Parallel Worlds – from Bardonecchia to Briancon

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Since early 2015, Europe has seen a major influx of people seeking asylum in the Western world, trying to escape from terror and other threats to their lives. First they came to Lesbos, then to Idomeni. The Balkan route was opened. However, following populist calls, many European countries have fortified their borders. The Mediterranean route, connecting Africa with Italy and Spain gained importance.  Still refugees put their life at risk at the outer as well as the inner European borders to reach their favoured destination.

Yet another episode of this cruel story, called the “migrant crisis” by many, is taking place a lot closer to the heart of Europe than many would expect: in the village of Bardonecchia, a famous ski resort in Piedmont, northern Italy, migrants try to pass the Alps to Briancon, France, on snow-covered  mountain paths. All  this misery is happening in a picturesque landscape. For people unfamiliar with the mountains, the fact of the matter is that hypothermia, avalanches and getting lost are just some of the dangers that lurk .

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Refugees in the waiting hall of the station.

For several months now, “Rainbow 4 Africa” has been trying to help people stranded at the Bardonecchia train station, by providing them at least with what they need to survive: warm food, a place to sleep during cold and stormy winter nights, first aid and warm clothing. The volunteers of this NGO, which also operates a ship on the Mediterranean doing search and rescue missions for refugees in distress at sea, try to keep track of the numbers of people attempting to cross the mountains. They document every medical treatment they give. Unequipped and without the necessary knowledge of the dangers awaiting them in the mountains, many have suffered cruel fates. Giovanna, a volunteer doctor with “Rainbow 4 Africa”, gives her best to take care of people arriving or returning from the mountains sums up:

Refugees come with neither preparation nor clothing, but they know the road. It’s impossible with this bad weather. We try to explain the danger of mountain and how to survive… I see two parallel worlds. … Some locals help and work with us, but life of tourists continues normally….  In general, they [tourists] do not really care about refugees here in Bardonecchia.

Giovanna, volunteer doctor, “Rainbow 4 Africa”

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Three made it on the normal road to France

The most common ailment she treats is hypothermia. Earlier in 2017 a man had to have both his seriously frostbitten feet amputated. In summer, another refugee lapsed into a coma after he fell trying to escape the French police and hit his head on a rock. Giovanna says, she has not witnessed or heard of any deaths in the mountains yet. The Italian Alpine Rescue confirms “Rainbow 4 Africa’s” evaluation of the ongoing situation: deaths have not been reported yet, but with the avalanche risk increasing this could change soon. In addition, it is unknown what lies below the masses of snow.

When speaking to a refugee of 18 years, who wishes to remain unnamed, you can feel the despair. Asked if he was aware of the dangers of the passage, he answers:

“Yes, we do know about the dangers and people tell us, but we still want to try.”

His moving story starts in Guinea, Africa, and is similar to those of many refugees in Italy. He first arrived in Sicily and was then transferred to a refugee shelter for minors in Emilia-Romagna where he lived and went to school.  The day however he became legally an adult, had no further right to support by this institution. He became homeless, first tried to go to Germany, then decided to try to get to France, the former colonizer of Guinea. In his eyes, the situation in his home country is at least in part caused by the exploitation in colonial times and therefore he wants France to pay him back for that and enable him to start a better life there. By the way, he is fluent in French and Italian and can communicate in English.

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Activist on skis near the French Italian border

In Briancon, town on the French side of the border, support for refugees seems to be organized a lot better than in Bardonecchia. According to activists, a network of several thousand people supports a group that squatted a former police station and turned it into a refugee shelter. Starting from here, volunteers, who are mountain guides, sportsmen and willing to help, depart every night. They look out for stranded people in the mountains. Conditions which are hazardous  to health if underestimated during the day can become life-threatening at night. During their nighttime patrols activists look out for fresh footprints in the snow indicating that refugees left the path. However their support has limitations. If they find refugees on the Italian side of the border, that runs across the mountains and bring them to France, they put themselves in danger of being accused of human trafficking. Also, if the avalanche risk is too high, the weather too stormy or roads blocked, activists are not able to search the whole area for refugees. They are prepared – but always hope to find nobody.

In sum the situation in the mountain region is dangerous and inhumane. French border police stop refugees trying to cross the border using regular roads. They load them into their cars  and then drop them off on the Italian side of the border after several kilometers , using a practice called pushback.  The Dublin III agreement is used to justify this. But this is no solution to the problem of people trying to cross the border on this way. Once brought back to Italy, refugees will attempt to make the passage again – further away from roads, harder to catch for police, but also endangering themselves more and putting their life at risk.

Photo Reportage

A longer video-documentary featuring interviews, background information and a lot more will follow soon on 24mmjournalism.