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Supporting Migrants Mobility Across Securitised Borders

Between “non-Profit Migration Infrastructures” and Criminalization
(In)sécurité à la frontière franco-italienne. Les soutiens à la mobilité des exilé·e·s dans les Hautes-Alpes
Cecilia Vergnano


L’article porte sur le rôle des acteurs frontaliers, et notamment des résidents de la zone frontalière et des administrateurs locaux, qui se mobilisent au nom et en soutien des migrants en mouvement. En déplaçant le regard des catégories classiques d’acteurs impliqués dans le contrôle des frontières (acteurs de la sécurité de l’État, d’un côté, et migrants en mouvement, de l’autre) et en ancrant l’analyse sur un point transfrontalier spécifique entre la vallée de Suse italienne et la région française des Hautes-Alpes, il montre à quel point le niveau local contribue à façonner la politique frontalière et ses résultats par la création d’« infrastructures migratoires » solidaires, et la réaction de l’État par la criminalisation des pratiques de solidarité.

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1. Introduction

1It is a midsummer afternoon in Clavière (1,760 m above s.l.), the last village of the Alpine Susa Valley before the Pass of Montgenèvre, which marks the border between Italy and France. In the backyard of the church of the small village it is possible to join an unusual gathering of youth, composed by (mostly Sub Saharan) men and French and Italian activists. Indeed, since the springtime, the back of the church (usually used as storeroom) is occupied by a heterogeneous group of supportive locals and radical activists from the urban milieu, with the aim of giving shelter and support to asylum seekers who, after crossing the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea, are now increasingly transiting across the route of Montgenèvre.

2Migrants recently arrived with the aim of moving ahead towards France are restoring their energy around a campfire, before getting on the road again. The fire is necessary since the temperatures at that altitude are close to 4/5°C even in the middle of the summer and many migrants are not equipped with proper clothing and footwear. Valentin, a Cameroonian young man approaches one of the activists: he would like to know if such a cold weather “is normal”. She explains him that not only it is normal, but he can consider himself lucky for transiting during the summer season, since many of his fellow countrymen crossed the border in the winter, when the mountains were covered by a thick layer of snow. Probably for not discouraging Valentine, she avoids to mention that three migrants’ deaths were reported along the last, snowy winter, one of them as a consequence of a police chase. “Mais alors c’est comme la Russie là…” he replies, surprised. He has never seen the snow before, nor he was expecting that getting to France was going to be so hard.

3The name of the squat, humorously called Chez Jésus, mirrors the name of another squat located in the French town of Briançon (just on the other side of the border): Chez Marcel, an abandoned house also occupied with the aim of supporting migrants in transit. Together with the Refuge Solidaire of Briançon, legally assigned by local authorities to an association of volunteers, Chez Marcel welcome migrants on the French side of the border, while on the Italian side Chez Jésus allows migrants to get information, rest and food before the risky border-crossing that they undertake by foot, along mountain paths, to avoid police checks. In parallel with Chez Jésus, and only a few kilometers far, another shelter has been established in the Italian border village of Bardonecchia, just before the col de l’Échelle, another mountain pass also transited by migrants since the spring of 2016. Unlike Chez Jésus, which was occupied, the shelter of Bardonecchia is established by local authorities.

4A few days after my meeting with Valentine at Chez Jésus, I meet him again at the Refuge Solidaire. I rejoice to see him: he is safe after a border-crossing carried out in the night, without knowing the paths and without using flashlights, to avoid attracting police attention. Like him, tens of asylum seekers every day succeed in their attempt after crossing the mountains in the same conditions. The arrival of tens of migrants is indeed a usual, daily scene at the Refuge Solidaire, in spite of the police chase across the mountains.

5In this article I am going to focus on the role of local border actors from civil society and local administrations in shaping a humanitarian “corridor” as a response to the increasing border securitization through which French authorities aim at preventing the “migration risk” (Hanus, 2012). I argue that local, supportive practices are developed according to humanitarian and/or contentious logics (Tilly, 2004), in a context of increasing securitization of borders and rising border “tanatopolitics” (Vaughan-Williams, 2015; Vergnano, 2020).

6By shifting the gaze from the classical categories of actors involved in border control (state security actors, on the one side, and migrants on the move, on the other) and grounding the analysis on a specific cross-border point at the French-Italian border between the Susa Valley and the Hautes-Alpes, research findings suggest a twofold conclusion. On the one side, they show the persistence of alternative imaginaries on borders and migration among the so-called civil society and the relevance of the local level of governance and local mobilizations in reducing the lethal/ harmful character of border securitization, thus shaping border policy outcomes. On the other, they show state’s reaction through criminalization of solidarity practices.

