Photo Essay: The climb in search of a better life

After long, exhausting and dangerous journeys over land or by sea, migrants in northern Italy who want to cross into France face the formidable Alps in freezing temperatures and snow.

For Amin Faraji, a 33-year-old migrant from Iran, the Alps are yet another obstacle to cross. Like thousands of migrants on their way to a country in the European Union, he has crossed the borders undocumented and endured many hardships, among them, the Balkan winter that halted his journey. He now finds himself in Oulx, a small municipality that lies in the Susa Valley in Italy’s Piedmont region.

The valley has become the theatre of the so-called Alpine route, an overland route that migrants use to reach France. In the beginning they trekked across another area, but since 2018 Oulx is their destination. And so, every night between 20 and 25 migrants like Faraji wait for dark before heading to the border with France.

27 April 2021: From left, Amin Faraji, an Iranian migrant, and a friend prepare themselves near the chairlift in Claviere to walk about 12km through the woods in order to cross the border between Italy and France.

They are citizens from Afghanistan, Iran, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Ghana, Gambia, Guinea and Mali – single men but also many families who have travelled one of two dangerous routes: the Balkan one on land or the Libyan one by sea.

The Fraternità Massi refuge, located opposite the Oulx railway station in the local Catholic parish, is the only official reception centre in Oulx. Managed by a network of volunteers  and helped by the Italian Red Cross, it is open from late afternoon to 10am daily and offers shelter and advice, among other services. During the night, the volunteers move closer to the border to provide hot drinks and advice to those who want to try crossing it. 

26 April 2021: Ghanaian migrants who have made it to Claviere walk through the local church square in search of a place to hide and rest before their attempted night crossing of the border between Italy and France.

Migrants stop as little as possible in Oulx; the proximity to the border pushes them to leave almost immediately as everyone has an urgent desire to continue to their destinations. The humanitarian organisation Doctors for Human Rights reports that about 10 000 people crossed the Susa Valley in the three years to August 2020.

The pandemic temporarily slowed the march towards the border, but about 5 000 migrants crossed between September 2020 and March this year and the forecast for numbers this summer is high.

Leaving Oulx at dusk on the last bus for the night, migrants reach Claviere then walk in the dark through the woods for 12km until they arrive at the ski resort town of Briançon, the first place in France where they can find help.

The mountain crossing is demanding and the Fraternità Massi volunteers distribute equipment such as winter jackets, snow boots, wool hats and gloves to the migrants before they leave the refuge. At 2 000m above sea level, the cold and snow are serious dangers. 

26 April 2021: Migrants’ cellphones and power banks lie connected to a multiplug on a table inside a ‘Safe Point’ shelter operated by the Italian Red Cross near the train station in Oulx.

Wolves are another peril for the migrants, but the French border police are the greatest threat: anyone caught crossing the border undocumented is taken to the Montgenèvre police station and sent back to Italy the next morning, after a night in jail. This is a violation of the rights of asylum seekers – yet another violation of the rights of migrants who find themselves in European Union territory.

Thanks to a French group of volunteers who walk the many mountain paths during the night trying to intercept migrants before the police do, those who avoid getting lost and caught arrive quickly in Briançon. Here, the Solidaire refuge, which has been welcoming migrants in transit for years, offers a bed, food, information and medical care day and night, seven days a week.

Every night, migrants like Faraji arrive cold and wet at the refuge after crossing the Alps. Often, they leave the next morning, heading for Paris or Calais, or onwards to Germany, England and Denmark. Each one is heading towards their dream of a better life.

 23 April 2021: A bed for migrants stands next to stacked mattresses in the kitchen of the Solidaire refuge in Briançon.
30 April 2021: The skeleton of a deer eaten by wolves lies on the ground at the edge of a mountain path in Bousson, which is located in the Susa Valley, Italy.
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