23rd Mar 2018

Alpine village dragged into Brenner refugee dispute

A mayor of a small Alpine village in northern Italy sighed with relief when a plan to erect a barrier at the border with Austria to stem migrant flows was temporarily shelved last week.

Austria had threatened to set up a fence in April in a move widely criticised by the EU commission and Italy. Italy's prime minister at the time said a barrier would be “utterly removed from reality” and a “flagrant breach of European rules”.

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  • Migrants denied boarding a train to Munich at the Brenner rail station (Photo: Alice Latta)

Construction has since stopped and tensions calmed. But nearby villages on the Italian side of the border remain on edge.

Colle Isarco is a picturesque village surrounded by snow-peaked mountains and green verdure and forests. Some of the elderly residents still wear traditional dress and hats decorated with feathers.

Only a few kilometres south of the Brenner Pass, a major border point between Austria and Italy, the village has reluctantly been dragged into decisions made in Brussels, Vienna and even parts of Africa.

"Once I had only to think about my region but that time is gone. That time is gone. I never thought that European politics, that world politics could influence the life of our area. But it is so," the village's left-leaning mayor Franz Kompatscher, told EUobserver.

Born in a house 50 metres away from his town hall office and elected to his post in 2009, Kompatscher is now having to make decisions that take into account the welfare of future refugees without upsetting his staunch Catholic constituents.

That includes keeping secret a contingency plan to disperse up to several hundred refugees a day to surrounding villages should a sudden influx occur over the coming months.

"The plan is ready but not known to the public. It will be presented if it is necessary but it is all planned. No community is very happy if they have tomorrow a building, a refugee centre, so the local government wants to keep the situation calm," he said.

Colle Isarco relies on tourism but it is struggling. Its biggest hotel stands empty. Nearby, a military barracks has 500 available beds.

Neither would be used to house migrants should there be a sudden influx. South Tyrol is already home to some 1,200 asylum seekers and refugees. Under current plans, numbers are limited to 50 per village.

But figures from the UN refugee agency show more are now arriving in Italy than Greece. Over 33,000 landed in Italy since the start of the year and many are attracted to Germany after chancellor Angela Merkel announced an open door policy last year.

Despite holding Italian passports, Kompatscher and most of the German-speaking people in the South Tyrol province tend to identify strongly with their Austrian roots. The wealthy autonomous province once belonged to the Austrians but was annexed by Italy following the first world war in 1918.

The move by Vienna to erect a physical barrier at the Brenner Pass was met with shock and derision.

"To close this border, for us it is like removing the umbilical cord to the fatherland because for us Austria is our fatherland," said Martha Stocker, the South Tyrol provincial official in charge of migration and sport.

Construction for the 370m fence at the Brenner Pass had started earlier this month amid broader fears in Vienna that many more refugees were likely to land in Italy over the summer. Many are hoping to reach Germany but must first travel through Austria.

A presidential election in Austria has cast doubt on Vienna's decision to entirely halt construction of the border barrier. Norbert Hofer, a far-right candidate for the Freedom Party of Austria, is a favourite for the second round on Sunday (22 May).

And his anti-EU rhetoric during the campaign has made Stocker nervous. "If Hofer is the next the president, we'll have a problem as well for the South Tyroleans," she said.

Afghans passing into Italy from Austria

In an added twist, Afghan nationals are trickling across the Alpine border at the Brenner Pass from Austria into Italy out of fear of being returned home. Local authorities say around 200 have arrived since December after Germany designated parts of Afghanistan safe enough to return people denied international protection.

The move is in sharp contrast to the thousands of African nationals seeking to cross the mountainous border terrain from Italy into Austria in a bid to reach Germany.

Brenner, the small town that straddles the border at some 1,400m altitude, is home to around 350 people. Around half are from Pakistan.

The town is also host to dozens of security officers with regular patrols at its train station conducted by German, Italian, and Austrian police. The trilateral patrols were launched at the end of 2013 but boosted after Austria's interior minister Wolfgang Sobotka last week backed down from plans to erect the fence at the pass to stem migrant flows.

