Over the past few years, large numbers of migrants from the Middle East, the Maghreb, and sub-Saharan Africa, have attempted to reach European countries. Along Eastern routes these are mainly people trying to escape the war zones of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Extreme poverty characterises movement from the West, from countries like Niger, Nigeria and Mali.
More and more though are also escaping the effects of climate change, with rural communities already under water-stress, most vulnerable to droughts, unpredictable rains and unseasonal flooding. 25 million people depend on Lake Chad, which has shrunk by 95% over the past 50 years. Desertification renders larger areas uninhabitable each year as the agricultural line moves south.
Food and water insecurity stirs up further conflict, destabilises societies and forces more and more people to consider migration as their only desperate hope. It’s no easy option – thousands die each year trying to make the Mediterranean crossing. Those who get to countries like Italy are not assured any sort of welcome, and populist leaders, shored up by right-wing corporate media, use the crisis to shift focus away from the systemic causes of increasing inequality and towards fear of the ‘other’.
It’s clear that there are very doable solutions, but that these are not in the interests of elites, so until systemic change is brought about, there is huge reliance on charities and grassroots projects – beacons of humanity and hope in brutal situations.
This guest post by an Anglo-Italian journalist partnership, is an inspiring and moving account of an autonomous project at the Alpine French-Italian border, where grassroots activists offer migrants some respite and shelter while trying to win hearts and minds of locals fed a diet of anti-migrant propaganda.
It’s also a call-out for volunteers so please SHARE THIS STORY AND HELP THE PROJECT
Migration in the Alps – Ex Casa Cantoniera Occupata
by Dick Gherkin and @_Partigiana
For those following the Northern migration routes, getting over the Alps is one of many problems they have to solve. They have already travelled over continents, navigated through the chaos of Libya, survived the murderous Mediterranean crossing, and worked their way up the length of Italy.
The Alps are an intimidating physical obstacle, but they also contain another, more mythical barrier. The French/Italian border is an invisible line slung between the peaks that has moved regularly over the 150 years that Italy has existed. Currently, technically, mythically, there is not supposed to be a border at all. France and Italy are both part of the EU, and the Schengen Agreement that made the border “friction free” for 30 years, until in 2015 France closed it again due to terrorist concerns. Why France felt those concerns should stay in Italy instead was not explained.
So now the checkpoints have returned, and the Northern migration route is blocked. The most notorious checkpoint is Ventimiglia, a small village by the coast turned into a border panopticon, where CCTV is even in the trees of the forest. Those who have travelled from Africa and Asia and who don’t have the proper papers are turned back. They can’t survive outdoors in the Alps (three have died of exposure in the last year, including a 9-month pregnant woman), so they filter back to the small alpine towns and villages, where these days the reception can be pretty frosty.
In the 1920’s, everyday Fascism was concreted-in to these alpine towns and villages with force. Squads of local boot boys in shiny uniforms would patrol the streets, giving the fascist salute to passers-by. Anyone who didn’t return the salute would get their head kicked in. If resistance was too stiff for the local squads, the state and the military would come and help them beat it back underground. Italy endured Fascism for 20 long years.
21st Century fascism has not yet taken power in Italy, but the same concreting-in process has already begun. The squads and patrols have returned to some areas, but more effective methods than beatings are now used to hammer the message home. Since the ‘new right’ Lega party entered into a government coalition in June 2018, immigration has been the top story on the news every night, night after night. Matteo “Il Capitano” Salvini, leader of the Lega party, gets thousands of retweets of pics of him taking bites of pizza and cannoli, and tens of thousands of retweets of the news headlines he shares. Migrants are rapists and thieves. Migrants arrive on boats that bring cholera back to Italy. When black migrants are shot dead in the street, randomly from a passing car, the narrative is “if they weren’t here it wouldn’t have happened”.
The Susa Valley is near the border, and the names of towns expose the myth of a fixed frontier between Italy and France. Migrants arriving in Champoluc, Sestriere and Oulx (pronounced “Oools” in Occitan, the local minority language) are amazed at how easy it was to enter France, until they are told they are still in Italy. Luckily, in Oulx there is a place they can go to get out of the cold, and plan the next stage of their journey.
That place is an old Casa Cantoniera (a council depot that roadworkers and their families also lived in) that has been empty for more than 40 years. “Empties” are much more common than in the UK: house prices in Italy have fallen by over 15% in the last 10 years, and houses can stay on the market for years without being sold. Even more so in towns and villages, where post-2008 precarity triggered a mass sell-off of summer houses, many of which have fallen into disrepair.
The Casa Cantoniera is no longer dilapidated. In December 2018, a crew squatted the now renamed “Ex Casa Cantoniera Occupata”, filled the gaping hole in the back wall, cleaned out 40 years of crap from the rooms, and refitted the living room and kitchen with pallet furniture. They did this so they could offer an open door to migrants on the Northern route. Food, beds, orientation and cold-weather gear for new arrivals, and a safe fall-back point for those who have been turned away at the border.
