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COVID border closures push migrants to make dangerous Alps crossing

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As borders within Europe become increasingly difficult to cross due to pandemic restrictions, some migrants and asylum seekers that entered Europe through the Balkans are trying to reach France by hiking across the Alps from Italy.

The Italian-French Alps can represent the last difficult border crossing in migrants” arduous journey. But hiking across them, especially in the winter is difficult even for those who have overcome other perilous obstacles along the way.

Many try to do so at night to avoid being spotted by France’s National Gendarmerie who patrol on snow bikes.

If they are spotted near the border they are returned to Italy after a few hours of detention.

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Amir Hotak is a 23-year-old asylum seeker who fled Afghanistan. He told reporters about the countries he had traversed to get this far.

“Afghanistan up to Iran, Iran up to Turkey, Turkey up to Greece, Greece up to Albania, Albania up to Montenegro, Montenegro to Bosnia, Bosnia to Croatia, Croatia to Slovenia. Then Italy,” he explained.

The Italian Red Cross has been monitoring the Italian side of the Alps in the town of Claviere since 2017 when the route was mostly transited by migrants from Africa arriving by sea. But for the last few months, they say they are seeing people from different countries.

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“Starting some months ago, in 2020, the type of migrants passing in this area has changed a bit, there are many families, often with children who come down the Balkan route, so the main nationalities are Afghanistani, Iranian, Iraqi,” said Michele Belmondo, an Italian Red Cross volunteer.

“Accidents like avalanches often happen. Another big danger is the temperatures, the cold. If one is not properly equipped with gloves and thermal clothes, spending a night in -15C or -20C can be lethal”.

In Claviere, an Italian municipality bordering France, around 5,000 migrants have been intercepted by the Red Cross since 2017.

And 1,500 of those were in the last five months, according to Belmondo who patrols the mountains to warn migrants of the dangers, assist them with blankets, and in some cases rescue them.

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