VENTIMIGLIA, Italy (Reuters) - Far from the crowded ‘Jungle’ camp in Calais where migrants try to smuggle themselves aboard trucks bound for Britain, hundreds more are risking their lives to enter the other end of France from northern Italy.
The frontier between Italy’s Ventimiglia and Menton in southern France is already known as ‘Mini Calais’ - and the problem may get bigger. Just this week, Italian coastguards have rescued more than 10,000 migrants who set out from Libya on the north coast of Africa.
Nightly, people who have fled war in countries such as Sudan and Libya set out from Red Cross and Caritas camps on the Italian side in the hope that they can negotiate the 5-6 km (3.1 to 3.7 miles) of mountain passes and tunnels and enter France unnoticed.
“This is my eighth attempt,” says Hassan, a young man who set out from Sudan’s Darfur region five years ago and has made it this far despite a childhood injury that left him with a walking handicap.
A record 65.3 million people were uprooted worldwide last year, with wars in Syria and Africa responsible for a large part of a 50 percent surge in just five years, the United Nations refugee agency said in a report in June. That means 1 in every 113 people on the planet is now a refugee, asylum-seeker or internally displaced person.
“Italy No, Italy No,” chants one group of young migrants among those playing cat-and-mouse with French border guards.
“Personally, I want to get to Montpellier because a French lady I met on a boat spoke about it,” said Magdi, who left Sudan last January, crossing Chad, Niger and Libya before making it to Ventimiglia.
One of his attempts to enter France 10 days ago was aborted when a fellow-migrant was hit by a train and seriously injured while walking along the tracks.
For those who get further than Magdi and his companion, there is every chance of being sent straight back.
The local police department in the Alpes-Maritimes region of France says 1,521 migrants were arrested last week, of whom 94 percent were returned. So far this year, total arrests in the area are 24,344.
European Union law says migrants must apply for asylum in the country where they first enter the bloc, and Italy is increasingly struggling to deal with the growing numbers.
Writing by Brian Love; Editing by Andrew Callus and Mark Trevelyan