, demanding the area be sealed off.

A few dozen activists from the pan-European group 'Generation Identity' (Génération Identitaire) erected a symbolic barrage against migrants, on the Col de l'Echelle mountain pass.

"We want to defend our people, defend Europeans!"

'Insiders' met a few members of the group, who stayed in the region afterwards, claiming to be helping security forces with their patrols in search of migrants.

"We are carrying out surveillance missions at the border," said Génération Identitaire spokesperson Aymeric Courtet.

"We are also conducting a survey of the population which supports us massively, to gather information on smuggling networks and illegal migrant smuggling. Then we pass on this information to the police. In the past two weeks, we have arrested about 20...We have reported about 20 illegal migrants to the police.

"We report them, indicating where they are, so that the police can come and apprehend them."

'Insiders' asked him whether he felt he had the right to try to block these people who had come from so far away and been through so much.

"Yes, of course," he said.

"We are vigilant citizens. We want to defend our people, defend Europeans. So yes, if the state has decided to abandon its people, we are here...for Europeans, for the defence of our identity."

We returned to Clavière in Italy, a few days later.

"This refuge is one of the starting points for those who want to try to cross into France. But beyond this limit, the camera isn't welcome," said journalist Valérie Gauriat in front of a building where asylum seekers find sanctuary.

The camera ban is with good reason. French and Italian volunteers at the refuge receive those wishing to make the crossing, from all over Italy, giving them a short respite before they pursue their journey.

The helpers are liable to prosecution although they claim it is the police that are breaching the law.

"Generally, asylum seekers should be able to present themselves without any papers at a border and say they need protection," said one volunteer at the 'Jesus' refuge, who preferred to remain anonymous.

"Whereas what is happening, is that if people try to cross normally, by taking the bus etc, they are brought back here to the border. That forces them to resort to mountain paths that are very dangerous, to avoid being caught and sent back to Italy."

One of the asylum seekers agreed to talk to us, also insisting on anonymity.

He had attempted the crossing the day before, with his brother, a minor.

They were quickly intercepted by the Italian police. Only the youngest of the two got through.

He outlined his encounter with the security forces.

"They asked: 'Where are you going?' I said we were headed for France. They searched our bags," he explained.

"They asked how old we were. My little brother said he was born in 2000. They said: 'Okay, that's fine.'

"Then they asked me. I said I was born in 1999. They said to me, 'Oh really...well then you are an adult.'"

So was he discouraged? Would he try again and again?

"Always! Always! I am going to try, because I'm telling you, I don't want to live here anymore," he proclaimed.

"The main problem here is the language."

The man was to try his luck again that very day, with a few others. 'Insiders' going with them was out of the question as it would only have heightened the risk of them being spotted. The group, that day, succeeded in getting through.

"It's not easy, it's not easy. I have suffered."

In the town of Briançon, around 15 kilometres further on, they would have been able to find a little rest.

'Insiders' went to the Solidarity Refuge, the main point of arrival for newcomers.

Six men had just arrived from Italy, exhausted. One said he had left at 9am and had got there at 3pm, on foot.

"I went up the mountain and then I reached the ...the little bridge you cross," another migrant recounted.

"You can't use the road. You have to take the paths higher up, to be able to hide...from the police. Often the police car brakes. If they stop, you stop, too."

Wet and dirty, he explained that he had fallen.

"It's not easy, it's not easy. I have suffered."

The refuge is at the heart of a vast solidarity network for migrants in Briançon.

Meals, accommodation, clothes, medical care...dozens of volunteers take turns there to meet the needs of their passing guests. After regaining their strength, most of the migrants leave to make their asylum requests in other French cities. The refuge is constantly busy.

"We recieve the new arrivals, we go to the hospital, we look after the transport, train tickets, we contact loved ones if they have somewhere to go," said Anne Chavanne, spokesperson for 'Refuges Solidaires' and 'Tous Migrants'.

"They need a lot of reassurance. They are really scared of being arrested, anywhere, Whereas they have the right to ask for asylum in France, even though that, too, has become more than difficult. They are more and more worried and we can't guarantee them anything."

Justin from Cameroon made his asylum request as a political refugee seven months ago.

While waiting for an answer, he is not allowed to work so he is lending a helping hand at the refuge.

Having arrived in Europe in Italy, he could be sent back there.

The so-called 'Dublin Regulation' allows for an asylum seeker to be returned to the first EU state, in which they arrived and were registered.

"It would be better to be in my country with my family...if we're here, it's for a good reason."

"People imagine that this is the only good place to live," Justin told us.

