A volunteer-run shelter in Briançon which has provided refuge and food for migrants travelling into France via Italy over high mountain passes is facing closure at the end of this month as a newly-elected Republican mayor, Arnaud Murgia, has declined to renew the building's occupancy agreement. The project was launched in 2017 and has assisted over 11,000 migrants who have crossed the Mediterranean Sea and mountain passes en route from African nations and from as far as Afghanistan. A petition against the closure has attracted nearly 37,000 signatures, and Médecins du Monde (Doctors of the World) have expressed their concerns as the winter season approaches amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Following the Paris terrorist attacks in 2015, President Macron reinstated border controls with Italy, forcing thousands of migrants reaching Europe via the Mediterranean Sea to change their planned onward route through the heavily-policed Ventimiglia-Menton border in the south and instead push north to the Roya Valley or further through the high cols of Montgenèvre and l'Echelle to reach Briançon.
In the last three years, there have been five deaths and three migrants left with serious injuries from hypothermia, falls and frostbite while travelling in snowy, winter conditions at altitude in this region. Mountain guides, climbers and volunteer locals have conducted maraudes (searches) at night and in poor weather to seek migrants in need of aid, often putting themselves at risk of committing a soldarity act. Occasionally, they have discovered corpses in melting snow at the turn of spring.
The refuge near Briançon train station was set up by the activist group Tous Migrants ('We are all migrants') and the association Refuges Solidaires with the support of the mayor's socialist predecessor and local authorities in 2017 to provide temporary shelter, food and medical aid to migrants travelling in often inhospitable conditions.
Last month, in his role as President of the Briançon Community of Communes (CCB), Mr Murgia refused to renew the building's occupancy agreement on the grounds of 'serious negligence in the management of the premises and their occupants' and has requested the building be vacated by October 28, in addition to the closure of a technical base for volunteers. Three COVID-19 cases temporarily closed the facility in September, but it has since reopened. In a statement on Facebook, Mr Murgia distanced himself from the permanent closure. He wrote (translated):
'I am not the person closing the Refuge Solidaire. When our team was elected, they were already housed without right or title in the former CRS barracks, because it was my predecessor who did not renew their lease, which expired at the beginning of June*, before the elections [28th June]. It is easy to forget this now by targeting me as an enemy, but the reality is that even my predecessors knew that this situation was becoming untenable. I would also like to remind you that I am in no way forbidding them to continue their activities (I would not have the right to do so anyway!) but that the current situation, managed in this way in a communal building, is no longer tenable.'
*Tous Migrants state that the occupancy agreement expired on 30 June (post-election), which contradicts Mr Murgia's mention of 'the beginning of June.'
Mr Murgia continued:
'We need to stop the moralising speech that our country deliberately lets people die in the mountains because they cross the border. To date, whenever a person, whatever his nationality or his right to be in France, has found himself in difficulty, the PGHM, the CRS Alpes or the fire brigade have always intervened. This is the dignity of our country. It has also been its honour for so long: in France, we don't let anyone die. This in no way diminishes the role of the association's leaders, but it must be said: the State plays and must continue to play its role. And when it doesn't do it enough, we must turn to it, and not to a mayor. My position, whatever the caricatures that one may try to make of it, is Republican. It will remain so.'
Without the refuge, locals and medical organisations have voiced concerns in the media that migrants will be forced to roam the streets and mountains in freezing conditions this winter, and that the town and its residents will be placed under increased pressure due to the complications of COVID-19 and the issues surrounding the provision of shelter and food in their own homes. The petition launched by Tous Migrants states:
'The mayor's decision, if carried out, would result in the migrants being thrown onto the streets, leaving them with no alternative but to sleep in public spaces, when night temperatures are already approaching zero degrees in Briançon, and it is physically impossible to survive outside in the middle of winter. In doing so, the Mayor would create the conditions for a real humanitarian drama, with new deaths in the mountains and on our doorstep. He would bear full moral responsibility for this.
'Beyond that, it would be a serious infringement of the right of associations and volunteers to organise themselves to bring help. By demanding the closure of these two complementary sites, which are essential for the smooth running of humanitarian operations, the new mayor is weakening the local community and volunteer-based system and is turning his back on the most basic mountain solidarity.'
The citizen movement earned a special mention in a human rights prize for the refuge initiative and associated work in 2019. A Tous Migrants spokesperson, Alan Rousseau, has described Mr Murgia's move as 'a form of authoritarianism mixed with xenophobic ideas.' Paméla Palvaudeau of Médecins du Monde told Le Dauphiné:
'I don't see why we should put an end to something that was working well and sufficiently through this local, citizen solidarity dynamic. In any case, Médecins du Monde will continue to support the refuge. We think it's unacceptable that this refuge should close. We will document the impact on the health of the people impacted by the closure and it's a mistake to believe that because it's closing, people won't continue to cross borders. They will continue to do so, but in an even poorer state of health.'
Since 2018, nine people in the Briançonnais have been prosecuted for aiding unlawful passage. Despite the so-called 'crime of solidarity' offence being reviewed by French lawmakers in 2018 to include a humanitarian exemption for facilitation of movement, the exemption does not apply to cases of 'facilitation of irregular entry.'
After twelve years of left-wing politics, this summer Briançon's local governance has shifted to the right through the election of Mr Murgia. Right-wing groups including French youth nationalist group, Génération Identitaire, have previously mobilised in the region's mountains on ski pistes to form a barrier as a deterrent to migrants. Marine Le Pen and the National Rally (formerly the French National Front) has approved Mr Murgia's decision, while condemning 'the seditious left':
'The new mayor wants to turn the page after too many years of spending public money without any health precautions. In spite of electoral promises not always followed by action, we must now hope that the new mayor of Briançon will not give in to the seditious left.'
In an op-ed, French journalist and editor-in-chief of Alpine Mag, Ulysse Lefebvre, wrote:
'Mountain solidarity does not depend on a political colour. It depends even less on the courage of one man or the fear of another. It is in everyone. It is everywhere.'[...]
'As all too often, we will have to fight against authority, with the unpleasant feeling of wasting time, energy and perhaps lives. The choice of ballot box does not legitimise everything. Above all, people continue to cross borders. They are there and in distress. Whether we like it or not.'