“Guys, we have to get out of here!” urges Junior, a 20-year-old Ivorian migrant, breaking the tense silence inside the train crossing the Spanish border into France.
Crossing from Irun in Spain to the French border town of Hendaye is the final hurdle for young migrants desperate to reach France, their desired destination at all costs.
Many come from former French colonies in West Africa where French is widely spoken and wish to join family members living and working in France.
But at Hendaye station, the French police patrol.
With Junior, five other migrants from Mali, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire. But he alone dares to get off the train.
“You don’t have a visa, you can’t come here,” one of the policemen told him after leafing through his passport.
When they think the track is clear, the other five quickly descend onto the tracks.
“Stay where you are!” bellows a policeman, prompting one of the young migrants to run towards a two-meter fence which he steps over, disappearing into the streets.
But the others froze when the police approached and handed them forms marked “entry refused”. They are then put back on the train to the Spanish border town of Irun, an AFP correspondent said.
– More and more dangerous –
To get here, many of these migrants have already made the perilous journey from the African coast to Spain’s Canary Islands, braving the Atlantic in dilapidated, barely seaworthy boats.
Last year, 13,164 people were turned back at the Franco-Spanish border in France’s Pyrénées-Atlantiques region, of which Hendaye is part, more than double the number in 2020, according to figures from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Interior.
The numbers are higher due to heightened vigilance and more migrants traveling given the easing of Covid travel restrictions put in place at the start of the pandemic.
With increased patrols on both sides of the border, migrants are taking more and more risks, according to researchers, NGOs and local officials.
Last year, two Ivorians and a Guinean migrant drowned while trying to swim in the Bidasoa River which marks the border. And in October, three Algerians who managed to cross into France died after being hit by a train.
On the Santiago Bridge, which crosses the Bidasoa, French police carry out periodic checks on vehicles, while the adjacent pedestrian bridge has been closed off with huge metal fences almost three meters (10 feet) high.
In Irun, Yakuba, 20, comes out of the Red Cross migrant reception center to smoke a cigarette.
Along his nose runs a large scar he got while climbing the huge spiked metal fence separating the Spanish enclave of Melilla from Morocco in June.
“I have one on my foot too, there was a lot of blood,” shrugs Yakuba, who says he left Mali “because of the war.”
After several failed attempts to cross into France via the Pyrenees, by train and finally over the Santiago Bridge, Yakuba eyes the “taxi mafia” – smugglers who charge 150 euros ($170) to cross the border.
But in the end, he manages to cross the bridge on his second attempt.
– Controversial police checks –
Although France and Spain are part of the passport-free Schengen zone, routine immigration checks were reinstated following the 2015 Paris attacks that killed 130 people.
Since then, police numbers have doubled, according to the Interior Ministry.
But rights groups say the checks only target people based on the color of their skin.
“In reality, the checks are exclusively focused on black people,” says Xabier Legarreta, a member of the Basque regional government, echoing complaints from Amnesty International and French migrant support groups La Cimade and Anafe.
People are turned back “without any respect for their fundamental rights”, explains Iker Barbero, professor of law at the University of Bilbao. Even those who apply for refugee status are “returned directly” and “prevented” from applying for asylum, he adds.
“It’s not the job of the police to decide” whether or not they can apply for asylum, he says. They are also not allowed to turn back unaccompanied minors who, under international law, “must be protected”, adds Barbero.
On the Spanish side, police officers speaking on condition of anonymity criticized the legal insecurity, saying they were “powerless” in the face of the incessant comings and goings of migrants sent back by France and then released in Spain, but who do not kept trying to cross over.
– ‘I’m just going to keep trying’ –
But a representative of the government of the French region of Pyrénées-Atlantiques, Théophile de Lassus, rejects these allegations. He says the entry rules “apply to everyone” and are “fully adhered to”.
Migrants “who choose to enter without applying for a visa or residence permit are turned away”, he told AFP, dismissing allegations that migrants were not always informed of their rights and that minors were expelled.
In 2019, only 4% of illegal migrants arrested in the Spanish province of San Sebastián, where Irun is located, were sent back to their country of origin, according to internal data consulted by AFP.
As France holds the rotating EU presidency, President Emmanuel Macron wants to change the bloc’s free movement rules to allow immigration checks several miles from internal borders.
France and Spain plan to launch a new joint immigration patrol this summer.
But Junior is not put off.
“My goal is France… and I will keep trying.”
Abdul, a 24-year-old Ivorian, agrees.
“It can’t be worse than crossing the Atlantic, so we’re not going to be discouraged now.”