"At the end, the result of the Austrian policy is that the Italian police are now controlling more on the trains and all over," said Stocker.

'I don't want to sleep in the streets'

For Musa D, a 35-year old from Mali with no documents, the Austria barrier threat is a reality he faces only a few hundred metres from the border.

At the Brenner rail station, he breaks down in tears after having spent a second night on the floor with little prospect for a better future.

"I don't want to sleep in the streets, I can't do it," he says, adding that he arrived in Libya in 2010 to work as a mechanic but fled when war erupted. He paid a smuggler some 1,200 Libyan dinars (€818) to cross the Mediterranean with 115 other people. His asylum request in Italy was denied.

But Musa D's story, and many others like it, is posing big questions of what to do with people whose applications have been rejected and who are also unable to return home given the lack of readmission agreements.

With no rights and unable or willing to be sent home, many find themselves in a legal limbo, on the streets, wandering about aimlessly. Aid organisation Caritas estimates 70,000 in Italy will face this fate.

Musa D, along with around a dozen other African nationals from places like The Gambia and Senegal, had been hoping to board a noon train to Munich.

Two teenage boys, who arrived in Italy alone, were also at the station.

Biniyem W, a 16-year-old from Eritrea, landed on Italy's Mediterranean island of Lampedusa earlier this month after being rescued on a boat near the Libyan coast.

Asked if he had received any aid or legal council upon landing, the boy said no. Visibly frightened, Biniyem spoke in a nearly inaudible voice and then turned silent. His travel companion, who translated Biniyem's Arabic, said the boy was confused.

But his Italian-issued papers, seen by EUobserver, confirmed his age, date of arrival, and nationality. Eritreans have a high chance of receiving asylum.

Adem H, a 15-year old from Ethiopia, had also arrived two months ago. A local charity near the station run by Voluntarius helps with food, drinks, and some other aid. But other than that, they are largely left to fend for themselves.

Most who now attempt to cross into Austria on international trains don't ever make it to Brenner. Many are pulled off trains as far away as Verona or in nearby Bolzano, some 80km south.

'If you escaped death, you cannot return'

Vipiteno is a small town and is a five-minute drive from Colle Isarco. Hidden from view on a dirt road that leads uphill past a abandoned military barrack is a former administrative building.

Around 44 young men from central Africa are now living in it. Run by Caritas Italy, the facility has two kitchens and can house up to 50 people if needed.

Some have been there for almost year and pass their time playing cards, table football, or taking hikes or ski trips in planned excursions.

Each has a temporary work permit and receives €8 a day in cash to pay for food. The centre was opened last October and is one of 14 in the province. Asked to explain why they left their home countries, few give details.

"I left for social reasons," said Moucta D, a 25-year old from Senegal. He applied for asylum over a year ago but he is still waiting for a response. He can appeal twice. But if the final appeal is negative, he will be on his own.

"If it's negative, it's clear we cannot stay. But if you escaped death, you cannot return," he says.

Paolo Valente, the Caritas director for region, said they all ask for asylum to give them some sort of legal status while in Italy. "It's the only way they can stay legally in Italy," he said.

Valente said a backlog of applications means it usually takes around 18 months to get a response.

If positive, they can receive subsidiary protection, refugee status or humanitarian status. Another, who did not want to be named, said he arrived in Europe because Western powers are destroying lives and causing conflicts elsewhere.

"You make war and conflict in our region of the world, so we come and live in yours," he said.

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Niger has temporarily stopped all evacuations from Libya detention centres under an EU funded programme because so few are being resettled to Europe. Many of those that have been evacuated are pregnant, with some asking for HIV testing.

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Money should flow despite concerns about the Turkish regime, the Commission said. EU should "pressure" African states to take back unwanted migrants, it added.

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The EU got "limited" effect for the €9bn it spent trying to modernise Turkey in recent years, auditors have said. Turkey has been "backsliding" on reforms since 2013 due to "lack of political will", the European Court of Auditors found.

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