Published on September 11th, 2013 | by Federico Oliveri0
“Our Europe has no borders”. Young Tunisians acting as European citizens
“Trains for Dignity”. This is how they proudly decided to call their act, echoing a fundamental claim of Arab Revolutions. On Sunday 17 April 2011, about 70 young Tunisians attempted to publicly cross the Italian-French border by train, with the support of anti-racist and no-border activists, lawyers and media professionals.1 Departing from Bologna and Genoa, they had to stop at Ventimiglia, the last Italian station before the Cote d’Azur, because French authorities suspended all trains from Italy. As the main reason for this exceptional decision, the Gendarmerie laconically cited “security and public order concerns” related to an “unauthorized demonstration”. After the suspension of train services, people attempted to reach the French Consulate shouting “Freedom! Freedom!” during an impromptu rally, but were blocked by Italian riot police. When a delegation wanting to meet the Consul was blocked too, the demonstrators occupied the train station and started to walk alongside the railways towards France. After six hours, regular traffic resumed. In the following days many trains crossed the border without problems.2
Tunisians who boarded the Trains for Dignity had entered Italy without visa after the collapse of Ben Ali’s regime along with more than other 25,000 fellow citizens between January and September 2011. After crossing the sea and being disembarked on the Island of Lampedusa, transformed for the occasion in an open-air prison in order to create alarm and justify exceptional measures, they were transferred to provisional holding centres in Southern and Central Italy, from which they could easily move or escape. After long controversies within the Schengen area of free circulation, the Italian government finally granted to those arrived between 1 January and 5 April 2011 a “temporary residence permit for humanitarian reasons”. This was part of a deal with the new Tunisian government, including the forced return of any migrant arrived after 6 April. The temporary permit allowed Tunisians to stay up to six months in Italy and to freely travel in other Schengen states up to three months. Nevertheless, the validity of this document in terms of an automatic right to travel was highly contested by France, Holland and Germany.
France has always been the preferred destination for most young Tunisians. “Italy is just a stop-over”, many of them told to journalists and other interviewers. “We want to go to France. We have friends or family members waiting there for us. Finding a job and starting a new life is easier than in Italy, despite the crisis”. Essentially, Tunisians wanted to contest the re-introduction of border controls by the French police during the previous weeks. Already in March 2011 the government had started to tighten “internal border controls”.3 After the Italian decision to grant temporary residence permits, a stricter enforcement of free circulation conditions set up by the Schengen Borders Code was announced.4
Trains for Dignity represented a turning-point in the process of becoming political of those Tunisians arrived in Europe in the aftermath of the Tunisian Revolution. The act of re-opening the border was a political act, which occurred after more spontaneous collective actions, such as protests against unfair living conditions and unlawful detention on the island of Lampedusa, or escapes from temporary reception centres on the continent. These events are all interrelated, not only because they were produced by the same actors, but especially because they translated the revolutionary narrative from Tunisia to Europe: political freedom was interpreted and experienced by Tunisian migrants in terms of freedom of movement across the Euro-Mediterranean space; dignity was interpreted and experienced in terms of self-determination and the right to choose where to live.
Re-opening the Italian-French border, for everyone: this was the first pragmatic aim of the Trains for Dignity. “Italians, French and migrants will defeat together blocks to free movement set up by governments”, stated the manifesto of the initiative. “We will re-open borders and guarantee free access to Europe, affirming once again that no one is illegal”. This act created an unusual scene, with rather new political actors: young Tunisians were acting as if they were European citizens. In a strict sense, they were not violating any rules. On the contrary, they were trying to assert the validity of their temporary residence permits against French reluctance. At the same time, they were trying to enact the European principle of free circulation, while radically interpreting the legality of their travel documents.5
Acting as European citizens young Tunisians constructed themselves as rights-claim subjects and opponents of the contemporary global hierarchy of mobility, responsible for subaltern position and exploitation of migrants in Europe. Even if only symbolically, their act challenged the European system of controls. The organizers affirmed in another public statement: “Whereas it is generally acceptable that migrants cross borders in any way, with the possible risk of falling into clandestinity, undeclared work and blackmail, today Europe cannot accept that borders are crossed under the sunlight, with your head held high, and the dignified look typical of who rejects domination”. The public gesture of crossing the border, despite all the risks implied by this choice, let emerge the reality of border controls in a way that governments considered unacceptable: “You can cross the border with a coyote or risking your life crumbling a mountain, but you’re not allowed to stop the hypocritical spectacle of politics, or the false quarrel between Italy and France”.