"But rather than living this life here, I think it would be better to be in my country with my family, with my son and my own life. So if we are here, it is for a good reason."

Intended for about 20 people, the refuge regularly welcomes nearly 100.

Joël Pruvot, one of those in charge, condemned the absence of reception centres in France, for those who haven't yet been able to make their asylum applications..

"It is not for the police to say whether their asylum request is legitimate," he said.

"There is a body called OFPRA, The French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons, which is supposed to deal with these cases, examine them and give its verdict.

"In the meantime, there should be a reception policy in France. And it is that work that is not being done by the state that we, volunteers, do in its place. But it shouldn't be down to us to do it! Especially since we are also asked to receive minors. There, when it really comes down to it, we are on the wrong side of the law."

The next morning, other volunteers from the refuge, accompanied by 23 minors, decided to lay siege to Briançon police station.

That is where lone minors are registered.

The county council is then required by law to take care of them.

However some of the young people have been waiting at the refuge for two weeks already.

The group set up camp outside the police station to get an answer.

"We will wait as long as necessary, hoping that we don't have to take them back to the refuge, because that would be a failure," said 'Tous Migrants' volunteer Christophe Bruneau.

The waiting ultimately paid off.

At the end of the day, 18 out of the 23 young people left for the town of Gap, where the county council is based.

'Substitute' mother and father

'Insiders' meanwhile had a meeting at Briançon high school.

Asylum seeker Movado arrived a year and a half ago. At the school, he is training for the building trade.

Rescued in the mountains during his crossing, the young man from Guinea was welcomed as soon as he arrived by a couple in the region.

He lives with them in a small village, some 20 kilometres from Briançon.

"The family hosting me is very kind. They really look after me," he said.

"They also helped me to get into the school. I am not another son for them but they have really taken care of me. In any case, I see them as substitutes for my father and mother."

It is in this house that the young man has found hope again.

From his arrival, sick and suffering from severe frostbite, he was taken in by Yves Masset and Fanfan Guillemeau.

They got him medical treatment, registered him in school, and are accompanying him every step of the way in the asylum process.

The couple also host three other young people including Fousseini from Mali.

The Sahara Desert, Libyan prisons, crossing the Mediterranean...they have all been through hell.

The couple's support doesn't erase their anxiety.

"Now they're fine but ...the rest, it's heartbreaking because you can't say 'that's it'. They are okay. We are happy? No," said host 'mother' Fanfan.

"How long will they be ok? The laws are changing. They will be even tougher in a few months time. What will that mean? What is going to become of them? All of them."

"They bring us good energy, too," added Yves.

"Because this strength of will that they have had throughout, it is still there and it reinvigorates us as well."

Movado "was literally dying" when he arrived at the house, says the couple. Fully recovered, he plays football regularly, helps as a volunteer at the Red Cross, and is a keen student at school.

At 19, he dreams of becoming a plumber and settling in France long-term. It is a hope that remains suspended - dependent on him obtaining refugee status.

"Right now, I don't really feel free because I am here and I don't have my documents," he told 'Insiders'.

"I have to wait for an answer. If it is positive, I will have papers. If it is negative, I would have to appeal. All of that is very much in my head. I'm thinking about it a lot but I also still have hope that it will be alright, little by little, you know, step by step."

Yves et Fanfan do everything to support their protégés in the steps they are taking, with the help of lawyers. But they know that nothing is certain.

Anger mixed with sorrow

"I think the most important thing is to say that they are gaining confidence," said Fanfan.

"And if they gain confidence, they are stronger. And if they are stronger, perhaps they will be luckier. That is all you can say."

"This welcoming aspect, the solidarity of the mountain dwellers...they're making a lot of it in the media right now," said Yves.

"It is true that it has become anecdotal, compared to the adversity you feel in the attitude of the political powers. So, all the same, we are angry."

It is an anger mixed with sorrow, shared the next evening by dozens of the valley's residents.They came together to pay a final tribute to Blessing, the young Nigerian women found dead in the river.

"Dare we no longer drink from our springs, nor stroll in the mountains because we know exiled friends have died there, hunted down like animals?" asked mountain guide Benoit Ducos, addressing the gathering.

"Oh Blessing, everyone here at Briançon is grieving for you, everyone is grieving," added a young man.

"What did she do to deserve such a fate?"

In a solemn atmosphere, the volunteers released paper lanterns that drifted into the night sky. 

Many mountain dwellers fear that Blessing's fate will be shared by many more. A few days after our report was completed, another migrant's body, a man this time, was found in nearby woods.

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