  • 1 All excerpts from interviews and documentary sources, originally in French or Italian, have been tr (...)

7Ethnographic research at the French/Italian border of the Hautes-Alpes has been conducted during 6 months between the summer and the winter of 2018, based on participant observation in the aforementioned four local shelters, in-depth, semi-structured interviews to local administrators, activists, volunteers and residents involved in supporting activities, and discourse analysis based on booklets, fanzines and other information materials produced by activists and volunteers.1

8The paper is structured as follow. Firstly, I will contextualize the reintroduction of border controls by several EU member states in the framework of pre-existing policy and legal instruments designed in order to prevent intra-EU undesired mobilities. Secondly, I will focus on the securitization of the French-Italian border and I will analyse the impacts of securitization at the local level, including the criminalization of solidarity practices. Finally, I will expose ethnographic data about the emergence of alternative imaginaries and practices about border management among residents and administrators of this specific border area, the process of criminalization to which they are exposed and the outputs of border policies as a result of such a dialectical relationship between securitization and humanitarian/contentious practices. Research findings and their analytical implications will be exposed in the conclusions. A theoretical framework, exposed in the next section, will precede the aforementioned sections.

2. The state vs the local: securitization, pragmatism, criminalization

9In recent years, migration scholars have highlighted the increasing importance of local governance in migration policies, even theorizing a “local turn” in research perspective (Zapata-Barrero et al., 2017). Whereas national and supra-national governance are increasingly concerned with restrictive migration policies and border securitization (Huysmans 2006; Jones 2016), local governments may show a more pragmatic attitude, faced with everyday concerns in relation to the challenges of immigrant integration (Alexander, 2007; Caponio, Borkert, 2010; Scholten, 2013; Zapata-Barrero et al., 2017; Careja, 2019, Penninx, Garcés-Mascareñas, 2016). Therefore, policy processes on a national level may be decoupled or even fully disconnected from those developing at the local level, thus rising policy contradictions and sometimes even conflicts between representatives of national governments and local administrators (Scholten, 2013; Campomori, Caponio, 2017).

10In the aftermath of “the long summer of migration” of 2015, the role of social movements and civil society mobilizations in shaping “migration corridors” within the European space, providing food, shelter and legal advice to refugees on the move has been analyzed by a number of scholars (Ataç et al., 2016; Youkhana, Sutter, 2017). However, when it comes to the analysis of local policies, the attention of scholars has been mostly focused on the importance of cities in putting integration policies into effect, that is to say, policies addressed to newcomers willing to stay (De Graauw, Vermeulen, 2016; Hackett, 2017; Glick Schiller, Çağlar, 2009; Hepburn, Zapata-Barrero, 2014; Nicholls, Uitermark, 2013; Penninx et al., 2004). Little attention has been paid, instead, to the role of local administrations in favoring migrants’ mobility, that is to say, in promoting initiatives addressed to those willing to move ahead (with exceptions: see Pogliano, Ponzo, 2017). In this paper I build on Xiang and Lindquist’s concept of “migration infrastructure” (2014), that shift the main focus for understanding migratory processes on infrastructure, intended as interlinked technologies, institutions, and actors that facilitate and condition mobility, rather than state policies, the labor market, or migrant social networks alone. I propose the concept of “non-profit migration infrastructure” to identify the specific forms of intermediation that characterizes irregular border-crossings at the French-Italian border.

11The present article focus on a specific, transited border area with the aim of highlighting the role of civil society actors and local governments as one of the factors that may contribute to facilitate migrants’ practices of appropriation of mobility. By no means this article intends to underestimate migrants agency as such, or conceptualize migrants as passive, victimized objects whose mobility depends on the help of white European “do-gooders”. That is categorically not what I am saying and indeed migration studies provide abundant evidence that push factors use to be stronger than any pull factor or, in other words, migrants appropriate mobility independently of humanitarian support.

12I use here Scheel’s expression “practices of appropriation of mobility” (2019) in order to overcome some theoretical problems raised by the approach of “autonomy of migration”. Defended by eminent migration scholars such as De Genova (2017), Mezzadra and Nielson (2013), Papadopoulos et al. (2008), this approach is nevertheless the object of several criticisms (Alabi et al., 2004) and questionings (Aru, 2020; Scheel, 2013, 2019), concerning the risk of romanticizing migration by overlooking the increasing violence and technologisation which characterizes Western border regimes. The expression “practices of appropriation of mobility” circumscribes the autonomy-of-migration approach by avoiding the limited situatedness and technological blindness characterizing such an approach.

