Pass of Death: The treacherous route taken by migrants trying to cross illegally from Italy to France

Photo by Edoardo Marangon, used with permission.

Emanuele Bussa and Edoardo Marangon are Italian freelance journalists. Through their interest in the migration crisis that has hit Italy since 2015, they decided to cover the journey of migrants trying to reach France by passing through the border in northern Italy. They traveled along the perilous path followed by migrants to enter France illegally in order to tell their stories and experience first-hand the challenges of traveling on that route. 

The narrow path twists and turns along the side of the mountains around the little valley where the stream St. Louis flows, leading to the ridge over the French city of Menton, a stone’s throw away from the Italian border. The passage is called the Pass of Death but was recently renamed the Path of Rags because of the clothes, bags, and suitcases abandoned by the migrants who travel along the trail trying to enter the French border unnoticed. The path represents the most extreme attempt these people make to reach France, usually after a long and dangerous journey beginning on the coasts of Africa or the Middle East.

Many of them arrived in southern Italy after crossing the Mediterranean Sea and then traveled by train or on foot to Grimaldi, the last Italian town before the French border. They try to legally get into France at St. Louis Bridge. However, they are usually rejected and escorted back to the Italian police station nearby, where they wait for the shuttle that will bring them back to the Italian city of Ventimiglia. The next day, they return to try again and again, like Mohamed, a 16-year-old boy from Guinea who is desperately trying to go to Paris.

“My brother is there, but I cannot get past the border. When I first arrived in Lampedusa, I was registered as born in 2005, but my birth certificate states that I was born in 2007. I get rejected every time by the French police. I do not know where to go. I think I will try the route through the mountains.”

Some of them cannot wait anymore; they run out of options as they cannot legally pass the frontier, or they do not have enough money to pay the “passeurs” to smuggle them through the border. Therefore, the hope of a better life in France or in the United Kingdom leads them to challenge the Pass of Death, accessible from a path that starts in Superior Grimaldi, a few kilometers above St. Louis Bridge. The trail has been used since the 1890s, as stated by Enzo Barnabà, lecturer of French Literature, who lives in Grimaldi and recently started to focus on studying migration flows.

Professor Enzo Barnabà. Photo by Edoardo Marangon, used with permission.

“The path was initially used by smugglers and Italians who wanted to enter France without going through customs. Then, during fascism, many workers, anti-fascists and Italian Jews travelled through the Pass of Death to enter France. Many of them died, as, once past the border, the path leads to a cliff. Many migrants and refugees did not know the right way, as they used to get through the pass at night, and many of them fell from the cliff. Therefore, the trail got the infamous name of ‘Pass of Death.'”

The path was then almost forgotten, and no one used it for almost 60 years, but, in 2015, Barnabà started his own project to clean up the trail for its historical value.

“I and some volunteers finished the cleaning in May 2015, and we wanted to rename the trail the Pass of Hope. However, a few months later, the first huge migratory wave hit Italy, and many of these people reached the pass to continue their journey.”

Barnabà is known as the “Keeper of the Pass of Death.” He likes talking to the migrants, gives them directions to avoid dangers, and listens to their stories:

I am just an observer. However, I try to help these people; many of them are just kids, and I firmly believe that the future of Europe rests on their frail shoulders.

Hole in the fence along the French border. Photo by Edoardo Marangon, used with permission.

The migrants usually start their journey in the evening; they slip through Grimaldi like silent shadows, moving faster as the last hours of daylight fly by. It takes about an hour for them to reach the big hole cut in the fence that defines the border. Along the path, the remains of improvised bivouacs, abandoned sleeping bags, and empty bottles of water emerge from the grass, as well as clothing, shoes and backpacks, which also fill the abandoned houses along the way, sometimes used as temporary refuge by the migrants to rest or spend the night.

They follow the symbols painted on the rocks to guide them along the route; red arrows and crescent red suns show them the right way, and when the darkness arrives, stones painted with photosensitive varnish come to help, like a path of stars, created by the Italian architect Cavalli, which helps them in following the right trail and give them hope.

At least 10 migrants attempt this dangerous journey every day. Amsa from Algeria is one of them; his skin is covered by scars, and his left hand is badly injured; however, he doesn’t stop, eager to reach his destination.

“I lived in Bari for a while, I was homeless, I reached Ventimiglia by train, and now I am headed to Paris,” he said, speaking a mix of French, Italian and Spanish. “I hope to get a job there and find a place to live. I am not afraid of being stopped by the army and the police. It is Saturday; they do not work today.”

He is facing the steepest part of the trail, using the ropes volunteers secured to the trees. He carries just a small bag and a sweater, the only baggage he needs, as he has to move fast.

At sunset, a new bunch of migrants approach the beginning of the path. A group of Sudanese kids run down the initial slope, and they are followed by Assan, a boy from Guinea; he doesn’t speak English, so he cannot communicate with his traveling companions, and they leave him behind. He wears a blue shirt and orange trousers and carries a little backpack. He's lost sight of his friends and does not know which way to follow. He runs as if he was being followed, ignoring that there aren’t soldiers or police to control the pass before the French border. He looks for signs and symbols at every fork to identify the better way to cross the pass, and when night approaches, the stones on the trail start to glow, giving him a clear track to follow.

I came all the way from Lampedusa. I need to reach my brother in Marseille. I do not know the way, but I have to make it.

Photo by Edoardo Marangon, used with permission.

Where the path widens, he suddenly stops to change his trousers to black shorts. “It would be more difficult for the soldiers to see me,” he says, then he keeps running, animated by a mix of hope and fear. He knows that he has only two options: to reach Marseille or to be stopped by the French police and sent back to Italy, but that glimmer of hope is enough for him to keep going, ignoring the fatigue and harshness of the path. He is sure he will make it to the other side. There is no room for hesitation.

Photo by Edoardo Marangon, used with permission.

In Italy there are at least seven passes through the Alps that lead to France, strictly controlled by the French authorities. In Grimaldi, on average, 150 people try to enter France every day, using both legal and illegal means. Those who get caught are brought to the police station in Menton, where they wait all night to be sent back to Italy in the morning. They are taken into custody by the Italian police, identified, and released again. For many of them, this process has gradually become a dramatic routine. They have to choose between getting rejected at the border, trying to enter France by paying a “passeur,” or attempting the dangerous trail along the Pass of Death. It is not possible to understand what they are going through, but giving up is not an option. Therefore, they are forced to choose every single day.

Graffiti reading "The Frontier Kills" in French in Ventimiglia, Italy. Photo by Edoardo Marangon, used with permission.

Graffiti reading “The Frontier Kills” in French in Ventimiglia, Italy. Photo by Edoardo Marangon, used with permission.

On the walls of Ventimiglia, someone wrote in French, “The frontier kills,” an unsettling message that hides a bitter truth. Traveling through the Pass of Death means overcoming limits and challenging death, but for Assan and thousands like him, it also represents the only way towards a possible better future full of opportunities. A perspective for which it is worth risking everything.

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