Acting as European citizens young Tunisians spoke the truth against national governments and EU institutions, unrevealing their material and symbolic interests. Taking the right to free movement seriously, they denounced the race and class biases incorporated in the European system of borders and in the construction of EU citizenship. The inspiring idea that “dignity has no borders” allowed them to deconstruct the re-bordering mechanism which was going on: the EU internal frontier between France and Italy, even if formally abolished by the Schengen Agreements, was rebuilt as soon as the right to free circulation was claimed by poor, ‘coloured’, unwanted young migrants coming from Tunisia. This is also why French authorities emphasized the condition for people to have “sufficient means of subsistence” in order to use their temporary permit to stay. This class-based condition still makes a legal difference between third-country nationals and EU citizens when enacting the right to free circulate in Europe up to three months. The inconvenient truth is that, in Europe today, being without resources or occupation may nullify the fundamental right to move.
Of course the act of re-opening the border in itself couldn’t modify the legal status of Tunisians who entered France. The organizers were entirely aware of this: “The border will follow those who crossed over. The border will not forget them. After the three months validity of the permit to stay, the sign of the European border marked on their skin when they passed through the Mediterranean Sea will become visible again and function as a stigma, a mark of shame”. Nevertheless, in another public statement, the promise of an alternative future seemed going far beyond the immediately following days. “Tomorrow other Trains for Dignity will depart again, every single day, every single hour they will defeat controls, with the aim of building our Europe, free and without borders”. Such truly open-border Europe has and will have powerful and determined counterparts.6
 The initiative was co-organized by “Ya Basta”, an Italian network of migrants’ rights organizations, and called on French activists to form welcome groups to meet Tunisians as they arrived in Nice and Marseille. This was part of a larger campaign of active solidarity called “Welcome” started in Italy in early February, soon after the first arrivals from Tunisia on the Island of Lampedusa. The coalition of the supporters included also other Italian NGOs, such as ARCI and “Comunità San Benedetto al Porto”, and French NGOs, such as the Human Rights League, the association “Avocats pour la Défense des Droits des Etrangers” and the network “Citoyens des deux rives”.
 As the first trains were stopped, Italy lodged an official complaint via its ambassador in Paris and the Italian Foreign Ministry called the decision “illegitimate and in clear violation of general European principles”. According to a spokesman for the French Interior Ministry, the border was never closed: circulation was just “temporarily halted in order to avoid any risk of accidents” because of the announced open border initiative. After a war of words, an apparent peace of dialogue and cooperation took over. This happened also after European Council President Herman Van Rompuy appealed not to “exaggerate” the migration issue at stake. “Neither Italy nor France – he said – have so far done anything illegal. That said, there is the risk of violating the spirit of the Schengen agreements”.
 According to the report of the French Interior Minister to the National Assembly, between 23 February and 28 March 2011 about 2,800 Tunisians were intercepted in France and 1,700 were expelled, most of them back to Italy. This happened under the Chambery bilateral readmission agreement signed in 1997 by Italy and France, allowing each country to return illegal immigrants found in their own territory when it could be “materially proved” that they had transited through the other country.
 These conditions included: to be in possession of a valid travel and residence document; to justify the purpose of the stay; to have “sufficient means of subsistence” calculated in 62 euro in cash (the estimated amount of money a tourist would need to spend one day in France) or in 31 euros (in case of people with an available housing accommodation); not to be considered a threat to public policy, internal security, public health or the international relations of any of the member States. The French government declared that controls would be carried out “at random” and not directly at the border, in line with the abolition of systematic border checks. Otherwise, it should have to reintroduce border control at its internal borders, invoking a “serious threat to public policy or internal security”, which was evidently not the case.
 To be sure, the intention of the Italian government when issuing the temporary permits to stay and move, was just to “push” Tunisians to France, while “closing” the maritime borders on the South.
 Trains for Dignity produced significant effects at institutional level. Already on 4 May 2011 the European Commission envisaged a new mechanism “to allow the Union to handle situations where either a Member State is not fulfilling its obligations to control its section of the external border, or where a particular portion of the external border comes under unexpected and heavy pressure due to external events”. This new mechanism was presented as a tool to avoid further tensions among member states acting unilaterally, like in the Italian-French case. After months of controversial negotiation, the European Parliament, the Commission and the European Council reached an accord on 30 May 2013. New common rules were set on reintroducing checks on internal borders as a “measure of last resort”. Unannounced inspections were also allowed to ensure controls are not being imposed illegally. According to some members of the European Parliament who backed the accord, the right to move freely within the Schengen area will be strengthened by this reform, as the new governance includes an impartial and transparent evaluation system to detect security risks. Nevertheless, a fundamental securitarian attitude was reaffirmed in the debate, as the main concern was on protecting the European area of freedom, security, and justice from unwanted entries in times of unrest in Europe’s peripheries.