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Path of Hope in heavy use again as EU migrant crisis deepens

For hundreds of years waves of refugees from war and persecution have trodden the Cammino della Speranza through the Alps between Italy and France. Photo: Nick Miller A hole in the fence at the border beckons refugees from sub-Saharan Africa trying to get from Italy to France. Photo: Marco Panzetti
Nanjing Night Net

Too steep in spots, the Path of Hope is also known as the Path of Death. Photo: Nick Miller

For generations, hope and death have walked the steep, crumbling mountain tracks. Photo: Nick Miller

One of the tracks, in heavy use again. Photo: Nick Miller

The tracks weave through the mountains. Photo: Nick Miller

On the Path of Hope refugees seek to evade border policing on road and rail routes between France and Italy. Photo: Nick Miller

A makeshift refugee camp has sprung up on the Italian side of the border with France. Photo: Nick Miller

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Grimaldi, Italy: I ask an old man in Grimaldi’s little village square where I can find the Path of Hope, the Cammino della Speranza.

“No, no,” he says, in pieces of Italian, French and English: “Non, non. Il Passo della Morte. The Pass of Death. Not possible.” He mimes with his hands a steep drop, as if falling over a cliff.

“Whsssshhh,” he says, to clear up any possible misunderstanding.

There is a trail with a storied history that runs over the Alps where they stoop to the sea and divide France from Italy.

It was recently dubbed The Path of Hope. But its other, older name is the Pass of Death.

For generations, hope and death have walked the steep, crumbling mountain tracks that cross the French-Italian border.

In the dust lie old footsteps: of anti-fascists who fled Mussolini, Jews fleeing anti-Semitism, Yugoslavs fleeing genocide and war, and Tunisians from the tumult of the Arab Spring.

Thousands have tried, hundreds died.

And now the drama is being restaged. Migrants, refugees, people smugglers and border guards play their traditional roles.

You could take the romantic view, and see ghosts cursed to re-enact a recurring tragedy.

Or you can just recognise the cliche: those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Between France’s Menton and Italy’s Ventimiglia​ the Alps greet the Mediterranean with one last, blunt cliff face.

If you’re a local or a tourist you barely notice the border on the motorway and the train line that tunnels through the mountain, or the wave-through checkpoints on the low road near the sea or the high road up the cliff.

But if you are one of the hundreds of refugees who survived the Mediterranean from sub-Saharan Africa via Libya then travelled north from Sicily, the way is blocked.

French border guards shine torches into cars at night and turn back anyone with a black face and no “documentation”. Scores of officers wait at the first few train stations in France, patrol the carriages demanding passports from passengers, then bundle refugees into police vans back across the border.

Refugee advocates – and Italian officials – say it is an outrage, that France has no right to deny their entry.

“If they are managing to cross the border, good for them. If I knew where the other crossing points were, I would suggest them,” Enrico Ioculano​,mayor of Ventimiglia, told the media.

But France cites EU rules that refugees without visas must stay in their country of arrival for processing.

A bottleneck has developed. The pressure built up and found a weak spot: the old paths across the mountain.

“Throughout history, the Pass of Death has been used by migrants,” says Enzo Barnaba, a local historian who lives in Grimaldi, the village closest to the border where the path begins.

This year he and other locals from both sides of the border spent a day clearing brush from the track and putting up helpful signs, holding a “friendship picnic” at the border.

“Someone accused us of creating a highway for migrants, but we do not care,” he told an Italian newspaper.

Via a translator, he tells stories of the tracks to France.

The most remarkable involves controversial physician Serge Voronoff​, who owned a villa metres from the border up in the mountains in the 1930s.

He was famous for his work grafting thin slices of testicles from chimpanzees and baboons into the scrotums of old men, on the theory it would rejuvenate their memory and sex lives. While the treatment was in vogue he set up a “monkey gland” farm in the grounds of the villa – but also worked a lucrative sideline charging migrants to sneak over the border via the grounds.

Then there were the passeurs, people smugglers that history fetes as heroes, miners and farmers who helped Jewish refugees along the path to France (and smuggled back a few choice goods to make the return journey worthwhile).

“There have always been people doing this,” Barnaba says.

