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For years, Italy has been a major gateway for migrants entering Europe. But a new law passed in 2018 under the country's anti-migrant, populist government has been pushing migrants out. Many are now fleeing the crackdown high up into the Alps as they attempt to cross into France, often through treacherous and potentially fatal conditions. Special correspondent Christopher Livesay reports.
Passage from one country to another is never easy for migrants forced to depart – or even flee – their homes due to want or war or persecution. But one particular path within Europe has become especially treacherous … though not enough so to stop the flow of people on a quest for a better life.
NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Christopher Livesay and videographer Alessandro Pavone have our report from the Italian and French Alps.
These are the footsteps of people in search of a better life. They've already traveled thousands of miles from Cameroon, Senegal, Côte d'Ivoire, and Gambia. Now they're attempting to cross the Alps, from Italy to France, risking life and limb in freezing temperatures, on slippery ground. They move at night, in order to evade detection. In this border region, it's a nightly occurrence. These young men are not used to the biting cold.
These are the same migrants who risked their lives crossing the scorching sands of the Sahara Desert, and then the treacherous waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Now they're risking their lives all over again, this time, to cross the Alps.
An estimated 10,000 people have crossed through this treacherous mountain pass in the past year. Driving them is the chance at a better future in more prosperous France, or other Northern European countries. In the same period, aid groups in the Alps have rescued more than 5,000 migrants, some who lost limbs due to frostbite. Paolo Narcisi is a doctor and the President of Rainbow For Africa, an Italian charity that provides them with medical aid.
Oftentimes they lose their way. And they take routes that are extremely dangerous. Sometimes they go without proper winter clothing, or without having ever seen snow before. We fear many have died in the process. Several bodies have been found. But we'll never know the true death toll. Because there are wolves and foxes, animals that eat cadavers. When you fall into a crevasse covered by snow, there's no guarantee someone will find your body during the spring thaw.
To understand why migrants are taking such deadly risks, you have to look back to 2015. At the time, France's borders were open to its neighbors, according to EU protocols. Then came devastating terror attacks in Paris that killed 130 people.
While most of the attackers were French or Belgian citizens, investigators believe that at least two of them posed as refugees to enter Europe. After the attacks, the borders were closed. Then last spring, French police began cracking down on undocumented crossings. Due to its rugged terrain, one area that police couldn't seal off completely was here in the Alps.
But, migrants say, no matter how bleak their prospects in France, they are even worse in Italy, where anti-migrant sentiment has been building. A so-called "security law," recently passed by Parliament, doubles the time undocumented migrants can be detained, and eliminates humanitarian grounds for granting asylum to migrants unless they're specifically running from political persecution or war.
That means no more asylum for victims of grave political instability, famine, or harsh anti-gay laws in their home countries. The law was designed by Italy's recently elected Vice Premier and Interior Minister: Matteo Salvini. He's also the leader of the anti-migrant League party.
You're not fleeing war. You're not escaping torture. What do you have to do? Go back to your country. We already have 5 million Italians living in poverty. So I can't host hundreds of thousands of other people from the rest of the world.
Having been denied asylum on humanitarian grounds, under this new law, migrants are ineligible to access shelters. UN agencies fear that thousands of migrants will end up on the streets. This as hate is on the rise. Lunaria, an Italian civil society group recorded 126 racially motivated violent crimes last year — nearly triple those of 2017.
Migrants were beginning to integrate. Many found jobs, or were learning Italian and going to school. But now, out of fear, they want to cross the border, fear of losing those few rights they had, and fear of the changing political climate in Italy. At the same time it pushes migrants out of the country, and wins votes for the League. Riccardo Molinari: It's exactly the opposite. Because we're trying to manage immigration in an orderly way.
Riccardo Molinari is the House Whip in Parliament for Salvini's League Party. He represents the place where migrants are attempting their dangerous crossings, the Alpine region of Piedmont that borders France.