13While migrants on the move have to be conceptualized as the very actors appropriating mobility in increasingly securitized contexts, and those exposed to the most severe risks, civil society actors are also facing increasing challenges in carrying out solidarity practices. A number of scholars observed a progressive shrinking of the space for humanitarian practices, possibly putting an end to the “humanitarian turn” (Cuttitta, 2018; Squire, 2017) within the humanitarian-securitarian nexus (Andersson, 2017; Garelli, Tazzioli, 2019; Pallister-Wilkins 2017). While civil society actors such as NGOs and volunteers have been the first responders to EU-crisis in asylum-seekers reception in 2015, Member States reacted with increasing criminalization of citizens supporting and assisting irregular migrants (Allsopp, 2017; Fekete, 2009; Gkliati, 2016; Heller, Pezzani, 2017; Vosyliute, Conte, 2018), using existing legislation for blurring the boundaries between human smuggling and mobility facilitation (Carrera et al., 2018b; Tazzioli, 2018). Carrera et al. (2018a) coined the concept of “mobility society” to refer to citizens mobilising for providing irregularised immigrants and asylum seekers with humanitarian assistance and access to rights. They adopt the notion of “policing” instead of “criminalising” to capture wider punitive dynamics affecting the activities of civil society actors, such as suspicion, intimidation, harassment and disciplining. The existence of state’s concerns about supportive practices from below de facto indicate the actual existence of alternative narrations of the “refugee crisis”, cultures of hospitality and visions of “open borders” among EU-citizens (Löfflmann, Vaughan-Williams, 2018).

14In the next sections, I will ground the analysis by progressively focusing on the French/Italian border, and specifically on the region between the Susa Valley and the Hautes-Alpes, in order to explore the context in which border controls were reintroduced, as well as their impacts and outcomes at the local level.

3. New legal and policy instruments against intra-EU asylum-seekers mobility

  • 2 Border controls at the French/Italian border had already been temporary enforced by France in 2011, (...)

15Since June 2015, France reintroduced border controls as a counter-terrorism measure by applying the article 29 of the Schengen Borders Code (SBC). The impacts of such controls started to be immediately visible in the Italian town of Ventimiglia, at the French/Italian border, in the region of Alpes-Maritimes, where hundreds of asylum-seekers on the move towards France (or other EU countries) got stuck as a consequence of pushing-back practices by French border police in the train station of Menton-Garavan (the first train station in French territory after Ventimiglia). Indeed, it became quickly clear that border controls, originally aimed at preventing new terroristic attacks, where mainly addressed at preventing the mobility of impoverished, racialized subjects – namely asylum-seekers transiting across Italy after crossing the Mediterranean Sea.2

16In the same year, five other EU countries reintroduced border controls by applying, in this case, the article 25 of the SBC. Austria, German, Denmark, Norway and Sweden, indeed, alleged reasons related with the “fear of secondary movements” of asylum seekers […]. Switzerland (non-member state, but also part of the Schengen area) also enforced border controls at the Italian border.

  • 3 The Central Mediterranean route has been the most transited route in the Mediterranean in 2016 and (...)

17In this context, Northern Italian borders turned into a barrier for many asylum seekers, for whom Italy is not the final destination at the end of the central Mediterranean route,3 but represents a transit country towards other European destinations (Belloni, 2016; Brekke, Brochmann, 2015).

18The reintroduction of border controls aimed at preventing the intra-EU mobility of asylum seekers adds up to a series of pre-existing policy and legal instruments. Pre-existent bilateral agreement between neighbouring EU countries, entered into force in the same years in which the Schengen space was inaugurated, de facto allows rejections of undocumented citizens at the internal EU borders, even without the exceptional activation of arts. 25 or 29 of the SBC. Furthermore, the provisions of the Dublin Agreement (whose first version dates back to 1990) place the responsibility for examining asylum applications on countries of first arrival and registration. According to the Dublin system, an asylum seeker registered in Italy, or Greece, is not entitled for applying for asylum in another EU country (being subjected to forced removal in case he/she attempts to do so). Gaps in the implementation of the Dublin regulation (like “a certain degree of secondary movements of migrants not properly identified and fingerprinted”, Campesi, 2018, 7) were addressed in 2015 through the so-called “hotspot approach”, aimed at guaranteeing stricter procedures for identification, fingerprinting and registration of asylum seekers immediately after their arrival, in Italy and Greece.

19The reintroduction of border controls for preventing so-called “secondary movements” of asylum seekers is, therefore, an extraordinary measure that has be understood in the light of the “border spectacle” as a mechanism of governance (De Genova, 2002). They add up to already existing normative and policy architecture aimed at limiting asylum seekers’ mobility within the EU, constituted by bilateral agreement for police cooperation at internal border areas, the Dublin Regulation and the hotspot approach.

