Like many travellers, I discovered Ventimiglia through its train station and it was my first time in the Italian border city, the closest city to the French border. It was night-time and, again like most travellers, I was exhausted from a long journey by train. I was lucky enough that my contact person, a child protection officer working for an NGO was there to welcome me and show me the way to my accommodation. Being a foreigner, alone in a new city at night, I truly appreciated this kind gesture. Over the next days, I discovered the many faces of the city with its luxurious town centre and its bright seafront. On the one side, the city seemed wealthy and prosperous, like a holiday destination with souvenir and liquor shops flourishing in the streets while visitors from Nice and Monaco would swarm the city on Fridays and Saturdays to buy fresh products at the market. A little further, beyond the river, the old city with its colourful houses spreads over the height of the mountains. On the other side, by the Roja river, near the high bridge was the migrant settlement and further, along the highway there was the official transit camp managed by the Italian Red Cross.
The reality of transit migration reconfigured the dynamics of the place, highlighting the politics of international migration at the micro-level of a city. I stayed there from November to December 2017 and from February to March 2018. My main goal was to interview unaccompanied minors who were trying to cross the border into France and ask them about their well-being and living conditions.
Every day around 10am, the nearby local office of Caritas would open its gates and proceed with food distribution, medical visits and interviews with protection officers to inform the migrants about their rights. Each person handed in a ticket and in exchange received a big plate of beans, soup and bread accompanied by a glass of very hot tea. Some inhabitants from neighbouring villages in France came to donate some food, blankets and clothes to Caritas and to help with the distributions. A little further on the same street, people would wait for the Info Point to open its doors. The place was run by a group of local volunteer organisations and was mainly an internet point but offered many resources in reality. There, people charged their mobile phones and use the computers, and in the basement, there was a big storage room where the migrants could look for new clothes or bags. The famous white and blue colours of the Facebook page were dominant on the computers’ screens, but there was no time to lose if they needed to write messages or find information online: the users were allotted a 30-minute online session per day before giving up their seat to someone else who was waiting. While some were waiting to use the computers, others stayed in the little room to escape the cold streets for a few hours. For those staying under the bridge, being able to charge their phone during the day to remain in contact with family members and friends elsewhere was of critical importance to their well-being and the pursuit of their journeys.
NGOs and volunteers were collaborating in this environment, sharing spaces and resources with the wellbeing of the people on the move as a common priority. The staff from the NGOs invited me to their daily briefings at ‘the Hobbit’ coffee, where they provided some updates on the current situation, the difficulties brought by the cold weather, new arrivals, the evolution of the needs and the identification of vulnerable persons. As a researcher doing participant observation, it was reassuring to be involved with a group of volunteers and local NGOs. First, to have a better understanding of the whole situation in terms of arrivals and daily needs of the different groups (men, minors, women, mothers with infants and unaccompanied boys and girls). Second, having such a referral network helped me to respond efficiently when emergencies happened near the camp or in the city. For instance, while reaching out to unaccompanied minors with my interpreter, we would encounter newcomers in need of information. Having a clear idea of the different missions of the NGOs and being able to refer these people to them felt like a way to give something back to the aid workers and volunteers, but also to the people on the move and not only to the group targeted in my research.
The shape and size of the settlement changed over the course of my visits. During my daily walks, my respondents guided me and explained the functioning of the settlement. One boy explained to me that in one area all the people from Eritrea and Ethiopia were gathered together, then the migrants from countries such as Sudan, the Gambia, Nigeria, and so on. At first, there were not so many tents but through the winter and due to the biting cold, over the months, the settlement became a little village. A large area had been delimited with stones and a carpet to organise what seemed to be a place of worship.
After my arrival, I spent some time with a group of Ethiopian and Eritrean minors. Being aware of my researcher position, we would meet for a short while every day, sometimes doing interviews, or killing their free time since most of them were spending the day waiting. They were waiting to try the crossing of the border later in the day. This ‘trying’ isn’t a random activity though, there are basic rules and rhythms that one needs to respect to be successful. So, one needs to keep busy while waiting for ‘trying’. Together, we tried to fill in the time by playing cards, walking along the seaside and looking for some graffiti together around the bridge area since I explained to them that collecting graffiti was also part of my work as a researcher. Doing interviews wasn’t easy, and we often struggled to find a safe and private place. Some minors slept under the bridge, a few of whom had tents but the majority only had dirty blankets to protect themselves from the seaside breeze brought by the river.
The migrant settlement under the bridge was reshaped several times during my fieldwork, some cabins were destroyed while new ones were built. But several months after, it was burnt to the ground in 2018. When I returned to the camp with my research team in June 2019, only the graffiti and paintings on the walls remained to testify of these lives in transit.