“Guys, we have to disperse!”. Junior, a 20-year-old Ivorian, gets up and breaks the dead silence that reigns in the train that connects the border towns of Irun in Spain and Hendaye in France.
In Hendaye station, French police patrol. In the group of six migrants from Côte d’Ivoire, Mali or Guinea and trying to enter France, only Junior dares to get off the train.
“You don’t have a visa, it won’t be possible,” one of the agents told him, examining his passport.
While the latter have their backs turned, the other five members of Junior’s group descend on the train tracks. “Stay where you are!” Then shouts another agent, but one of Junior’s acolytes rushes out and climbs a fence more than two meters high before running away through the streets of Hendaye.
The others change their minds when the police approach, who give them “refusal of entry” forms and invite them to take the train in the opposite direction.
– Ever more dangerous crossings –
The border separating Spain from France between Irun and Hendaye, in the Basque Country, is the last obstacle to cross for these young African migrants who want to enter France at all costs. After having often crossed, like Junior, the Atlantic Ocean to reach the Spanish archipelago of the Canaries.
In 2021, the number of non-admissions at the border in the Pyrénées-Atlantique department, where Hendaye is located, jumped 120% compared to 2020 (13,164 against 5,976), according to the prefecture.
Faced with the increase in controls, migrants are always taking more risks, denounce researchers, associations and local elected officials.
In October, three Algerians died hit by a train in Ciboure, a few kilometers from the border. Two Ivorians and a Guinean drowned last year while trying to swim across the Bidasoa, which marks the border.
On the Santiago bridge, which crosses this river between Irun and Hendaye, the French police periodically check vehicles. The parallel pedestrian bridge is closed by two mesh barriers almost three meters high.
Arrived less than 48 hours ago in Irun, Yakuba goes out to smoke in front of the temporary reception center of the Red Cross where he will spend the night.
The 20-year-old Malian’s mask is not enough to hide the scar on his nose, a mark left by the high, sharp chain-link fences he climbed in June to enter the Spanish enclave of Melilla, in northern Morocco .
“I have one on my foot too, there was a lot of blood”, says, eyes reddened by the lack of sleep, this young man who says he fled Mali because of “the war”.
After having tried in vain to return to France by the mountain, by train or on the Santiago bridge, he confides that he plans to take for “150 euros” the “taxi-mafia” of a smuggler. But he will finally manage a few days later to cross the bridge at a run.
– Disputed police checks –
On the French side of the border, police numbers have doubled since the reestablishment in 2015 of controls after the Paris attacks, according to the Ministry of the Interior. Nearly a third of crossing points between Spain and France are currently closed, officially due to the pandemic.
But “the reality is that the controls are exclusively carried out on black people”, denounces Xabier Legarreta, member of the regional government of the Spanish Basque Country. Accusations also relayed by several NGOs, including Amnesty International, Cimade or Anafé.
“Migrants are not informed of their rights” during controls while unaccompanied minors are sent back when they “should benefit from protection”, accuses Iker Barbero, professor of law at the University of Bilbao.
Practices criticized by Tom Dubois, a former border police officer in Hendaye who resigned in 2018 to denounce “the politics of numbers”. “Some nights, when we weren’t turning back migrants, we had a note on the desk” from the hierarchy, says this left-wing activist, who rescued two migrants in Bidassoa in 2020.
On the Spanish side, two police officers denounce, on condition of anonymity, the legal vagueness at the border and confide in feeling “overwhelmed” in the face of the “ping-pong” of migrants taken back to the border by France and then released, for lack of means. , in Spain and who end up trying their luck again.
– “Try again, again and again” –
Charges rejected en bloc by the sub-prefect of Pyrénées-Atlantiques, Théophile de Lassus.
Migrants “who have chosen to return without applying for a visa or a residence permit are called upon to turn back”, he assures us, denying that they are not always informed of their rights or that unaccompanied minors are sent back.
“The rules are fully respected (…) and all our decisions are subject to appeal,” he told AFP.
While France has just taken over the rotating presidency of the EU, Emmanuel Macron wants to reform the Schengen area in order to strengthen migration controls and sometimes carry out controls several kilometers from the internal borders.
But nothing to discourage Junior. “My destination is France (…) I will try again, again and again,” he says.
At his side, Abdul, a 24-year-old Ivorian, agrees: “it’s no worse than crossing the ocean (Atlantic), so we’re not going to get discouraged now”.