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Walking out of a Paris station this week, the exhausted Eritrean migrant in threadbare blue jumper raised his eyes in wonderment at his first sight of the French capital.
To his delight, Yonas Mugis had reached northern Europe in double-quick time: a mere seven days after being rescued by the Italian navy, along with 100 other African migrants crammed into a small boat that had sailed out from Libya and nearly sank in the Mediterranean.
On Tuesday afternoon, at a café opposite the magnificent Gare de Lyon, the 36-year-old told me with relief: ‘I am on my way to Britain now. It is my first choice of country to live in. If it’s too difficult to get across the Channel at Calais, I will go further north to Sweden or Norway.’
Mugis thinks he’s lucky to have made it so far so quickly. Yet I discovered this week that he’s far from exceptional: thousands like him are heading for Britain just days after landing in Italy from Africa.
In an exodus of epic proportions, they move relentlessly up through Europe — and no one it seems can, or is even inclined, to stop them.
Encouraged by a border-free Europe and a desperate desire for a better life, 95,000 migrants have arrived in Italy this year, and another 5,000 will be here by the end of the month. Under European Union rules, migrants are meant to stay in the first country they reach in Europe. Instead, they walk out of Italy’s holding camps and slip across the porous Italian-French border on the chic Riviera while police from both countries turn a blind eye.
I was told by the French police that 2,500 migrants cross from the Italian town of Ventimiglia to the pretty seaside resort of Menton, a few miles into France, each week.
Most take the train; others pay traffickers €50 to be driven by car, and the rest walk in broad daylight along the coast road, where the abandoned border control hut still stands.
If they are unsuccessful, they might head for Germany or Scandinavia.
Last week, 1,300 migrants rioted at Calais in a turf war between Eritreans and Sudanese over the best spots to climb onto lorries bound for Britain.
The violence led to headlines around the world, and threw a spotlight on the uncontrollable waves of immigration into Europe. As more migrants arrive from sub-Saharan Africa, as well as countries torn apart by the Arab Spring, Italy says it is struggling to cope with the numbers. France, of course, says the same when they reach there. Both have asked the EU for urgent help with the mounting crisis.
Yet the truth — as I found this week — is that migrants are often waved through both these countries by police and border officials in what appears to be a blatant attempt to get rid of the problem.
At Ventimiglia, Italian police smoked and chatted while they ignored scores of migrants buying rail tickets to cross into France.
One officer admitted when I approached him: ‘We can’t arrest them because they haven’t committed any crime.
‘They don’t want to be here. They want to go to England or Germany, Sweden or Norway. You would need 50 police on duty 24 hours a day to stop them going. And then what?
‘Our town of Ventimiglia has a population of 20,000. If we stopped them, we would have a population of 100,000 here. It would be chaos.’
‘Tonight, 70 of them will come from Rome, 30 from Milan,’ he told me. ‘They sleep in the station. Then tomorrow they will go into France — and they will not be stopped.
‘Most want to reach England. We know it is a very rich country. I have many family members in England and would love to go there, too.’
Once the trains arrive in Menton, it is the French police’s job to go on board, make a search, haul off the migrants and take them by bus back over the border to Italy — in line with EU rules. Yet they easily escape detection by locking themselves in lavatories, or simply sitting in the upstairs double-decker compartments which the police have no time to search before the train pulls out of the town again.
I watched the migrants emerge laughing with relief at not being caught. One Syrian, 32-year-old Adad, shook me by the hand. ‘They don’t see me,’ he said triumphantly. ‘I am going to Nice, to Paris, and then I will go to your country.’
In fact, Adad, sitting among ordinary passengers, had no need to hide. Neatly dressed and with a pale skin, he could easily have been an Italian on a business trip. The three policemen making a half-hearted search did not even glance at him.
So are these searches just a waste of time? An officer organising the searches in Menton said: ‘Officially, we send them back. But unofficially we let them go because there are too many and they are not intending to stay in France. They are also human beings, and there has to be compassion.’
I tracked the migrants on to Nice, where they bought tickets to Paris. Again, there was no need for them to hide. Dozens sat on the main platform right outside the office of France’s Police Nationale (responsible for sending the migrants back to Italy) while they waited for a fast TGV train to the French capital.
Occasionally, the police emerged to check tickets — and ordered some to come with them to the ‘police office for papers’.
The bewildered Africans emerged a few minutes later, each clutching a document containing rules for illegal migrants travelling through the EU. ‘I don’t understand,’ said Yonas when I first met him at Nice station. ‘Will it mean I am stopped from getting on the train to Paris?’
Of course not. The Nice police seemed just as relaxed to see the migrants get on a train as those in Menton and Ventimiglia. The document itself, Return Of A Foreigner To A Country Party To The Schengen Agreement, seemed strict enough. It said that Yonas should report back to Italy, where he first entered Europe. It warned that he had entered France illegally without a valid residence permit or way of supporting himself.