There are other migrant shelters in the Alps, mostly run by the Church in collaboration with the local authorities. They function as dormitories, gifting new coats and boots to those who arrive between 8pm and 8am, then locking them out in the daytime. As with the rest of Italy, migrants are reported if they do not return to the shelter for 3 consecutive days. At that point they are officially declared “outlaws” and will be immediately detained if they fall victim to the routine shake-downs of black and brown people on the streets by police across Italy.
At the Ex Casa Cantoniera the atmosphere is warm and welcoming, decisions are made communally and non-hierarchically, and crew and visitors work alongside each other. Names are not checked, no one is reported, and so there is an atmosphere of trust. People take turns to put their music on, and share stories around the fire outside. This is a place of sharing, where migrants trying to make the crossing can find shelter and support for as long as they need, and the activist crew can learn more about where migrants have come from, why they left, and their experiences travelling up the Italian peninsula.
Outside the walls, things are more complicated. The Susa Valley is rebel country, where the wartime antifascist Resistance was born and was strongest. For the last 30 years it has been the home of the resistance against plans for a hi-speed ‘TAV’ rail freight line through the Alps. There are lots of reasons for “NO TAV”: jaw-dropping environmental damage, corruption and mafia involvement in the construction process, disputed evidence that the project will benefit the local economy and bring jobs. A slogan that particularly resonates in post-Crash Italy is “1 centimeter of TAV works equals the financing of a primary school”. (The TAV route is 27 million primary schools in length). NO TAV is internationally renowned in left wing circles as a positive example of a local community working alongside political militants in a succesful (at the time of writing) campaign of Direct Action.
So, they are used to having squats and “anarcho types” in the Susa Valley. But the locals listen to the news, night after night, hear the same stories, get the same retweets. Immigrants are rapists and thieves. Immigrants arrive on boats that bring cholera back to Italy. They buy into the state rhetoric that places like the Ex Casa Cantoniera give migrants bad advice and false hope, pulling the unprepared into the treacherous Alps. So, these places, like the migrants themselves, become “illegal” in mainstream mythology.
As far as the authorities are concerned – both French and Italian – projects that give ‘unofficial’ aid to migrants are to be brutally repressed. A previous similar project in Claviere – the “Chez Jesus” shelter – was violently evicted at the autumn of 2018. The Casa Cantoniera proudly flies a NO TAV flag, but the crew has found the level of support in Oulx to be less than they expected. La Lega’s “concreting-in” of the new Italian fascism, via the news and social media, is starting to have an effect. The crew at the Ex Casa Cantoniera live in a state of intimidation, with constant police surveillance outside the building, noting who comes and goes, who brings donations. As intended, this creates a rift between the local communtiy and the activists. Those that aren’t openly hostile to the crew can only give guarded smiles and limited support, uncomfortable with being associated with the “troublemakers”. Some Fascist symbols are sprayed on walls in the town, but that’s the same in most of Italy today. Last year, a group of seven European activists marching with migrants to help them make the crossing safely were arrested and charged for facilitating illegal immigration into France in “an organised manner”. On the border, right wing groups have organised squads to violently block migrants reaching the frontier, while the ‘panopticon’ turns a blind eye to their crimes.
Italian police search trains in the Alps for black and brown faces, and then radio the numbers through to the French border guards. “Three blacks on the train to Bardonecchia, be ready”. On one train police broke into a toilet where two migrants were hiding and threw in a tear gas cannister with no warning. Rather than protesting the brutal teatment, some passengers helped police drag the injured people off the train. After all, Immigrants are rapists and thieves, aren’t they? Immigrants arrive on boats that bring cholera back to Italy.
If you ask the crew of Ex Casa Cantoniera Occupata di Oulx what they need to carry on and keep the centre open, they have two answers.
In the short term, they say they need more people. From the Susa Valley, Torino and Milano, from the rest of Italy, from anywhere else in the world (lots of the crew speak English). People to make pallet furniture, sort the electrics and weather proof the building. People to meet and greet arrivals and listen to their stories by the fire. People to charm the locals and combat the myths, put on shows and events, break down the barriers that have been concreted-in. Fresh faces, new energy, temporary reinforcements, to let the existing crew take more breaks away and avoid burnout.
In the longer term, the crew of the Ex Casa Cantoniera Occupata di Oulx need French and Italians to stop believing the myth of The Bad Immigrant they see on TV, night after night,to stop believing in the myth of an invisible border strung across the Alps, and to let travellers freely follow the Northern migration routes. But, in the short term, right now, they just need people to come to the Alps, and help keep a welcoming light on in their remote corner of the New Italy.
The Ex Casa Cantoniera can be found at 97 Via Monginevro, Oulx.
You can find more information at the links below. If you can’t support the project physically, please share this article far and wide, and educate yourself and however many people you can to the reality of migration between Italy and France.