A rainy midday scene on my way to Vintimiglia

Une manifestation en soutien aux migrants à la gare de Menton-Garavan, frontière franco-italienne, le 16 décembre 2017. @Valery HACHE / AFP

Par Emma Pascal

They hide there

says the policeman, pointing at the black plastic accordion connecting the wagons, “but on the other side”. He means the side of the train not facing this platform. That is why his colleague is on the Ventimiglia platform, casually pacing up and down, looking for migrants hiding among electric cables and plastic tubes, precariously standing between the wagons.

The others are going through the train from the front and the back. They come out with a man. He is thin. To see him encircled by a group of eight policemen right after reaching the French side of the border, looks like defeat and disappointment.

“That’s Eritrea”

“Somalia. Same thing”

“No, not at all, and now I can recognize them”

“A country that’s not even at war anymore”, one of them adds.

They gesture for him to sit down. They pat him down as a security check and write down his name. They aren’t violent or aggressive. The first hand on the back almost looks like one of reassurance, and to get his name, a policeman says in bad English: “I am John, and you?”.

I can’t help but stare as they bring him into a civilian van and drive away. The man cooperates. Once you’re caught, what can you do?

I’’ve witnessed people getting arrested in Garavan a few times now. The scene feels wrong every time. There is no obvious physical violence. It’s the policemen’s blasé disconnection from their daily task that is chilling – along with seeing someone’s dream being abruptly smashed in a matter of minutes.

How natural is it to prevent some people from crossing into our home? To let them rot on a beach one town away, because they are labeled as illegal. This distinction between people is institutionalized to the point where some people’s job is to stand around at a countryside station and catch those who try to cross. A sad adult game of hide and seek.

The van leaves. One policeman who stayed at the station helps people buy their tickets at the machine. There’s not much to do between the trains. Before the train with the man in it came, they were joking and laughing together, discussing what to get at a nearby café.

These men aren’t bad guys. They are simply executing the will of a strangely rigid system. They have internalized its values and norms, and just like most people, they do not question them. Of course, we need countries and borders. Of course, we can’t just let anyone in. 

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