Yet minutes after he was handed the paperwork, the police stood aside and watched him board the 7.34 train to Paris. It had all been a ludicrous charade. In the two mornings I was at Nice station, all the migrants with tickets were allowed to leave for the French capital.
To understand what is going on here, one has to understand why the migrants are coming in such numbers. They are fleeing poverty-ridden states racked by war, religious divide and corruption.
Migrants told me that relatives, even whole villages, collect money to send them on the journeys.
Those from the Horn of Africa pay people-smuggling agents £1,700 a head to cross the Sahara Desert in five-day convoys of lorries on which hundreds have died from thirst because of breakdowns. They then pay £580 each to leave in rickety boats from Libya, where smuggling agents are again at work.
The main hub of this evil trade is in Zuwara, a port city in north-west Libya, where the agents operate with impunity. Each boat journey across the sea to Italy reaps a people-smuggler £150,000, and still there are always migrants waiting in Zuwara for each place on board.
‘They no longer even ask what type of vessel I have for them, they just want to get to Europe,’ one smuggler in his 20s told a Middle Eastern magazine recently.
Astonishingly, he said some of the smugglers don’t even provide a boat driver. They simply hand the keys to the migrants and write off the cost of the vessel because their profits from the fares — which can reach £750,000 a week — are so vast.
The journey itself is perilous. If the migrants manage to reach Italy, or are rescued at sea by the Italian navy (which, like those of all EU member states, has a duty to save those at peril in territorial waters), they are driven by bus to camps — some of them decrepit and filthy, and most bulging at the seams.
Under EU rules, they are meant to be fingerprinted on arrival to prove that Italy is where they first arrived in Europe. It then becomes the only country where they can claim asylum — a device to stop migrants disappearing while it is decided if they should be deported.
However, after protests from migrants citing their human rights, fingerprinting has been abandoned at some camps — including one I visited this week, housing 1,585 people on a patch of land outside Crotone in Calabria, southern Italy.
A third of the migrants taken here simply walk out within days of arrival, most heading for Ventimiglia and then northern Europe. The camp even offers a bus-shuttle service three times a day to deliver them to the nearby coach station, which has links to Rome and Milan, where trains take them to the border with France.
All the migrants I spoke to live in yellow corrugated iron containers, with porthole windows, each with between four and 12 beds.
They showed us pictures taken on their mobiles of the dreadful conditions: exposed wires, thin foam mattresses and primitive cooking areas set up with crudely made wire hotplates.
They said the smell of sweat was unbearable, and that the containers are bitterly cold in winter and swelteringly hot in summer.
Crotone’s director, Dr Francesco Tipaldi, told me that some nationalities — Syrians, Eritreans and Afghans — all leave the camp straight away.
‘They want to reach Northern Europe. There are established communities of their countrymen in England, for instance, and they want to join them for the welfare benefits more than for the work.’
The migrants I met say they don’t want to stay in Italy or France. They are attracted by the generosity of the British welfare state, particularly free healthcare, education and housing.
In Italy, there is free healthcare without a qualifying period for migrants, but housing handouts or cash help do not exist.
France only gives free healthcare to those residents with a card proving they have paid taxes. And it is tough on housing benefit, granting it only to migrants who win asylum. But only 17 per cent are successful in gaining asylum in France, compared with 38 per cent in the UK.
Once in Britain, the majority of asylum seekers do not have the right to work and rely totally on state handouts. Housing is provided, but they cannot choose where it is. A single person is paid a cash sum through the Post Office of £52 a week, families far more.
The unsympathetic stance to migrants by Italy is one reason so many try to get out of the country quickly. Indeed, it was from the Crotone camp that Josef Musei, a 33-year-old Eritrean, escaped by bus to Ventimiglia this week.
Have a good journey reads the sign in Eritrea. Thousands of immigrants are leaving the country to try to find what they regard as better life in Europe and particularly Britain
He was asleep in the town’s park when I found him on Monday afternoon. ‘I am resting before I try to get on to the train to France early tomorrow,’ he said in good English.
‘The camp was bad, so I left. I don’t want to stay in Italy or France. If I had a wish, I would live in England because I can talk the language and have friends there who are happy.’
His ambitions are similar to the thousands of other migrants with their eyes on Northern Europe.
In Paris this week, Yonas Mugis from totalitarian Eritrea, where brave souls who question the regime are routinely tortured or executed without trial, put it simply: ‘For ten years, I have been planning to escape from Africa.
In Eritrea (whose soldiers are featured above) people who question the regime are routinely tortured or executed without trial
‘If you were born in my country, then you would understand why we want to come to Europe.’
It is hard not to have sympathy for such refugees. And as long as EU borders remain so porous, the human tide will keep flooding towards Calais — with the dream of a new life in ‘very rich’ Britain.
– Daily Mail