These days the refugees are mostly sub-Saharan Africans fleeing war or persecution, who survived the dangerous sea crossing from Libya to Sicily then continued north. Locals charge €70-€80 ($103-$118) a head, pack refugees into cars and cross to France in the mountains, where police are less vigilant.

But for refugees without the money to pay for a lift there are other ways around the roadblocks and patrols: walking trails across the mountain.

As dusk falls they furtively climb into the hills, through Grimaldi’s Piazza Angelo Custodi (Square of the Guardian Angel), and stumble along old tracks under moonlight through the humid subtropical air of the region’s microclimate.

One of the paths, the easiest to find, plays a cruel trick. After ducking through the border fence at the mountain peak the track disappears. It looks like the best way is to scramble down the slope. But do that and you quickly come to a precipitous drop.

In the twilight, or at night, it is hard to see the danger until it’s too late. This is where many of the 150 deaths between 1945 and 1955 occurred. There was a farmer below the cliff who mourned the bodies that fell into his fields. Now, says Barnaba, that farmer’s grandson fears history will repeat.

“They get stuck, and lost,” Barnaba says. Three months ago, helicopters came to save a Sudanese man clinging to the cliff face. Now, choppers regularly patrol the heights and French rescue workers complain about having to make the steep climb again and again.

But the Italians are keen for the refugees to find a way. Some for altruistic reasons, others … not so much.

Anna-Maria owns a cafe on the sea front in Ventimiglia, a tourist town close to the border, home to the last train station before France.

She says it is disastrous for business. Since word spread that refugees were camping on the beach and sitting in the parks, tourists have deserted the town.

“It is a big problem,” she says. “I have lost too much, too much, 70 per cent down in three months. It’s crazy. It is a big problem for Ventimiglia restaurants and shops.

“People want a vacation where there is not a problem.”

The problem is not just in Ventimiglia. Radio tells similar stories in other migrant-heavy towns coping with the thousands who have crossed from Africa.

“We had a big problem with our economy, we worked a lot to make it good, [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel was happy for us, but then the immigrants came and all our sacrifice is gone,” Anna-Maria says. “We have to help them, but not here where the situation is hard already.” She assures me she is not a racist – she is a good Catholic and the Pope says they should care for the needy. But the more she pours her heart out, the stronger the tinge of xenophobia.

She tells me the refugees “don’t know how to work”, they are Muslims (“musulmani”) who want to replace Catholicism with Islam. She says they should stay in their own country.

She’s angry. She came to work this morning, for another long day in her near-empty cafe, and walked past a refugee “tranquil” on a bench in the park.

She mimes him stretching and smiling. “‘Ah, bella’, like that, in the garden. And me, I have to open my restaurant, with all the bills.

“It’s not correct.”

Up at the train station groups of refugees sit in the shade, waiting to try the trains across the border (or waiting for night, when they risk the tracks and tunnels and dodge the occasional night train). They also gather here because the Red Cross has set up camp to feed and look after them.

Those here don’t want to talk, nervous about undercover police who try to catch the people smugglers.

“It’s not good,” one says.

A few kilometres down the road, at the border, a makeshift camp has sprung up on the rocks, a few hundred metres from a sign on the French side that boasts with accidental cruelty, “Menton, pearl of France, is happy to welcome you”.

On the Italian side, signs spraypainted onto sheets declare stubbornly “we are not going back”. In June, all 50 migrants in the camp were bundled into police vans and moved on, but more have taken their place.

At night, volunteers from France and Italy distribute food and advise on applying for asylum in France. About 100 refugees sit on the rocks, the sea wall or on blankets underneath the trees.

One of them, Ahmed, 23, says he fled war in Sudan two years ago, making his way across the Sahara to Libya, then “through the sea” to Sicily. The Italians settled him at a refugee centre in Naples, but “I want to be in the UK”, he says.

“I know how to speak English, this will help with study. I want to learn but it’s so hard to be in a new country and study their language.” He tried to cross the border by train but was arrested at Cannes.

“They asked me about documents – I don’t have documents.”

He was sent back here in a van, and for the last two weeks has been at a bit of a loss, sleeping on the rocks.

“This is our house, we have nothing,” he says.

I ask him if he has heard about the Path of Hope.

He looks shifty.

Yes, some people have tried it, he says.

But he doesn’t want to talk about it.

It is a secret still treasured by the most desperate of Europe’s lost.

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