In August 2018, dozens of young Africans were forced to sleep in the streets of Irún because France had already erected an invisible wall for migrants in transit consisting of dozens of controls at the border crossings of the Bidasoa region and hot returns of doubtful legality in the middle of the European Union. One of them was Mohamed Lamine Camara, then in his twenties, who eventually managed to cross and settle in Nantes. This week he has returned to the border city to lay flowers and kneel to pray at a bend in the river that gives the area its name. His nephew, Abdoulaye Koulibaly, 18 years old and originally from Guinea Conakry, died last weekend trapped by the currents of the Bidasoa, convinced that this was his way of entering the Hexagon due to the blockade of the land routes. He is the second to die at that point in three months – the first was 28-year-old Yaya from Ivory Coast – although a young Eritrean nearby committed suicide earlier.
Tom Dubois, 28, meets with this newspaper where the kingdom becomes a republic, in the middle of the Santiago bridge that connects Irún and Hendaye, with its already traditional police control. For five years he was an agent of the French National Police and worked in the border brigade. His station was — is — right next to the muga. Dubois, with the help of a translator, explains in French that he even prevented the passage of up to 70 migrants in one shift and that he drove unmarked police vehicles that picked up foreigners on French soil and entered Spanish territory without jurisdiction to release them. “We would go to Burger King or Ficoba and leave them,” he confirms, citing a well-known fast food chain and the fairgrounds. Now he has left the body and, together with other citizens on the French side of the Bidasoa, he usually walks the banks to give a hand to young people who may try to swim across. He has come to have to jump into the water to prevent any of them from drowning.
“Although we are in Europe, France has closed the borders again,” he made clear from the beginning of the conversation. “They say it is because of terrorism or because of COVID-19, but we realize that it is for immigration. This is what pushes migrants to test the water,” he says, looking askance at the border control underway in the bridge. “It is a tragedy. They do not know how to swim. We push them to drown. They are already in Europe and it is silly not to let them pass over this bridge,” he adds. Dubois has helped “some”. He explains that he has seen fifteen jump into the water, although many of them immediately regretted the risk of the maneuver. “In addition, we cannot know how many there are in total, because most of them do it at night”, abounds. Dubois also explains that reaching the other shore is by no means the end of the road. It has been proven that the French Police intercept people within their territory – even many kilometers in the interior – and that they send them back to Spain. If the Bidasoa is the new alternative, “the Police are already making the rounds by the river by car,” the ex-agent guarantees.
“There is no solution for them. They have to try once, twice, three times. The French Police are not human. Marine Le Pen is the one who dreamed of this and in the end it is Emmanuel Macron who executes it,” he reflects, introducing a political component to the problem. “When I joined the Police I thought I was going to help the people, but it is not true. I have realized that I was protecting the State more than the people. To start thinking about the Police is to start to disobey. Guilt It is not theirs – he says pointing to his former colleagues – but they are partly to blame. If you are on the bridge watching and someone dies in the river, you are partly to blame “.
While the interview is taking place, there is a long queue of motorists and hauliers heading towards France. The National Police – not the Gendarmerie – has installed a fixed tent, has reduced the lanes from two to one and watches each passing vehicle. The same happens in the Behobia pass. On the old pedestrian bridge in Santiago, directly, he has chosen to build an impassable fence so as not to have to watch it. It is notified of this in three languages, French, Basque and Spanish. There are also checkpoints at the ‘topo’, the Euskadi railway line that ends at the famous station where Hitler and Franco met. Even the small pleasure boat that takes from Hondarribia to Hendaye is regularly monitored.
The Government of Emmanuel Macron has returned to retired police officers to lend a hand. At this checkpoint, two very veteran agents are the ones who look at the papers and get on the buses to give the go-ahead to the travelers. An active third party is in charge of the service. In the other sense, cars with various license plates enter Spain without stopping, including Luxembourgish and even an Audi from the island of Jersey. Throughout the afternoon-night of Thursday, only a few minutes appeared a Patrol of the Civil Guard, which also does not have immigration powers. It is becoming common for French people without the so-called ‘COVID passport’ to cross the muga to enjoy the hotel industry and leisure without the need to be vaccinated, as it is already mandatory in the republic. Before the conversation with Dubois ends, the Police have already intercepted two very young migrants. In a matter of minutes, they are handed a ‘refus d’entrée’ and shown the way back to Spain.
