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After Italy Turns Against Migrants, They Attempt Crossing Into France


In Europe, mass migration is down by a lot. In 2018, about 110,000 migrants crossed into Europe by sea. There were more than a million in 2015. Now, many of them arrived in Italy. But this year, the Italian government took an anti-migrant turn. So now migrants who risk their lives to get into Italy are risking their lives to get out. Christopher Livesay has the story.


CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY, BYLINE: It's the first official day of ski season in Italy's Susa Valley, just across the French border.


LIVESAY: Children scoot their way onto the bunny slopes. Others make snow angels. But if you venture deeper into these woods after nightfall, a dark and sometimes deadly scene unfolds.


LIVESAY: A Red Cross van has picked up a 28-year-old African migrant just after midnight. His pulse is weak and his breathing shallow - classic symptoms of hypothermia. It's only 10 degrees outside. He's not even wearing a jacket. One of his rescuers, Alessia Amendola, pours him some hot tea.


ALESSIA AMENDOLA: Immigrants are trying to go from Italy to France illegally, of course. And we are on the mountains, so it's really dangerous because they don't even know what they are going to face.

LIVESAY: Moments later, they pick up another migrant, delirious from the freezing cold. His eyes roll back as he collapses into the van.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Italian).

LIVESAY: Again, hypothermia and possibly frostbite to his hands and feet - for a moment, he wakes up. He says he's only 14 years old.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Italian).

LIVESAY: Scenes like these are a nightly occurrence in this border region, where in 2018, an estimated 5,000 migrants have attempted to cross into France. Some make it, others do not. Paolo Narcisi is a doctor and the president of Italian NGO Rainbow 4 Africa.

PAOLO NARCISI: (Through interpreter) We found several bodies of migrants this spring during the thaw. But some bodies we'll never recover because there are wild animals or the bodies decompose. If you don't know the way, it's easy to wind up off a cliff. And no one will ever find you.

LIVESAY: To understand why migrants are taking such deadly risks to leave Italy, look no further than Matteo Salvini. He's both the country's vice premier and interior minister. In late November, his government passed a law that eliminates humanitarian grounds for granting asylum to people who aren't fleeing political persecution or war. He defends the hardline stance on Italian broadcaster RAI just days after the law passed.

MATTEO SALVINI: (Through interpreter) You're not fleeing war. you're not escaping torture. What do you have to do? Go back to your country. We already have five million Italians living in poverty, so I can't host hundreds of thousands of other people from the rest of the world.

LIVESAY: The United Nations has blasted the law for making it harder for migrants to access shelters. Thousands are feared to wind up on the streets.


LIVESAY: Two of them are Abdul Razak and Harouna Waija, both 22-year-olds from Ghana. Razak left because of poverty, he says; Waija because he converted from Islam to Christianity and his family wanted to kill him as a result, he says. I met them in a train station on the French border as they suited up to cross the Alps. It's the first time they've ever seen snow.

Are you wearing two pairs of pants or just one?


LIVESAY: Five pairs of pants.

WAIJA: Yes (laughter).

LIVESAY: Razak says he understands the risks but has nothing to lose. They've been sleeping on the streets for months. The mountains can't be much worse.

ABDUL RAZAK: No, I'm worried. But I have to try. I want a better life.

LIVESAY: They agree to let me follow along. We're joined by four other French-speaking migrants.


LIVESAY: It's pitch black outside - easier to evade detection but also easier to get lost. They ask me for directions.


LIVESAY: Capito. It's my first time here. I've never been here before either.

A passerby pulls over and points them toward the border, so they change course. And soon, we're just a few feet from a French flag as well as French border patrol.

(Whispering) So we're looking ahead at the French border. What's that?


LIVESAY: If they get any closer, they risk getting caught.

The group has just decided to take their chances in the woods in the freezing cold and ankle-deep snow. To our left, there's a ravine that appears they want to cross because on the other side, it's completely covered in trees.

I walk with them for about 200 yards.

(Whispering) The snow comes up to my knees.

Until I decide it's too dangerous and say goodbye. The next morning, I get a call from Abdul Razak. He made it to France. But after four hours of wandering in the snow, French police eventually caught him and sent him back to Italy. I catch up with him at a nearby hospital.


LIVESAY: We've come to look for his compatriot from Ghana, Harouna Waija. The nurse says he was treated for exposure. But after a few hours on an IV drip, he'll be OK.

Was it worth it? I mean, you could have died.

WAIJA: Yes. Yesterday, the cold was freezing me. It's very difficult. It's not a good way.

LIVESAY: Do you regret it?

WAIJA: Yes. Yes, I'm regret.

LIVESAY: For now, the two are resigned about staying in Italy, at least for the winter. Once spring comes and the snow melts, that's another story, they say. The seasons will change. Italy's crackdown on migrants might not. For NPR News, I'm Christopher Livesay in the Susa Valley, Italy.

(SOUNDBITE OF NILS FRAHM'S "FOUR HANDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Livesay