In the Basque Country, misunderstandings in the face of closed borders

In Larrau, a village of just 200 souls in the Basque Country, the border with Spain has been closed for almost two years for “the fight against illegal immigration and the terrorist threat”, according to…

In Larrau, a village of just 200 souls in the Basque Country, the border with Spain has been closed for almost two years for “the fight against illegal immigration and the terrorist threat”, according to the authorities. An omnipresent situation for the inhabitants.

From the village, the road winds its way up to 1,578 meters above sea level towards the pass, called Port de Larrau. Sign at the top, a prefectural decree informs that the passage is closed until further notice, while a barrier cuts off half the road which leads, on the other side, towards Navarre and Pamplona.

“It is incomprehensible but apparently this rule does not want to be understood”, protests the mayor, Jean-Dominique Iriart.

The checks are infrequent – “random” in the words of the prefecture – but they are enough to alter neighborhood relations or the flow of visitors. The elected official is responsible for reporting offenders but does not want to “apply the absurd”. Especially since Larrau is located in a border agro-pastoral area that is difficult to control.

On this November day, the pass was shrouded in fog and a strong wind. “There, if someone passes on the flanks, no one can tell if he is a shepherd, a wayfarer or a migrant”, sighs the city councilor. Or the municipal employee who has to defy the ban every day to bring back the herds that have gone to graze on the other side of the border.

Further down, the activity of the village campsite is affected by the measure, according to its owner Fabrice Gaillaguet, which has suffered nearly fifteen cancellations this year.

In this tourist valley in the Basque hinterland, “20 to 25% of the clientele is Spanish”. “We are not in a commercial passage for business. So here, in order not to carry out checks, we close, it costs less than personnel”, she criticizes. The authorities are concentrating the workforce elsewhere.

Originally, about fifteen crossings on the Franco-Spanish border had been closed in 2021. Half have since reopened but eight remain closed: three more in the Basque Country – in the commune of Aldudes, at the Ispeguy pass after Saint-Étienne-de-Baïgorry and a footbridge in Hendaye – and four east of the Pyrenees.

“Control variable”

“These closures make it possible to concentrate most of the action of the police, gendarmerie, customs and the Sentinel mission on the other entry points currently open” between the two countries, which are more mutual, explains the Pyrénées-Atlantiques prefecture.

In 2021, 13,000 non-admissions at the border were registered in the department, a leap of 120% compared to 2020. Nine thousand from January to October 2022, according to the authorities. And the Hendaye administrative detention center is under pressure, a police union and Cimade indicated this fall.

However, the provision is locally misunderstood. Pierre Etchemaite, restaurateur, tells of his dismay in front of customers. “If only we had an explanation to give them (…) We are told about Vigipirate, terrorism, but nobody gives us an answer”, he said with a shrug.

For Mathieu Bergé (DVG), elected municipal official in Bayonne and regional councilor for New Aquitaine in charge of cross-border cooperation, these closures without an end date are a “message sent to the far right”.

“We want to give an image of authority and control, there is a political exploitation of the border, but the provision has no real effectiveness. The border has become the variable for adjusting the fears of the state”, he complains.

In a letter addressed to Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne on October 21, the president of the PS Region, Alain Rousset, indicated a “unilateral” decision, at the origin of “extreme difficulties”.

In early November, the associations that help migrants symbolically removed the barriers blocking access to the pedestrian bridge that connects Hendaye, in France, to Irún, in Spain. Local activists are outraged by the ubiquitous police presence pushing migrants, they say, to attempt to cross the La Bidasoa border river, where seven people have drowned since 2021.

In October 2021, three Algerians also lost their lives, hit by a train in Ciboure, a few kilometers from Irún.

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