4. The securitization of the French-Italian border

20Between 2015 and 2017, the French government created 900 new posts for border police officers, within the Police nationale and the Gendarmerie nationale, in the framework of national plans against irregular migration (PLIC4) and terrorism (PLAT5) (Gissler et al., 2017). French annual budget for border control, fight against irregular immigration and security of international airports and train stations increased from €649,691,980 in 2015 to €905,967,514 in 2018.6 At the borders of Alpes-Maritimes and Hautes-Alpes, security forces (police, army and in some cases private security firms) are mobilised twenty-four hours per day. Surveillance assets similar to those used at the external European borders, such as drones, mobile terminals and mobile stations have also been provided to border patrols (La Cimade, 2018).

  • 7 According to data provided by French border police (PAF) to the French Red Cross.

21In parallel, number of push-backs at the French/Italian border of the Maritime Alps increased from 1,193 in 2015 to 31,285 in 2016, with a peak of 44,433 push-backs in 2017.7 It is interesting to observe that, while data provided by French border police (PAF) indicate a strong increase of push-backs between 2016 and 2017, data provided by Caritas reveals, in contrast, a halving of transiting migrants in the same region (Ventimiglia) in the same period (approximately 30.000 people in 2016, and 15.000 in 2017: De Lauso et al., 2016; De Lauso, Nanni, 2017). This apparent paradox may indicate that border-crossing in the Maritime Alps became increasingly difficult since 2016, with individual border-crossers carrying out several attempts of reaching France and repeatedly pushed back. But it may also indicate a flourishing border industry created by the French government, feeding “on its own failures and on the contradictions it generates” (Andersson, 2016, 3). Actually, it is a well-known fact among local residents (and among police officers) that most of the migrants willing to reach France from Ventimiglia finally succeed, after one, two, three or more attempts. As declared by an Italian border police officer of Ventimiglia, “People who want to cross, they cross anyway. Someone by foot, someone hidden under the seats of the train. I don’t know any single person that has been pushed back by French police and said ‘ok guys, I give up. I go back.’” (interview, 13/09/2018).

  • 8 The prohibition was subsequently lifted due to strong criticism, including complaints from local po (...)
  • 9 Another response, by the national government, has been the institution of a formal camp for the rec (...)

22As a consequence of 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 transiting towards France (or other European countries) are stuck while waiting for the best opportunity to cross the border. The mayor of Ventimiglia responded to the humanitarian emergency by imposing fines to those citizens distributing food in the streets8. The Prefecture also intervened with repeated eviction of migrants’ informal camp (until its definitive closure in April 2018) and bans addressed to activists considered as particularly disturbing the public order (fogli di via, Trucco, 2020).9

  • 10 In reference to the safe houses and secret routes in the United States that helped the African Amer (...)

23As a consequence of the deployment of controls at the border between Ventimiglia and Menton, in 2016 asylum seekers stuck and (im)mobilised in Ventimiglia started to cross the French border slightly north, transiting across the French Roya Valley. This route started be increasingly used as an alternative to the (more controlled) seaside route from Ventimiglia to Menton. The Roya Valley quickly became a paradigmatic place of “the French Underground Railroad”, as The New York Times termed it10 (see also Rahola, Queirolo Palmas, 2020). There, a network of local villagers provided migrants with humanitarian support (by feeding, hosting and occasionally transporting them), and carrying out public campaigns denouncing violations of migrants rights by French border police (Giliberti, 2018b; Mollard, 2017). As a consequence of the spreading of solidarity practices in the Roya Valley, and the rising of a contentious movement strongly engaged in the defence of migrants’ rights, the valley has been increasingly militarized (Giliberti, 2018b) and several residents are currently accused of facilitating illegal immigration (Giliberti, 2018a).

24Since 2017, a new migratory route emerged further north along the border, across the mountain passes of col de l’Échelle (1762 m) and col de Montgenèvre (1854 m), between the Italian Susa Valley and the French region of Hautes-Alpes. Number of push-backs in this region, according to PAF data, increased from 728 in 2015 to 7,228 in 2017 (with a slight decrease in 2018, with 7,063 push-backs according to the Italian Ministry of Interior). Also in this case, the effectiveness of push-backs practices may be seriously questioned, as I will expose in the next section.

  • 11 Expression used by both the mayors of Bardonecchia and Oulx, Italian villages close to the French b (...)
  • 12 With the exceptions: in Clavière, where Chez Jésus was occupied, the mayor directly denied the exis (...)

25Furthermore, also in this border area, a grassroots humanitarian response has been provided by a French/Italian networks of local residents, activists and associations. Interestingly, the Italian mayor of Bardonecchia explicitly declared their will of avoiding “a new Ventimiglia11. This way, instead of adopting a repressive/securitarian approach, different kinds of collaborations have been established by local powers with local movements, civil society associations and third sector organizations12. As already mentioned, the mayors of Briançon and Bardonecchia provided associations and existing social networks of supportive citizens with spaces near to the respective train stations, where they established centres for reception and/or information and advice.

