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Heaven or hell at Italy’s northern borders

In the Alps dividing Italy and France, winter comes with a paradox. On one side of a mountain, tourists gather at ski stations venturing out on white powdery slopes to enjoy the season. Right next to them, migrants embark on perilous journeys attempting at crossing the high-altitude and high-risk border by foot.

Mauro Ujetto

Posted on 13 Feb 2023

As Italy's Ventimiglia attracts thousands of tourists wanting to enjoy the seaside during summer, Oulx is a high-altitude hotspot for skiing and leisure time during winter. 

But the shadow side of attraction to these areas, is the continuous flow of people who venture towards the very same hotspots, not for holidays, but in a fight for a better life far from poverty, conflict or persecution.

DRC is present at these borders with the project “D(i)ritti al confine” with its partners Caritas, Diaconia Valdese, Rainbow4Africa, ICS and Linea d’Ombra at the borders with France in Oulx and Ventimiglia, and with Slovenia, in Trieste.   

Dangerous mountains 
For displaced people and migrants on the move, winter represents a time of almost endless struggle and obstacles impacting their journeys, making them extremely risky. Their chance of crossing the border safely is usually low due to the area’s topography, and even more so when snow, low temperatures and strong winds hit the region. 

This, however, does not prevent hundreds of people, including families and unaccompanied minors, from attempting at crossing the border every month. Among them, a few - about 20% or even less - succeed.

The vast majority ends up being pushed back by the border police, which rarely takes into consideration their conditions and potential vulnerabilities, even life-threatening ones. But the consequences and trauma from these perilous journeys are significant and largely overlooked. In addition to regular bruises, scratches and cuts, many get frostbite as they are often not well equipped or prepared for what awaits in the mountains. And to make matters worse, paths are mostly steep, slippery and unpredictable.  
DRC Italy has been working in the northern borders since 2020, in Ventimiglia (Liguria), Oulx (Piedmont) and Trieste (Friuli Venezia Giulia). Currently, DRC Italy is implementing activities in Oulx, one of the last villages before the border, with its partners’ network to provide health assistance and socio-legal support.  

At the shelter named Rifugio Massì, people who either transit, aim at, or already have crossed the border area, can find refuge and support that they would not have access to otherwise. Every day, the shelter welcomes around 40 people, who spend the night and often leave the morning after. They continue onwards on journeys where harsh ordeals, danger and more paradoxes are the order of the day. 

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