The rotten truth behind Menton, ‘the pearl of France’
Just nine kilometres away from the Italian coastal town of Ventimiglia, stands a sign announcing the start of the first French town after the border: "Menton, the Pearl of France, is Happy to Welcome You".
Ironically, this pearl of France is one of the least welcoming places for migrants crossing Europe.
Just a few metres away from that sign, one finds the office of French Border Police (PAF). According to observations carried out by the CAFI (the French Coordination for Border Actions), at least 100 migrants are brought to this facility every day, often kept for hours in inhumane conditions and eventually expelled under procedures that contradict European and international law.
These and other facts, like the frequent deaths of migrants around the border route, have made the National Association for the Assistance of People at Borders (ANAFÉ) consider Menton’s border and its facilities ‘ex-frame’ ones, that is, outside any legal framework.
After all, the existence of constant border checks within the Schengen area is not contemplated under current agreements, and neither are the facilities where people on the move are being detained in Menton.
"I have met the worst kinds of beings in France" says Adil [name changed to protect identity], who, after fleeing his country because of armed conflict, found something he would have never expected at Menton’s border. "They [French police] don’t have mercy in their hearts for refugees[...]. These are not humans", he tells the producers of an upcoming documentary about Menton’s border.
A deadly place
The inhumanity — and deadliness — of Menton’s border might not be visible to the average passerby, but as Adil recounts, it is very much present, and we can see it through the numbers.
According to local organisations such as Progetto20K, and confirmed by strong voices within the migration issue in France such as lawyer Mireille Damiano, around 50 people have died at this border crossing since 2015. The latest one was mourned only some weeks ago, electrocuted while trying to cross into France from a train’s roof.
At least a dozen migrants have suffered the same fate while using this hazardous crossing method, dying after receiving a discharge of 24,000 volts, according to a report by Charlie Hebdo. Walking along the road is hardly less dangerous, accounting also for at least 10 deaths in the last five years; the most impactful one being that of Ahmed Safi only some months ago, in November 2022. In what is nicknamed ‘the death tunnel’, he was run over by two cars.
Agnès Lerolle, project coordinator at CAFI-Coordination for Border Actions, says that "among all French border crossings, Menton is the deadliest place, and also the most dramatic".
Controls at internal borders: an accepted but illegal anomaly
Lerolle says that the high number of deaths is important when talking about Menton’s border, but she also argues that its ‘ex-frame’ nature shouldn’t be overlooked.
To understand this, we have to keep in mind that Menton is an internal European border, and that under the 1985 Schengen Agreement, the absence of border controls between member states is supposed to be the norm. Only under exceptional circumstances may controls be established, and only for a short period of time that requires constant renewals.
The control at Menton’s border has been in place without lapse since 2015, constantly renewed under the justification of a terrorist threat. Although the European Court of Justice ruled against renewals which would repeatedly use the same threat as justification in 2022 — stating that a new and distinct threat was needed — France continues to perpetuate this legal anomaly with impunity. But legal anomalies do not stop there.
Since internal borders are not supposed to have controls unless in exceptional cases, there is no comprehensive legal framework regulating them. French authorities rely on this to carry out actions — such as the illegal detention and retention of migrants — that are therefore outside of applicable legislation, making it hard for associations on the ground to fight back.
Illegal detentions which infringe upon human dignity
Illegal detentions and retentions take place in the French Border Police office near Menton’s welcome sign. Deemed by the French administration as a place ‘de mise en abri’ or shelter, the facilities do not fall under any kind of legislation, claims the National Association for the Assistance of People at Borders (ANAFÉ).
The extrajudicial nature of the police office was acknowledged by the Council of State in a decision in 2021, but the judge still refused to enforce the closure of the facilities in spite of the petition by several organisations on the ground.
Data released by ANAFÉ affirms that people detained are given little access to water and food, that the facilities do not have furniture to rest on, that temperatures are cold, that hygiene is not respected and that men, women and families are put all at the same place with little space to move.
In fact, following visits from the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the General Controller for Places of Deprivation of Liberty in 2018, it was agreed that these facilities infringe upon human dignity.
For those who are not retained, the deprivation of other rights follows, especially the right to individualised assessment and effective interpretation. Many are given a rejection document only a few minutes after their arrival at the office.
Even though this is clearly not enough time to have assessed their situation nor interpreted the information in a clear way, the rejection document shows their signature and even a clause saying "I want to leave as soon as possible".
Maria, a local volunteer providing information to people at the border who asked to conceal her last name out of fear for police retaliation, says that "when you ask the person, they always tell you that they did not know what they were signing, and that they felt under pressure at the moment of signing".
Nonetheless, she says she is not able to show this evidence before a court, because of the lack of access to associations like hers to the facilities. Because of this lack of access, the illegal practices of the French border police will continue to take place in complete opacity, says ANAFÉ.
A maddening situation
Apart from the legal anomalies, the cruelty of Menton’s border is very often also the long process of trying and failing, wishing the next attempt will be the one while waiting under a bridge in the bordering Italian town of Ventimiglia, with little resources to keep going.
"We told ourselves when we were in Algeria or Tunisia: you arrive in Italy and it’s done. Your family doesn’t have to suffer anymore, you don’t have to suffer anymore. But that is not what is like, it is not. You arrive in Italy and you still need to be strong, you still need morale, you still need to have courage to face the challenges ahead of you, because you still have many after crossing the Mediterranean" says Khaled [name changed to protect identity], who did not think he would have to experience what he ended up experiencing on the Franco-Italian border.
Fraser Byers, the producer of the upcoming documentary about the situation at the border, tells EUobserver that "it is widely understood and known that the actions taken by the French authorities at the border are inhumane".
He argues that the reception process in France is so poorly designed and so uninterested in actually supporting people on the move as humans that many struggle psychologically.
One of the participants in his documentary argues that the problems that they experience trying to cross this border "lead to madness". Graphic evidence of self-harm shown in his documentary proves to which point this despair reaches.
To denounce this situation and to mourn the deaths of all those who lost their lives trying to reach Menton and other European borders as a whole, a gathering was organised on the lower road between France and Italy earlier this month (6 February). The date coincides with the remembrance day for the Tarajal Massacre on Spain’s Ceuta border, in which 15 people died after Spanish police forces tried to prevent their entry through shooting rubber balls while the young men swam their way into Spain.
Many of the associations cited in this article were present, defending their right to provide assistance in a time when Amélie Blanchot and Laure Palun, members of ANAFÉ, claim associations and activists have been suffering intimidation, accusations and even condemnation for showing their solidarity with people in difficulty and danger.
"Migrer pour vivre, pas pour mourir" [We migrate to live, not to die], chanted the people at the gathering and at the other national protests, under the movement Commemor Action. Under the joint declaration that was released and read aloud at all these protests, the associations cited and many others asked for a new European migration policy that stands up for life, not for death; and especially, one that treats all peoples seeking refuge in the same way.
Although not completely hopeful, Lerolle says that platforms like hers at doing their best to have a say in the ongoing discussions regarding the Schengen zone reform announced by Emmanuel Macron.
While convinced that a drastic change will not happen overnight, she hopes that they can get the reform to at least provide legal guarantees for the events happening at border sites such as Menton, preventing them from being overlooked ever again.