  • 13 About the unease coexistence of the tourism industry, migrants’ transit and police control in the B (...)

26The support provided by residents and local institutions in this border area, however, still contrasts with the violence of the border regime. Both in the Alpes-Maritimes and in the Hautes-Alpes, French border police carry out systematic push-backs of migrants by stopping them on trains and buses and chasing them on mountain footpaths. Irregular pushbacks of both adults and non-accompanied minors, verbal and physical abuses, embezzlements of migrants’ smartphones and money have been reported by migrants themselves and documented by French and Italian associations (Anafé, 2019). The violence of the racialized border dispositive, daily crossed by tourists, skiers and residents with ease, on the one side, and cause of increasing risk, distress and deaths for racialized asylum seekers,13 triggered the development of reception policies at the local level, including a “humanitarian migration infrastructure”, as explained in the following section.

5. Supportive practices between humanitarian reason and criminalization

  • 14 Literally, “Crumble the Borders”.

27On the 18th of December 2017 Mathieu, a 20-year-old Congolese man, took the route of the col de l’Échelle, a 1762 m high mountain pass, to reach France. With the path covered by the snow, his feet increasingly wet, he got rid of his shoes first, and then his socks, thinking that this way his walk was going to be easier. He got lost and a sought for a shelter within an empty mountain hut. Someone found him there, his feet frozen, and brought him to Bardonecchia, the closest Italian village. From there, he was taken to the nearest Italian hospital, where he received the first urgent medical cares. The word started going round in the Whatsapp chat of the local network of supportive citizens called Briser les Frontières14: “a man in the hospital, with frozen feet, need a pajamas and a toothbrush: who can bring them to him?”, “Mathieu says he left some clothes in the train station of Bardonecchia: who can go and look for them?”, and finally: “Mathieu needs a place to stay for a few months: who’s available?”

28After having found Mathieu’s clothes (with his money sewed inside) in the train station of Bardonecchia, and after having brought them to him in the hospital, Elena, a 49 years old woman living in a village close to the border, made herself available for hosting him in her house. Elisabetta, a professional nurse living in the same valley, also part of Briser les Frontières, made herself available for carrying out the medical treatment he needed once every other day. Other members of the network organized periodic visits to Elena’s house during all the time of his stay, including visits of Italian lawyers. Finally, after more than four months in the house of Elena, he regained his health and got ready to resume his journey towards France.

29Far from being exceptional, the stories of Mathieu and Valentin are just a few examples of the stories of the thousands of asylum seekers who crossed the Alpine chain in the region of the Italian Susa Valley/French Hautes-Alpes in spite of reintroduction of border controls at the French/Italian border after 2015. Almost all of them, to a greater or lesser extent, received humanitarian support from local volunteers, on both the Italian and the French side of the border. Even if only a reduced minority of them was hosted in private houses for medical cares, like Mathieu, there have been tens of cases of limbs exposures treated in local hospitals, with many of them looked after in the following weeks or months by local volunteers of the Refuge Solidaire of Briançon.

30In a highly infrastructured area, such as the Italian Susa Valley (one of the main crossing point towards France, with two main roads, a highway and a railway, daily transited by hundreds of trucks, several trains and buses), the exclusion of racialized, impoverished subjects from the access to such infrastructures triggered a reaction among a part of the civil society and the emergence of an alternative infrastructure. Indeed, the already mentioned squats Chez Jésus and Chez Marcel, and the institutional shelters of Bardonecchia and Briançon, form part of what can be defined as a non-profit “migration infrastructure” (Xiang, Lindquist, 2014) built by a part of civil society and local authorities, composed by material spaces (occupied or legally assigned buildings), digital infrastructures (WhatsApp groups), resources (food, clothing, footwear) and expertise (professional knowledge on medicine, law, mountain rescue, cultural mediation).

