"There are no borders so they can't"
France Resurrects Border With Italy
A couple of miles from the beach town of Ventimiglia, nestled along the Italian Riviera, French police have restaffed a formerly abandoned checkpoint along the country's Mediterranean border with Italy.
In the nearby French town of Menton, French police in riot gear board trains crossing into France, grilling passengers while other police forces are monitoring roads and foot trails that lead into French territory from Italy.
The operation is part of France's attempt to stop a wave of North African migrants who, having fled violence back home, regard Italy as a way station as they travel by boat, train and foot toward jobs and family in French cities. More than 700 migrants who have crossed into French territory via Italy have been detained by French police and escorted back, Italian officials said.
Some European Union officials have suggested France has gone too far, because one of the European Union's key principles is the free movement of people inside Europe.
"There are no borders so they can't," said EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom when asked about France's crackdown on April 1. Under the EU's Schengen treaty, which was implemented in 1997, "you are not allowed to do checks at the border" unless "there is a serious threat to public security, and for the moment that is not the case," Ms. Malmstrom said.
But France's foreign ministry says Paris is enforcing a bilateral accord signed with Italy just weeks before Schengen was implemented. Under the so-called Chambery agreement, France can return any undocumented migrants to Italy for expulsion if French officials can produce ample evidence they came from Italy.
Before doing so, however, French police are required to get approval from Italian authorities who can review the evidence in each case, ranging from train-ticket stubs to witness testimony, before signing off.
So far, about a hundred French requests have been turned down, said Italian officials.
The crackdown is sowing tensions between the two neighboring countries. "There's a hostile attitude coming from Paris," Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni told the Italian Senate on Thursday.
French Interior Minister Claude Guéant lashed back, saying France "is completely within its rights to send these people back to Italy."
The dispute ultimately stems from the European Union's failure to forge a common policy for dealing with migrants, ranging from political refugees to undocumented job seekers who enter the EU from countries along its periphery but are determined to settle in richer economies to the north.
At one French checkpoint, cars piled up on the Italian side of the border as police scanned cars. A French train station, just over the border, was staffed with about 20 police who boarded trains simultaneously to check every passport of every passenger coming from Italy. Such a sustained presence contravenes EU rules, said an EU official involved in border issues.
Yassine Fatnassi, a 28-year-old construction worker, said he and three other migrants who had taken a train from Italy to France were detained by French police at a train station in Nice on March 31.
Mr. Fatnassi said police took him to a barracks near the French-border town of Breil, telling him he would be sent back to Tunisia. Mr. Fatnassi said French police dismissed his requests for an attorney. He said he was then placed alone in a small holding cell for 24 hours without receiving food or a place to sleep.
On April 1, Mr. Fatnassi said, French police loaded him into a patrol car and drove him to the Italian border and released him in Italian territory. French officials didn't seek approval from Italian authorities to return Mr. Fatnassi to Italy, said an official with knowledge of the situation.
A spokesman for France's border police declined to comment on any matter regarding operations along the Italian-French border. A spokesman for France's Interior Ministry also declined to comment on the matter.
Mr. Fatnassi, who has two brothers awaiting him in Paris, says he is undeterred by the experience. "It was scary, but I must go to France, because that's where my family is," he said.
Ahmed Mhimdan, a 28-year-old Moroccan construction worker who says he routinely crosses the border for jobs, was on his way by train to meet friends in Monte Carlo when two French police boarded his train coach and scrutinized his working papers, which were in order. "The French don't mess around," he said.
By now, many migrants have learned to avoid the trains. Tunisian fisherman Hassen Kaoubi, 35, has attempted four unsuccessful crossings. His last, which took him on a miles-long foot trail through craggy terrain ended with French police accosting the migrant in the countryside just outside of Nice, Mr. Kaoubi said, now back in Ventimiglia.
France's practices have enraged Ventimiglia's townspeople. On Saturday, hundreds of protesters gathered near the train station waving signs that accused France of thumbing its nose at its former colony. "Tunisia was once French!" read one sign.—Max Colchester in Paris contributed to this article.