AMID THE many crosses in the cemetery of the northern Italian mountain town of Bardonecchia is a freshly dug grave with an unadorned headstone. Below it is a quotation from the Koran: “We belong to God and to Him we shall return.” The grave was dug for 28-year-old Mohamed Fofana from Guinea, who died of hypothermia in May after he and a companion were turned back by police as they tried to reach France near the Col de l’Échelle pass, 1,762 metres up in the Alps.
It is ironic. While Italy’s interior minister, Matteo Salvini, continues to focus public attention, and anger, on a drastically reduced volume of migrants arriving in Italy from across the Mediterranean, comparable numbers are risking their lives to leave Italy for other countries—secondary migration, in the official jargon.
By October 30th Mr Salvini’s own ministry had recorded 22,031 arrivals by sea this year—a drop of 88% on the same period in 2017. The drop is largely owing to agreements reached between Italy’s previous, centre-left administration and the UN-recognised government in Tripoli that bolstered the ability of Libyan coastguards to intercept and return departing asylum-seekers. The Italian authorities are also suspected of having made secret deals with some of the militias in Libya involved in people-smuggling. The main effect has been to divert the flow of west African migrants to Spain, which so far this year has had more than twice as many arrivals as Italy (see chart).
The real challenge for the government in Rome is what to do with several hundred thousand migrants already in Italy, many reluctantly so. Since 1997 the rule in the European Union has been that the first country in which an asylum-seeker’s application is submitted or fingerprints taken should be the one that deals with him or her. With its persistently low economic growth, Italy had little to offer migrants even before Mr Salvini came into office in May. Many of the newcomers, moreover, had linguistic and cultural or family ties with other countries in Europe.
For years, Italian officials quietly let new arrivals slip away without identifying or registering them so that they could ask for asylum elsewhere. But starting in late 2015, France, Austria and Switzerland tightened border controls, causing a build-up in Italy. Around 160,000 are currently in the Italian reception system—living in camps, hostels or accommodation supplied by local authorities in exchange for payment by the central government. Estimates of how many others are outside it, having avoided identification or failed to obtain humanitarian protection, range from 300,000 to 500,000. There is hardly a supermarket or bar in Italy’s bigger cities without a forlorn African begging at the door.
With the border crossings to Austria and Switzerland now tightly controlled, and the coastal route into France near Ventimiglia in effect sealed, virtually the only way to escape from Italy is over the Alps. But with winter again setting in, it becomes a perilous undertaking.
Paolo Narciso heads a humanitarian NGO, Rainbow4Africa, which runs a shelter in Bardonecchia. He reckons that some 30-40 migrants a night had been getting through in the good weather, though these numbers will fall in winter. That broadly squares with figures given by Michel Rousseau of another NGO, Tous Migrants. Its reception centre in Briançon, on the other side of the Alps in France, provided shelter to more than 5,000 people in the 13 months to the end of July. But Mr Rousseau cautions that several other centres exist and some of those who get to France do not go to any of them anyway.
“The best prepared are the Afghans,” says Dr Narciso. “People from the desert don’t have the least idea of what snow is and what it can do.” Even in the depths of last winter, when temperatures dropped to -20°C, Africans were turning up in Bardonecchia and setting off on the 17km walk through the mountains in trainers and anoraks. “They bring them back into the valley half-frozen,” he says.
Mr Fofana was one of three migrants who are known to have died this year. A fourth is missing. Locals believe the real death toll is higher. Bodies covered in snow often come to light only years later. And sometimes never. “There are a lot of carnivorous animals in the mountains,” Dr Narciso grimly notes.