By day, the snow-covered hills around the Italian town of Claviere on the border with France are a playground for skiers. At night they become a dangerous route in the Alpine range for the growing number of migrants secretly trying to reach France via the Montgenèvre pass.
“Mountains, snow, rain, sunshine. . . no problem. We don’t have any choice,” said Maryam Bodaghi, a 23-year-old civil engineer from Iran who is trying to make a journey across the Alps with her husband, Milad Zanghi, a Christian. , who Bodaghi said has faced persecution at home. “We had to leave because the government was harsh on us. They want to kill my husband.”
Like many migrants who use this route, she and her husband are heading to Calais because they intend to Cross the Channel and go to Great Britain. But first they had to cross the French border. This means walking about 15 kilometers through knee-high snow when the temperature drops to minus 10 degrees Celsius, while also avoiding French police and being on the lookout for avalanches. According to NGOs, the accidents have resulted in the amputation of the legs from severe frostbite or death from hypothermia.
Many migrants return cold and exhausted to the shelter Fraternità Massi in the nearby Italian town of Oulx. “I could die up there. I had snow up to my hips,” said a Moroccan man in his 30s. He was caught by the French police and returned after walking for three hours. It was his first attempt. Most do it on the second or third attempt.
The Montgenèvre Pass is becoming an important route into France for migrants heading to Germany, the most popular destination, or the UK. At first it was used mainly by West African men, but since last spring it has been used more often by Afghans and Iranians escaping economic hardship and repression. They often walk for months after arriving in Europe.
Crossing Alpine is just part of an arduous journey that aid groups say usually takes two to six years. The migrants include families spanning three generations, many pregnant women and babies.
“Recently, we had two pregnant women who gave birth. Sylvain Eymard, manager of Les Terasses Solidaires, a center that organizes refugee migrants and other NGOs in Briançon, the nearest town on the border.
The center estimates that nearly 5,500 people arrived between January and September – an increase of about 30% from the previous record for the same nine-month period in 2018.
France has stepped up security controls in the area, sending two more squadrons of about 220 paramilitary officers to guard the border. The growing influx of migrants is a problem for the government, which is facing pressure from the UK to limit cross-channel effort after 27 people died when a boat capsized in November.
President Emmanuel Macron, who hopes to secure a second term in the April elections, is also trying to convince voters staggered by far-right candidates Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour that he can be trusted to control what many see as massive uncontrolled immigration to France.
On the Italian side of the Alps, France’s moves to limit immigration have been met with skepticism. Andrea Terzolo, mayor of Oulx, said: “I am very scared about the next election in France. If something changes, this place could really become a new Calais.” More and more people are migrating to his town of about 3,000 people, which relies heavily on tourism, and Terzolo said current policies are endangering migrants rather than reducing flows through the region. “There are police, gendarmes, army everywhere, but somehow they [the migrants] overcome,” he added.
This sentiment is shared by Silvia Massara, a volunteer who helps run the Fraternità Massi refugee camp. “People with no legs, disabled children, really old people. They are all passable in some way,” she said. “Those who have their backs turned put their lives in jeopardy many times instead of just once.”
NGOs say the pass has claimed five lives and two have been reported missing since migrants started using the route five years ago. The actual number could also be higher. Volunteers say the increased police presence encourages migrants to take more dangerous routes to hide.
“It is becoming very, very dangerous. This is a huge territory. If someone is out of sight, it is very difficult to find them,” said Michele Belmondo, coordinator of the Italian Red Cross in the Susa Valley. “Sometimes we look for people in the mountains. . . and maybe in the spring we find the bodies.”
Migrants in difficulty can call emergency services. But they rarely have Sim cards in their phones, making calls difficult to track. Surrounded by trees and snow, many people find it difficult to describe their whereabouts.
The pandemic has made the journey more difficult. A Covid card is required on all public transport in Italy and on longer journeys in France. They cannot leave Briançon without proof of a negative Covid test. But snowfall, public health restrictions or stricter policies don’t stop them – many have crossed dozens of borders, paid thousands of euros, and took years to get there.
Sayed Ahazia Mosolli, 36, left Afghanistan eight years ago. He crossed the Montgenèvre pass in December with his six-year-old son, with whom he wanted a new life in Germany.
Like Mosolli, Bodaghi and Zanghi came to Italy from the Balkans and Turkey but saw the UK as their only option. They were in Europe for months before being caught by the Slovenian police, who took their fingerprints. If they apply for asylum in another EU country such as Germany, they risk being sent back to Slovenia under European rules of first place for asylum seekers.
“We had to go to the UK by boat like everyone else,” said Bodaghi.