On the Death Pass, child refugees risk everything in search of a better life. If they survive the crossing, they're likely to be caught and sent far away, to start again, Fernanda Pesce Blazquez reports.
On a sunny day in the northern Italian town of Ventimiglia, Azad* is trying to cross the Italian-French border, along with three other children. The four of them walk up the road to Grimaldi, the very last frontier village on the way to France. They are looking for the imperceptible path other refugees recommended they take to cross the mountains.
"The Bulgarian police asked me what I was doing there, since I wasn't a Christian, and they called me a Taliban," recalls Azad, a 16-year-old Afghan refugee who fled the Taliban fighting in Kunduz, Afghanistan, six months ago.
The four boys share similar stories. All of them have faced danger while transiting several countries in Europe. Amid cold, fatigue and hunger, the friends made it to Italy. But they did not intend to stay here either.
"Many of my friends were beat up badly at the Bulgarian border and left in their underwear, but I managed to escape to Serbia," the child recounts with a faint smile on his face.
Back home in Kunduz, Azad was forced by the insurgents to quit school and told he must join them. He agreed with his family that the only way out was to flee the country. When the Taliban came to pick him up, he was already gone.
Since that day, he has been traveling with his cousin Hamzad*, 17. They hope to reach Paris in their search for a better life, far from danger and violence.
According to the UNHCR, this year 5,190 unaccompanied minors arrived in Italy by the end of April. In Ventimiglia, 20 percent of the arrivals were children traveling without adult caregivers, the Caritas charity told DW.
No room for older children
Those between the ages of 15 and 17, like Azad and Hamzad, however, are too old to find shelter and protection in the two makeshift accommodation centers, one run by Caritas and the other by the Italian Red Cross.
"We have to give priority to all women and babies stranded in the Italian-French border. We cannot separate families, and we therefore welcome the youngest children first, the most vulnerable. Unfortunately, there's not room for every transiting child," says Don Rito Alvarez, a Colombian priest who has opened the doors of the Sant'Antonio Church in Ventimiglia to refugees, with the support of Caritas and other NGOs.
Those who haven't been given a place are forced to sleep outside and gravitate to a bridge that spans the Roia River. The conditions are harsh. The teenagers get one hot meal per day, when offered by groups of Italian and French independent volunteers, who sometimes bring them blankets and clean clothes.
In this desperate limbo, the children try over and over to cross the border. Those who cannot afford a ride with the human smugglers, the so-called passeurs, choose other hazardous options.
Either they walk through highway tunnels, where they are hard to see at night and can be hit by cars or trucks, or they try to follow the railroad tracks, risking being hit by trains.
A third way, which is thought to be patrolled less by police, is also one of the most dangerous. It is a route through the mountains, where they risk their lives on the so-called Death Pass.
During World War II, the name "Death Pass" was derived from the desperate struggle of Jewish refugees trying to reach France after the Italian Racial Laws were passed.
Since then, thousands of refugees have started their journeys here, setting off at night to avoid being seen. Once they climb through the fence dividing the two countries, they follow the night lights of Menton, the first French coastal town, careening down a high precipice above craggy rock.
Dreams of France
Not too far from the fence, where a "peace" flag waves in the wind, Azad looks down the cliff, unable to take his eyes off the French coast. He has been walking for over two hours, but he doesn't seem tired at all.
"This is nothing compared to the path through the Iranian mountains," says Hamzad, resting on a rock. "My brother was killed by the insurgents. That is why I left my country. Now I want to learn French and go back to school again. That is my dream."
Today, those lucky enough to reach France are often caught and immediately sent back to Italy by the French police, without being given the opportunity to apply for asylum and contrary to national and international law, according to a UNICEF/REACH report.
Sometimes they are even forcibly relocated to the Taranto hotspot, more than 1,000 kilometers away, in the far south of the country, from where the children start the journey to the border again, with no recourse to international protection and a lack of awareness of their rights.
*Names have been changed for protection