Migrants arriving in Italy face yet another ordeal: EU's toughened internal borders

Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing conflict have been rescued off Italy's coast and brought back to the mainland. But now they face unprecedented barriers in trying to cross into neighbouring countries.

'European laws are inadequate for the situation. They are an unfit'

Migrants on a seawall try to get past a police cordon in Ventimiglia, an Italian town on the border with France, last week. Italian and French police reportedly fired tear gas trying to prevent the migrants from swimming and walking across the border to France. (Fabrizio Tenerelli/ANSA/AP)

Along a potholed sidewalk across from Rome's sprawling Verano cemetery, the stench of urine is unavoidable.

It's noontime on a sweltering August day, and the small row of chemical toilets, set up along the street by a community volunteer group known as Baobab, are proving inadequate for the demand.

The toilets are for the hundreds of people who have recently been rescued in the Mediterranean Sea south of Italy and who, despite tough new controls along Italy's northern borders with France, Switzerland and Austria, are on their way north to try to cross.

Among them is the Hussein family from northern Iraq: mom, dad and a small boy and girl.

Sitting on flattened cardboard against the mottled trunk of a massive plane tree, father Mohamed Hussein tells of how they fled ISIS's incursion into their city of Kirkuk earlier this year before paying Russian smugglers $16,000 US in Turkey, then barely surviving the harrowing seven-day boat ride to Italy.

A female migrant rests at a centre in Rome that is helping out people passing through from southern Italy to the country's northern borders. She survived a dangerous boat trip from Libya and has already made one attempt to exit Italy from the north. (Megan Williams/CBC)

Along with some fellow Iraqis already at the nearby Tiburtina train station, Hossein and his family plan to board a train later in the evening to the French-Italian border, he says. There, they plan to cross at the seaside town of Ventimiglia, where over the weekend some 200 migrants were returned to Italy after they swam several hundred metres from the Italian shore to the French one.

Hussein says he refused Italy's offer to request asylum here, where the process is notoriously lengthy and unemployment is high.

"They said to us: Do you want to stay here? I said no. Here is no good for refugees, no good!" he says. "They give you no social support, no passport. Italia is rubbish!"

Pressure on Italy from neighbours

While not usually expressed with such indignation, it's safe to say the sentiment is shared by most passing through the Baobab centre.

Since the beginning of 2014, more than 400,000 people fleeing conflict and often its collateral effect — extreme poverty — have been rescued from the waters south of Italy. Just since January, the Italian coast guard and EU naval ships have pulled some 100,000 to safety, the same number of people rescued in the same period last year.

What has changed, however, is that after the series of attacks throughout Europe, many EU countries are now insisting Italy stop the migrants from trying to leave its borders. 

A father and his young son head to the shade of a tree at a migrant centre in Rome. Migrants at the centre often end up heading for France, Switzerland or beyond. (Megan Williams/CBC)

In exchange for Italy tightening border control, the EU promised to relocate 160,000 refugees from Italy and Greece throughout various EU countries.

While the EU insists the program is not dead, so far, a tiny fraction of that number — barely 1,000 refugees — have been relocated from Italy to other countries.

EU laws an 'inadequate response'

To further complicate matters, only about 40 per cent of people rescued from the Mediterranean south of Italy end up qualifying for refugee status here. Even those who do often have no desire to stay.

Sada, a young Eritrean woman who sits against the alley wall picking listlessly at a plate of pasta, is one of them.

Italian police stand in front of a group of asylum seekers at the town of Ventimiglia, on the Italy-France border, last week. The group pushed past a police cordon, jumped into the sea and swam to France. (Fabrizio Tenerelli/EPA)

She endured a month in a detention camp in Libya, where she says violence, hunger and sexual assault were rampant. After that, she survived a traumatic five-day crossing from Libya where some of her fellow migrants were thrown overboard.

While Sada would very likely qualify for refugee status in Italy, like the Hussein family, she's set on making it to Frankfurt, where her husband awaits her. There, she says, she "wants education."

A migrant looks at a Swiss map in the railway station in Como, Italy, in July. Hundreds of migrants heading toward northern Europe have travelled to Como, a border city, to try to cross into Switzerland. (Pablo Gianinazzi/EPA)

With a group of fellow Eritreans, she is going to try her luck at the Italian-Swiss border at Como, she says, where already 500 migrants who have been turned back are camped out at the train station.

Volunteer co-ordinator Andrea Costa says Europe's response to the migrant crisis is inadequate. (Megan Williams/CBC)

Andrea Costa, the volunteer co-ordinator at the Baobab centre, which provides hot meals, shelter in tents and medical and legal help, says in contrast to last year, when migrants made it across Italy's borders, people are now returning to Rome and waiting to try again.

"If there's one thing we've understood in the several years at Baobab, it's that European laws are inadequate for the situation. They are an unfit, an inadequate response to the migrant crisis," he says.

He also says that after the ordeals the migrants have overcome in Libya, in the desert and at sea, "trying to cross a European border is not a problem for them."

"People are coming back here, but then they try again."