For these situations, the central government and the Red Cross have opened a shelter in Hilanderas, on the premises of a former Opel dealer. They can spend the night there for three nights and gain time until they manage to get around the French surveillance through a less traveled point, such as the river or the forests further inland. In that shelter, far from the border area, a 21-year-old Algerian drains the last puffs of his cigarette before going to sleep now that it is almost 10 p.m. The security guard checks the nearby dark alley with a flashlight in case anyone is left outside. A Red Cross worker does not allow the entry of a man older than the average who comes from the south of Spain accompanied only by a Carrefour bag with his luggage and who assures that he resides in Belgium. Data from the Immigration Directorate of the Basque Government indicate that some 4,000 people have already used this resource so far this year, more than in 2020.
The Mayor: “This is a crueller border”
“For those of us who live in this area, the river is a jewel, the space for strolling and leisure on one side and the other. This has had a considerable emotional impact,” explains José Antonio Santano, mayor of Irún ( PSE-EE). Near the border are the Santiagotarrak rowing and canoeing club facilities, an icon for the region and in which there is a photograph of the Olympic medalist Ander Elosegi. Outside, dozens of life jackets drying looking at France act as an involuntary metaphor. The athletes are training on land this afternoon and one of them, anonymously, explains that they all know the waters very well now on everyone’s lips. The passage to the other side could be feasible in some points with low tide – reason – although there are areas of strong currents that they use to practice whitewater modalities. In the Bidasoa there are several islands – among them that of the Pheasants, a condominium that part of the year is Spanish and the other French – and using one of them could facilitate transit. Add as a determining factor that migrants tend to carry weight and that they do not always know how to swim well. He himself saw a couple try the step one day. The man started the route well but she, as soon as she jumped into the water, did not stand up and was swept away by the current. Her boyfriend was able to catch her in time and the event was a shock.
“I have known the border [antes de la entrada de España en la Unión Europea, en 1986]. Going to Hendaye was complicated. You had to do papers even for the car. Now it is a selective border and the controls are not random, they are for young people with black skin. I get the feeling that this is a crueller frontier. We feel sadness. They are very young people who seek to live better, “reflects Mayor Santano, who is grateful for the citizen mobilization that occurred this week. His Hindi counterpart, Kotte Ecenarro, also a socialist, has also criticized the migration policies of the Macron government.” The impression is that this goes for long, “interprets Santano.
Now it is a selective border and the controls are not random, they are for young people with black skin. I get the feeling that this is a crueller frontier
José Antonio Santano, mayor of Irún
In recent years, the Irungo Harrera Sarea citizen reception network has been very active. They usually set up a makeshift office with camping furniture in front of the City Hall to advise the migrants and have painted some footprints on the ground so that no one gets lost on the way to the hostel from the train and bus station, the usual point they arrive from the South. After learning of the death, they asked not to treat the death as an event, but in a context of “racist” police control policies that force those who travel to France to “take mortal risks.” Ion Aranguren understands that with “little money”, Irún could be an “oasis” of good care for these people. For example, truly achieving that “no migrant sleeps on the street.” On their social networks, they keep a counter every night and set up some tents outside the shelter if that is the case. It happens mainly because the 72 hours of maximum stay are exhausted before they manage to enter France in one way or another. Aranguren appeals to the most local institutions, the Basque Government and the Irún City Council, to adopt measures. Neither death is the responsibility of the migrant nor is it the result of bad luck. “What we ask of the Basque institutions is that they resemble their society and be as supportive as it,” he demands.
The answer that nobody seems to have is why Irún. In Catalonia there are also border crossings and no similar flows are known. Abdoulaye Koulibaly was from July 29 to August 5 at the Granollers Red Cross, but traveled to Euskadi to try to enter France through this area. Palestinian or Afghan refugees seek to reach countries such as Germany, Belgium or France itself by this route, which is a much more indirect route than others. In August 2020, the Spanish National Police dismantled a mafia that organized the ‘jumps’ by Irún in exchange for money. They took advantage of the difficulties that the French National Police put them to get money that, in many cases, they do not have. “The memory that these people of our city will have is not going to be the best,” assumes the mayor of the border city.