Tunisian migrants find an unwelcome Europe
VENTIMIGLIA, ITALY // Hassen Sahli and Sami Garslah led the way through the Italian railway station and, with dry humour, presented their "five-star hotel".
The long, narrow waiting room in Ventimiglia, seven kilometres from the French border, is where some of the hundreds of Tunisian migrants gathered to sleep at night and dream of new lives in an unwelcoming Europe.
Rugs and other humble belongings are pushed against the walls beside cheap plastic seats. From one pile, Mr Sahli produces a simple placard proclaiming, in words and little heart-shaped symbols, their quest for freedom.
It is more than a month since the two men joined the exodus from Tunisia, a journey that started with hazardous crossings in crowded boats to the Italian island of Lampedusa.
The presence of so many Tunisians on the frontier has created diplomatic tension between France and Italy.
Trains between Ventimiglia and Nice were blocked by the French authorities last weekend and newspaper headlines highlight concerns that a "Mediterranean Sangatte" - the northern French village that was the focus of Asian and other African migrants' attempts to reach Britain, even after the authorities closed the refugee camp in 2002 - is in the making.
Mr Garslah and Mr Sahli said they are among an estimated 1,000 Tunisians sleeping where they can in Ventimiglia, from the station waiting room and an overflowing reception centre to a park by the seafront.
This may be an exaggeration. Local officials have suggested it is more like 500 or 600 people. All are men, mostly in their 20s and 30s. Some paid smugglers around Dh5,000 to cross the Mediterranean and have little money left. They survive on what sympathetic bakers and grocers give them, and what they can persuade journalists and film crews to pay for their stories.
Roughly 26,000 Tunisians have crossed to Italy since January and most have been granted, or promised, temporary residential papers that should allow passage between European countries signed up to the Schengen treaty on free movement.
But France's president Nicolas Sarkozy is anxious to present himself as tough on immigration and, with elections a year away, fears a backlash if people see large numbers of migrants allowed into France at a time when the country is committed to reducing the flow.
Paris believes Italy is trying to offload its problems on to neighbours. Rome deplores French reluctance to share its burden. Frank exchanges are expected when the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, meets Mr Sarkozy in Rome tomorrow. The agenda is likely to include French proposals to change the Schengen accord to allow suspension of "roaming rights" when circumstances demand.
The European Commission accepted that the French national rail operator, SNCF, acting on the advice of a French regional administrator, was within its rights in halting trains on April 17.
Paris claimed it was a response to the threat to public order as left-wing Italian militants sought to accompany migrants by rail to Nice and Marseille.
France insists that even Tunisians in possession of the Italian-issued permits may enter only if they are able to prove they can support themselves, but even that is being interpreted haphazardly.
After police acted to send migrants back to Italy, the approach is being seen on both sides as a sign of French intransigence.
"No border should be closed within the Schengen area," Caroline Maillary, representing a migrants' support group, told the French media. "Any person in one or the other member states should be able to travel freely in another member state. The government guidelines are therefore against the law."
The most determined refugees reach France despite the challenges and bureaucratic obstacles.
Before the events of last weekend, Mr Garslah, 27, who earned just Dh800 a month as a fisherman in Sfax Karkina, was able to travel by train to Paris, where he stayed for two days with friends, who gave him fresh clothing and money, before visiting relatives in Germany.
But a simple administrative error had rendered his permit worthless - an Italian official had dated it incorrectly - and he had to return to Ventimiglia where he now waits for valid papers.
"I only want to pass through France and find work in Germany," he said. "I have metal construction qualifications, but life in Tunisia is hard and work is very badly paid. Why does Europe talk about freedom but refuse to help us?"
Mr Sahli, 32, who has a baccalaureat certificate but has never found employment at home in Béja, is prepared to accept any job, preferably in the Netherlands or Germany.
Despite the uprising that toppled the former president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, he is gloomy about prospects in Tunisia.
"Ben Ali has gone but dictatorship remains. Freedom is so important to me," he said. "In Europe, I want liberty before I want bread."
One French newspaper, Nice-Matin, reported the story of two Tunisians who avoided French police controls by trudging for four hours on foot across mountain passes, before boarding a train from the French resort of Menton and heading for Cannes and Nice.
Among the Tunisians waiting in Ventimiglia, there is similar resolve.
Trains are running normally, and France is minutes away by road - though there are checks at the first motorway toll station. While money is short, contacts in France and beyond are willing to help.
Some Tunisians have already crossed at least once, only to be returned to the Italian border. Other sare clearly more successful, and the process is likely to continue.
"There are 150 people sleeping each night in my centre," said one Italian official working with the migrants. "It's almost never the same ones."
Updated: April 25, 2011 04:00 AM