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British tourists on Italian Riviera blissfully unaware of nearby migrant crisis

On a sunny day in Sanremo, a smart holiday town on the Italian Riviera near the French border, Phil Blades is enjoying a walk on the seafront promenade.

“The Mediterranean lifestyle is just amazing,” Mr Blades, a winemaker from Folkestone, tells i near the town’s fort, where the scent of orange trees fills the air. “The sun, the sea, and the temperament of the people are fantastic.”

As visitors flood back to Sanremo for the tourist season, another flow of people is creating a crisis in the nearby town of Ventimiglia as migrants try to reach France and northern Europe.

In Ventimiglia, a 15-minute train ride from Sanremo and 10km from the French border, many are forced to sleep rough on the town’s streets.

Mr Blades, 64, admits that he hadn’t given much thought to the fate of migrants during his holiday. “We see a lot in the news about migration in the South of Italy but haven’t paid as much attention to the French border,” he says.

Sanremo provides plenty of distractions for UK visitors. Filled with olive groves, lemon and orange trees, and multicoloured houses perched on cliffs, it is home to the 19th-century Hôtel de Londres, Hotel d’Angleterre, and the Hôtel de la Grande Bretagne. Today, the town draws visitors mainly from France, Germany and northern Europe, Romana Brioschi, a receptionist at the Hotel Nazionale, tells i.

Famous for the televised Sanremo music festival watched by millions of Italians every year, Ventimiglia also drew attention in 2022 when a €50m yacht owned by Gennady Timchenko, a Russian oligarch with close ties to Vladimir Putin, was seized in its port.

Not far from the holiday town on the Italian Riviera, migrants are sleeping rough as they wait to cross the border to France (Photo: James Imam)

Marianne Stierli, 69, from Switzerland, says she has come for the food and has not paid attention to the migrant issue. “We prefer to see the good things in our life and in the world, not the bad things – it’s better for us,” she says.

Sabrina Massiera, 46, from Grasse in the South of France, says: “We know [the migrants] want to pass the border, but when we arrive by car we don’t really see them.”

In Ventimiglia, however, there are signs everywhere of migrants’ presence. In the early evening, half-a-dozen people of African origin can be seen crouching among tents under a bridge that takes cars over the River Roia towards France. As night draws in, three people who appear to be in their early 20s hover in the foyer of the train station, anxiously staring at the arrivals board. Filippo Lombardo, a volunteer who helps run local food distributions, explains they are passeurs, or smugglers, waiting to sneak migrants across the border.

Most of the 158,000 migrants who reached Italy’s shores last year arrived in rickety boats that reached Lampedusa. Many continue their journey towards other countries, including the UK, via France. The Alpes-Maritimes Département reported they arrested nearly 38,000 at the border in the first 10 months of last year.

France sealed off the border in 2015 following the Charlie Hebdo attack that year, defying the Schengen agreement, which abolishes internal border controls, to carry out spot-checks at train stations, on French streets and up to 20km inside Italy. Those caught have typically been sent back to Italy.

Border closures have led to a surge in people trying to enter France illegally. As trains running from Ventimiglia up the coast to destinations including Nice and Cannes are checked by French and Italian police, many travel on foot through the mountainous Roia Valley. The majority choose to brave the “Pass of Death”, a perilous path that runs past a cliff edge where dozens of migrants have died since 2015.

While Italy closed Ventimiglia’s only reception centre in 2020, claiming it had opened five years earlier on a temporary basis, volunteers distribute daily hot dinners in a car park outside a supermarket, and the church-funded Caritas charity offers lunch, clothing and temporary accommodation for women and children.

Lombardo, 68, and his wife, Loredana, host those trying to reach France at their home in Ventimiglia. They estimate they have given shelter to around 600 so far.

The number of migrants in Ventimiglia has fallen since France’s Council of State accepted in February that turning back migrants at border contrevened EU rules, as ruled by the European Court of Justice last autumn, meaning the French authorities must now carry out more thorough checks.

Maurizio Marmo, director of Ventimiglia Caritas, said 70 migrants were passing the centre each day, down from three times that number last year.

But Serena Calcopietro, a Ventimiglia vice mayor overseeing tourism who was elected for Giorgia Meloni’s populist Brothers of Italy party, said migrants disincentivised tourism because they littered and required a heavy police presence.

She said: “Too many people arrive here and ask: ‘Have I ended up in the Bronx?’”

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