31Such a counter-infrastructure is composed by a heterogeneous network of actors aimed by different purposes, ranging from strictly pragmatic, humanitarian reason (avoiding deaths and limb exposures) to contentious practices against state border regime and repressive migration policies. In such a context, migrants’ willingness to move ahead intersect with pragmatism of local powers, humanitarianism of local associations and contentious politics enacted by radical activists coming from the urban milieu. As the mayor of Briançon explained:

From the beginning the position of the municipal government was to recognise that it is obviously impossible to leave whoever sleep on the streets and that under any circumstance trying to organise the things, trying to organise a provisional reception centre was better than non-governing. (20/09/2018)

32The mayor of Bardonecchia also shows the same pragmatic attitude, declaring that:

The problem we are confronting, as a local administration, is first of all a problem at the humanitarian level. Our project [the assignation of a space in the train station of Bardonecchia to an NGO of doctors] stems from that: saving lives, because these people, who saw everything and then some – we met people who spent two years in the desert, six months in the Libyan prisons, everything and then some… Well, these people are not certainly afraid of walking for one night in the middle of two meters of snow. The problem is that we know that they can die up there... (26/7/2018)

33A minority component of the supportive movement, however, is not only motivated by a mere will of saving lives, but also by an explicit choice of facilitating border-crossings:

For the people I know, with whom I make the maraudes, the main goal is to facilitate the passages, allow migrants to avoid checkpoints. It is hard, you are always under pressure with the police, and if they catch you, you can be sentenced and the migrants expelled.

  • 15 Nunatak, Rivista di Storie, Culture e Lotte della Montagna (Nunatak, Review of Mountain Stories, Cu (...)

(Declaration reported by activist of Chez Marcel, Nunatak,15 spring 2018)

34The practice of “maraude”, the volunteer practice of monitoring the mountains for rescuing people in distress, is actually a sort of Alpine (and much more informal) version of Mediterranean search-and-rescue operations. It requires a certain degree of coordination to establish groups and shifts. Especially in the fall and winter of 2017, while some volunteers were patrolling mountain paths during the night, others were mobilizing during the day in front of the train station of Bardonecchia with the aim of discouraging border-crossings, especially on occasion of forecasted snowstorms. However, they had to deal with the autonomous dimension of migrants’ mobility, that is to say, with the “turbulence, autonomy, stubbornness of migration [with] its ungovernable moments of freedom and excess” (Mezzadra, 2016, 36). Indeed for many volunteers, migrants’ will of crossing whatever the weather or the circumstances was especially surprising. “Even if you tell them, ‘You cannot do it, you simply cannot’, they tell you, ‘Well, I am going’. They refuse to listen to reason!” (Egidio, resident in Bussoleno, 18/6/2018).

35Attempts to stop migrants cross-border mobility were opposed not only by migrant themselves, but also by other activists and volunteers who claimed for migrants’ right to move. As reported by another volunteer:

I remember there was someone [on the French side] saying ‘We have to tell them not to cross, we cannot host them all’. But who are you to tell them not to cross? If they want to cross, they cross. You cannot assume the role of a kind of manager of migration.

(Declaration reported by activist of Chez Marcel, op. cit.)

36A compromise was reached by pragmatically adopting a risk-mitigation strategy, that is to say, by suggesting migrants to undertake the border-crossing across the col du Montgenèvre instead of walking along the (more risky) col de l’Échelle.

37The uselessness of police controls in what refers to the contention of migrants’ mobility was well-known by local residents, for whom the transit of migrants across their villages became an ordinary scene since the beginning of the summer of 2017: “Last weekend it was an endless stream” reported G., resident in Bardonecchia and volunteer for Caritas, referring to the passage of sub-Saharan migrants, easily visible during the day in a space categorizable as “white” (Andersson, 2014) like Bardonecchia. For local residents, consequences of border controls where evident not in an effective contention of mobility but rather in the rising of hospitalization for limb exposures. Between May 2018 and May 2019, four migrants died, two others disappeared, and three were seriously injured while trying to cross this mountainous border area (Tous Migrants, May 2019). In 2018, the Briançon-based association Tous Migrants tallied 2,104 medical consultations for people who had serious physical (frostbite, shock, injuries, broken limbs, etc.) or psychological side-effects from crossing the border.

  • 16 Source: Rainbow for Africa (local NGO) and local activists.

38Notwithstanding, in spite of severe physical and psychological consequences, migrants achieve to cross. Indeed, available data about this border area reveals that between January and June of 2018, 5,700 migrants were registered as “transiting migrants” on the Italian side16 (approximate figures), while in the French city of Briançon, on the other side of the border, local volunteers of the Refuge Solidaire (Solidarity Shelter) registered approximately 5,000 arrivals in the same period. Bearing in mind that it is possible that some individuals may have directly reached other French towns, without stopping in the shelter in Briançon, these figures simply demonstrate a fact that is well-known by local residents and volunteers: virtually all migrants who tried to pass the border in this area, between January and June 2018, achieved their goal after one, two or more attempts, in spite of daily push-backs by French border police.

39The possibility of clandestinely crossing the border can be certainly attributed to the geomorphological characteristics of the region – impossible to control in its entirety. At the same time, such characteristics, coupled with migrants’ exclusion from free mobility through safer routes, are precisely those that turn border-crossings in a highly risky (or even lethal) practice. That is where the role played by local powers and civil society comes in as regards the contention of risks, by making available shelters, material resources, competences in medicine or mountain rescue, among others.