Previously, the government pretended not to notice migrants. So they hoped that these people would eventually move on to Northern Europe. At a certain point, countries like Austria and France began cracking down and closed their borders with Italy, and we were stuck with the problem. These people kept coming, and our migration system couldn't handle it. So now we either have to either repatriate them, or keep them out.
To keep them out, the new government has also closed Italian ports to ships operated by private charities carrying migrants.
We blocked what was in fact an invasion of our country. We had an influx of 200,000 people per year, the large part of which were illegal. With the new government we tightened the screws, and reduced migrant arrivals by 95%.
But in the meantime you have hundreds of thousands of migrants who are already here. Thousands of them have already crossed through the French Alps. Some have even died or hurt themselves very severely.
Obviously no one wants any harm to come to these people. But the best way to save lives is to prevent migrants from coming in the first place.
As for those who are already in Italy, some, like these migrants, are determined to get out. Most are originally from former French colonies and speak French, something that didn't help them in Italy, but they hope will land them a job in France. Some are prepared. Others are not. One, named Mory, says he's afraid to show his whole face, in case he gets caught.
Why are you risking your life?
I've been living on the streets in Naples. People are racist here.
They agree to let us follow them on their journey from Italy to France. A bus takes us just a few hundred yards from the border. They're stopped by Red Cross volunteers, and told to turn back because of the physical danger.
Red Cross Worker:
If people get hurt, we have to take them back to Italy, of course.
They ignore the warnings. But they don't know the way. So these guys are completely lost. They don't know which way the French border is. They head offroad to avoid being spotted. I'm pretty sure there's the police coming right up behind us. Alihge Soso is originally from Gambia. He tells me that on his way to Italy, passing through Libya, he was arrested for illegal migration and abused while in detention in a migrant camp.
First you risked your life crossing the desert to Libya, then you risked your life crossing the sea to go to Europe. And now you're risking your life to cross the mountains. It's very, very dangerous. You're aware of this.
I know. I know.
They wander onto a ski slope. And march into the unknown. No map, no compass, no flashlight. Soon, they'll have only the stars to light their path. It's roughly seven miles to the nearest town in France. But that's if you cross through the official checkpoint. Instead, they'll have to wend their way through icy peaks to avoid border patrol. They weigh their options.
They want to turn around?
No, they want to.
Eventually the risks become too great to continue filming. It's just getting way too dangerous. They're climbing straight up a very, very icy mountain that's intended for skiers, not for people who are lost, which includes me at this moment. We tell them we won't be accompanying them further. Migrants: Ciao.
Good luck. Okay?
The next day, Italy's Alpine Rescue squad scours the same mountain for lost migrants.
The major risk is hypothermia. Because without the proper gear you are more exposed to cold.
We decide to cross the border ourselves into Briancon, France, to see if they've survived. We check a local migrant shelter. We find one of the migrants from the group, Issa Diale from Côte d'Ivoire. He tells a doctor that the freezing hike was more dangerous than he expected. He slipped and sprained his ankle.
You're okay? Despite this, you're okay? Stai bene, tutto sommato?
Some of the others went to the Briancon train station hoping to get to Paris. We find two of them, including Alihge Soso.
The time I reach France, I thank God. I cry to God, "May God help us."
Alihge Soso hopes to find a job in Paris. He has no money in his pocket, no education, and he doesn't speak French. And according to French law, there's nothing stopping authorities there from sending him back to Italy. Still, he thinks his chances there are better. Both his parents recently died, he says, and his 10-year-old sister back home in Gambia is counting on him.
So you want to go to Paris, make some money, and send it home for your sister?
If I make it. Because how happy I am, I want to make her happy also.
Maybe that way, he says, she won't have to go through the same journey he did.
A credit at the 5:40 mark of this story incorrectly identifies Riccardo Molinari, of the League Party, as Matteo Salvini.
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Christopher Livesay is a foreign correspondent and producer based in Rome.
Alessandro Pavone is a freelance videographer and producer.
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