Crossing the Valley
Michel doesn’t remember exactly when he first encountered refugees in Breil-sur-Roya. It may have been late in the autumn of 2016, or possibly at the start of that winter, though he cannot say for sure.
He was with friends, driving home after a dinner party. “We counted several small groups on the road, about fifty people all in all, over twenty-five kilometres. Men, women, children.” Just before they got into town, they drove past a further group of five or six boys sitting on a wall near the road, exhaustion clear from their faces. “These are the images that surprise you at first. They can’t leave you indifferent; they haunt you,” Michel says.
In November 2015, France’s then-president, François Hollande, announced the temporary “closure” of the nation’s borders as part of the state of emergency declared in response to a series of terrorist attacks in Paris which killed more than 120 people. Border checkpoints were reintroduced on the coastal highway that connects Italy to France and police began searching each and every train passing along that route. As a result, asylum seekers stuck on Italy’s northern frontier – mostly Sudanese and Eritreans – started looking for other ways to cross the border.
“Anyone who looks at a regional map can easily understand that they could cross here,” Michel explains. “It is an intersection of roads, mountain paths, and railways. You could literally follow the railway and end up in the valley. Which is exactly what they did.”
As the experience of asylum seekers journeying across Europe in recent years has shown, when people start turning up at your doorstep – often in large groups – one doesn’t always choose to open the door. But in the Roya Valley, many did. “At the beginning, we weren’t sure what was legal and what wasn’t,” Michel explains. “We’d have a reunion and some activists would ask us to turn off our phones, to leave them outside. That was kind of funny, they believed they were in the resistance!”
It was exhilarating, that beginning, Michel remembers. There was a sense of camaraderie; a feeling that they were changing the status quo. Some were helping asylum seekers to cross the border. They would go down to Italy with an empty car and come back with a full one. Others were hesistant to transport asylum seekers directly, but were willing to help those who arrived to pass through the police checkpoints in the lower parts of the valley, on the road leading to Nice. Many more offered food and accommodation.
Michel admits that he “helped certain refugees to pass”. There was a police checkpoint on the road to Nice, not far from Sospel, a town in the lower part of the valley. They would drive with an empty car, pass through the police checkpoint, and wait. Meanwhile, another group would guide asylum seekers through the woods, following walking trails to avoid the checkpoint. Once they had passed the police, Michel would pick them up and drive them to Nice where they could claim asylum. “For us old people, these were exciting experiences. We had a feeling we were doing something dangerous, something banned. It was something special,” Michel says, with a hint of laughter in his voice.
Historically, Breil-sur-Roya has long been a crossroads for the movement of people. During the Second World War, when German soldiers forced the town’s population to leave, some travelled by foot all the way to Tende, the northernmost town in the valley. From Tende, they were taken to Italy, where, according to local historians, they were treated well. The valley saw another wave of migration in 1968, when a group of ecologists (alternatively a “bunch of hippies”, depending on who you ask) arrived in search of a quiet place where they could settle down and breed livestock. These people were the origins of the Roya solidarity movement, Michel says. “We are a rural region, we have a tradition of welcoming people when we see somebody in trouble, somebody walking on the road, somebody who is cold.” But, Michel caveats, when refugees began arriving in Breil-sur-Roya in late 2015 after the “closure” of the border, only a handful of people actually chose to host them. And not everyone approved of the idea.