40Volunteers’ interventions are based on an alternative view about borders and migrations, compared with securitarian policies. Different conceptions of migration and, more broadly, about societal challenges are rooted and claimed by local actors. Counternarratives are mostly focused on the need of overcome individualistic attitudes, understanding migratory movements in wider global dynamics, or questioning Western societies’ responsibilities in creating the conditions that force people to leave their countries:

It is not surprising to find people with environmental concerns in this kind of mobilizations. Because it’s like that, we cannot talk of migrations without talking of climate change, too. […] We cannot talk of migrant without having a global gaze on what’s happening on the planet. […] we are experiencing global warming in this right moment, we talk about that everyday in the newspapers, it is something we have to get used to. People are increasingly getting here [to France] for this reason. Until the moment we will be forced to move, too, because it will be too hot here.

(Étienne, resident in Briancon, 2/7/2018)

I know that these things are bigger than me, even bigger than my intelligence: these kind of things such as macro-economics, such as despoiling a whole continent, I mean, supplying with arms their dictators, getting their resources for free for increasing our economy, Western economy. […] Even if I didn´t study, I can understand, I can read the news and understand what´s going on. We should beg these black boys’ pardon…

(Riccardo, resident in Oulx, 12/9/2018)

  • 17 See, for instance, Dici, 2018, April 9. “Migrants : Arnaud Murgia dénonce l’irresponsabilité des as (...)

41However, the creation of a non-profit infrastructure for rescueing and sheltering migrants excluded by the access to existing transport infrastructure (the railway, the highway) and therefore compelled to move across an environment turned into hostile (Heller, Del Biaggio, 2017), was alleged by state actors and political opponents to be a “pull-factor” for irregular migration.17

42The French/Italian border area between the Susa Valley and the Hautes-Alpes emerged indeed as a site of tension and contestation, with acts of humanitarian assistance/ contentious resistance on the one hand punished through the use of EU and national anti-smuggling norms and policies. In the conflict arisen between the local- and the state-level as regards the management of the border, supportive practices became therefore object of criminalization, with currently ten residents on trial for faciliatation of illegal immigration. Beyond direct criminalization, volunteers and activists have to deal with wider dynamics of suspicion, harassment, intimidation (Carrera et al., 2018a). “Do you know what’s the news today?” an activist of Chez Jésus welcomed me with this words during one of my visits to the squat. “Police are stopping people [white activists] when they find them on the mountain paths, and they ask to show their wallet.” Police request was motivated by their attempt of delegitimising activists’ non-profit practices as a mere form of smuggling.

43Either by radical activists or by simple volunteers moved by humanitarian beliefs, supportive practices are therefore carried out with the awareness of possible legal consequences. As explained by a resident of Montgenèvre:

I get down [to Briançon] every day, sometimes I see people [migrants on the edge of the road], I stop. It is a risk for me, I know, but I do it. I am aware that if they [the police] stop me, I can be arrested, but I do it anyway.

(Sandrine, resident in Montgenèvre, 20/08/2018)

44Another volounteer share with me his concerns for his engagement in supporting migrants:

I saw myself in the television, yesterday. I am very disappointed with the journalist who filmed me in the middle of the snow with a group of migrants. I hope they are not going to open any investigation. I couldn´t sleep last night because I am afraid of that.

(Sergio, resident in Susa, 13/11/2018)

45Therefore, on the French side of the border, a conflict has arisen between the multiple layers of migration governance. On the one side, the State accuses volunteers and local administrators of creating a pull factor with their policies and practices. On the other, local communities claim their role in filling a State’s gap in migrants’ reception. According to the spokesperson of Tous Migrants:

If you think about that, it is not volunteers’ responsibility to manage the reception of migrants, it is a state’s responsibility. But the French state doesn’t do that, it says “How can’t you realize it? If we do something, it is like a pull factor, everyone is going to come here.” This is crazy, it is like to affirm that people travel for thousands of kilometres just because you are welcoming them and giving them something to eat. This attitude put everybody at risk, because the state react by harassing the migrants and arresting the volunteers.

(Agnès, resident in Briançon, 8/8/2018)

6. Conclusions

46By focusing on border area residents, activists and local administrators, this paper moves beyond the two antithetical approaches in the study of migratory processes (analytical prioritization of control techniques VS the prominence of migrants’ agency) and shows the role of third actors in the creation of what I call “non-profit migration infrastructures”. It adds to the dichotomic dialectic migration controls / migration autonomy the role of intermediaries among civil society actors and local authorities and shed light on some of the dynamics through which groups and individuals who assist irregular migrants are brought into zones of illegality and suspicion.

