Space management in a border town: the case of Ventimiglia

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It is Sunday evening and in via Tenda, in Ventimiglia, a police operation is taking place. The main goal of the operation is literally to chase black people away. It doesn’t matter their legal status: Italian, EU- and non-EU citizens, regular and irregular migrants, if they are black they are strongly “urged” to give up any activity and go to the reception centre for migrants. Regardless whether the persons are chatting or taking a coffee, they have to immediately reach the Red Cross camp, 4 kilometres away from the town centre. F., a Sudanese citizen, vehemently protests in front of police officers: he has a regular residence permit, he does not live in the camp, he never entered it and he doesn’t want to go there… but his arguments are not even taken into account.

After leaving via Tenda, police officers repeat the same operation in the train station of Ventimiglia, and successively on the beach, where the few migrants not willing to reach the Red Cross camp have converged. C., an Italian woman observing the scene (and trying to ask for explanations to police officers), will comment the day after: “Suddenly, on a Sunday of November, somebody decided to impose the apartheid. Suddenly Ventimiglia was like Louisiana in the 1920s…”

Ventimiglia is an Italian town of 24.000 inhabitants 8 km from France. Its economy is based on its geographical proximity with the French Riviera, one of the richest regions not only of France but probably of the entire world – the Principality of Monaco, the European tax heaven, is only 26 km from Ventimiglia. Indeed, Ventimiglia is characterized by an oversized commercial structure (Trucco 2018), only explained by the presence of French and Monegasque customers taking advantages of the lower prices of food, alcohol and cigarettes on the Italian side. Moreover, almost 4.000 workers, particularly in the lower-paying jobs, commute daily to Monaco from the neighbouring Italian town.

The elimination of the frontier, before, and its subsequent reintroduction, after, entailed two great blows on the social and economic life of this border town. First, the implementation of the Schengen agreement, in 1997, lead to the loss of jobs for customs officers, while the introduction of the single EU currency, in 2002, entailed the loss of jobs for the closure of currency exchange services. The reintroduction of border controls by France in 2015 did not create new jobs, but only the conditions for the migration “crisis” affecting the town. Indeed, as a consequence of the massive rejections of irregular migrants by French border police, Ventimiglia has become, since 2015, a kind of “buffer zone”, where hundreds of non-EU migrants willing to reach France (or other European countries) are stuck while waiting for the best opportunity to clandestinely cross the border. Data from Caritas reveal, indeed, that between 2016 and 2017 approximately 45.000 migrants transited, with many difficulties, across Ventimiglia.

As is usually the case in conjunction with humanitarian emergencies, a double “reception system” (a formal and an informal one) arise (Aru, forthcoming). On the one side, an informal settlement on the riverside grew up. On the other side, a reception centre (a formal camp managed by the Red Cross) was established in a peripheral area 4 km from the town. As a midway between the two, the church of Le Gianchette (the neighbourhood on the riverside, just in front of the informal settlement) informally functioned as a reception centre for two years (without any economic contribution from the State, the region or the Municipality) hosting hundreds of migrant families.

How the use of public space in Ventimiglia has been governed, before the presence of destitute migrants living in precarious conditions?

Since the beginning of the “crisis”, a progressive clearance of the public space took place. The Red Cross equipment, originally in a central position (just in front of the train station) was moved towards a peripheral area at the end of 2016. The church was forced to close its doors to migrants in the summer of 2017 as a consequence of the expansion of the Red Cross camp. From August 2016 until April 2017 a Municipal order forbade the distribution of food in the public space, which is now only allowed in a specific, poorly lit space in front of the cemetery. The informal settlement on the riverside has been repeatedly evicted (the last and definitive eviction took place in July 2018). Violent police operations (such as the aforementioned one) have been cyclically taking place.

The decrease of the numbers of migrants trying to cross the French border, in parallel with the recent curve in the number of arrivals on Italian shores, has favoured a process of “normalization” in Ventimiglia after the “crisis”. At the same time, as a consequence of the re-opening of the Balkan route, migrants from different origins (Pakistani, Iraki, Irani, Sirian, Kurdish) are converging towards Ventimiglia, in some case with the project of staying in Italy.

Even if it is difficult to foresee future scenarios for Ventimiglia, it is self-evident that local powers pursue the creation of electoral consent at the expense of further precarisation, marginalization of migrants and, consequently, by reducing the possibilities for their social integration.


Thanks to Silvia Aru (University of Amsterdam), Daniela Trucco, Ivan Bonin and other members of the Observatoire des Alpes Marittimes (Université de Nice) and other well-informed actors (Ibrahim Rauf) for the inspiration and useful remarks.


Photos: Emanuela Zampa and Guillaume Darribau

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