47All along the article I have been exposing the emergence of humanitarian practices as a consequence of the impacts of border controls and police pushback in an environment constructed as dangerous (Heller, Del Biaggio, 2017) through state geopower (Depledge, 2015). As already expressed, the aim of the article is not to reinforce the argument according to which solidarity practices would act as pull-factors increasing border mobility. They can be rather considered as a risk-reducing factor limiting the tanatopolitical effects of repressive migratory policies (Vaughan-Williams, 2015).

48Such practices are sustained by alternative understandings and imaginaries about borders and migrations, radically different from dominant elite scripts of the so called “migration crisis”, which are often reliant upon representations of public opinion as being overwhelmingly hostile to migrants and refugees and straightforwardly in favor of tougher deterrent border security. On the opposite, residents of border areas are aware of both lethal character of border securitization and its uneffectiveness in terms of contention of migrants’ mobility. Indeed, monitoring cross-border mobility both before and after the border (possible precisely because of the availability of reception spaces and availability of volunteers on both sides of the border) allows to provide quantitative data that definitely demonstrate the inefficacy of the border control apparatus. Figures about outgoing migrants on the Italian side roughly correspond to figures about incoming migrants to the French one, in spite of increasing budgetary provisions for border security and the violence of police practices.

49The responsibility for reducing border-crossing risks and sheltering migrants is sustained by alternative visions about borders and mobility, able to grasp the complexity of migratory phenomena in their global dimension and interconnections with the European colonial past and contemporary issues such as the global warming. Such discourses and practices clash, however, with State restrictive migration policies and processes of border securitization. In the dispute taking place between the local and the national level, the organization of the reception system and search-and-rescue operations carried out from below are opposed by national authorities through policing practices of intimidation or direct criminalization.

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1 All excerpts from interviews and documentary sources, originally in French or Italian, have been translated into English by the author.

2 Border controls at the French/Italian border had already been temporary enforced by France in 2011, in the aftermath of the so-called “Arab-springs”, when thousands of Tunisian landed on Italian shores and Italy granted them residence permits for humanitarian reasons, thus entitling them to freely move in the Schengen area (Zaiotti, 2013).

3 The Central Mediterranean route has been the most transited route in the Mediterranean in 2016 and 2017 (

4 Plan de lutte contre l’immigration clandestine (Plan for fighting against illegal immigration).

5 Plan de lutte anti-terroriste (Plan for counter-terrorism).

6 For data about budgetary provisions of 2015:; budgetary provisions of 2016:; budgetary provisions of 2017:; budgetary provisions of 2018:

7 According to data provided by French border police (PAF) to the French Red Cross.

8 The prohibition was subsequently lifted due to strong criticism, including complaints from local police unions. The spokesperson of SIAP (Sindacato Italiano Appartenenti Polizia), Roberto Traverso, affirmed that “not even in the zoo it is forbidden to give food to animals”: see La Repubblica (2017, March 26), “Cibo vietato ai migranti, il sindacato di polizia contro il sindaco di Ventimiglia” ( However, three activists were finally fined: see Independent (2017, March 24), “British man among aid volunteers arrested for giving food to refugees stranded in Italy” (

9 Another response, by the national government, has been the institution of a formal camp for the reception of migrants. However, access rules and, more broadly, the logic underlying the institution of the camp, are especially controversial (see Menghi, 2018).

10 In reference to the safe houses and secret routes in the United States that helped the African American slaves to escape from the South to the North. See New York Times (2016, October 4), “A French Underground Railroad, Moving African Migrants” (

11 Expression used by both the mayors of Bardonecchia and Oulx, Italian villages close to the French border (2018, July. Research interviews).

12 With the exceptions: in Clavière, where Chez Jésus was occupied, the mayor directly denied the existence of any problem related with the transit of migrants (interview 26/07/2018).

13 About the unease coexistence of the tourism industry, migrants’ transit and police control in the Briançonnais area, see Bachellerie, 2019.

14 Literally, “Crumble the Borders”.

15 Nunatak, Rivista di Storie, Culture e Lotte della Montagna (Nunatak, Review of Mountain Stories, Cultures and Struggles) is a fanzine published by the independent publisher Tabor, based in the Susa Valley.

16 Source: Rainbow for Africa (local NGO) and local activists.

17 See, for instance, Dici, 2018, April 9. “Migrants : Arnaud Murgia dénonce l’irresponsabilité des associations” (

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Cecilia Vergnano, « Supporting Migrants Mobility Across Securitised Borders »Champ pénal/Penal field [En ligne], 23 | 2021, mis en ligne le 20 mai 2021, consulté le 27 janvier 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Cecilia Vergnano

Marie Curie individual fellow at University of Amsterdam
Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research

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