MOHAMED HAROUN is just five miles from the border but his dream of reaching the French Riviera seems further away than ever.
The former social worker is one of tens of thousands of migrants who have been forcibly ejected from France and sent back to Italy this year by gendarmes using UK government money to create an iron wall of security.
A portion of Home Office cash intended to prevent migrants crossing the Channel has instead been diverted 565 miles away to the French-Italian border, where it has been invested in state-of-the-art drones, vehicles and even printers.
France’s Interior Ministry justifies the switch by claiming a significant number of the asylum seekers want to reach the UK.
But a Sun probe has found that the vast majority taking this route are from former French colonies in Africa and want to settle in France.
Mohamed, 39, is from Darfur in Sudan, where English is spoken by one in ten, but even he hopes to move to France, where he has friends.
He is now stuck in the Italian town of Ventimiglia, which is being compared to Calais because so many migrants are sleeping rough there.
He said: “It’s very hard, as when you pass the border the police catch you and they bring you back to Italy.
“They have radar and there are a lot of police officers, so it’s difficult to escape them, even in the mountains, which takes three-and-a-half hours to cross.
“You have to dump your bag and dress like an ordinary civilian to have a chance.
“We travel in groups of three, as otherwise there are people waiting in the mountains who will rob us and beat us up if we are alone.
“There are smugglers that say they can drive me across the border in a car for 250 euros, but I don’t have enough money.
“Some people try walking to France along the railway tracks.
“You have to pass through 22 tunnels and it is dangerous.
“I have given up for now.
“I’m going to stay here until I get a passport, then I can go anywhere I want.”
Britain has given £17.3million to the French border force this year and a further £466million has been allocated between now and 2026.
After the two nations signed the Sandhurst Treaty in 2018, aimed at tackling illegal migration from France to the UK, Britain is now paying out the equivalent of ten per cent of France’s entire budget for border security.
The hope was that the money would help French gendarmes intercept migrants attempting to cross the Channel.
But the latest figures show that just 3,400 small boats, carrying 81,000 people, were stopped between January 2018 and August 2023.
This was fewer than half of the total attempting the journey, with 3,500 small boats holding 111,000 migrants making it across in the same period.
The number of police guarding France’s northern coast is up by 100 to 350 since the money was allocated, but the number guarding the 296-mile border with Italy has risen from 500 to 700 this year and 120 extra military personnel have also been dispatched to the Alpes- Maritimes region to beef up security.
When I visited this week, half a dozen shiny new police vans were stationed at the Pont Saint-Louis bridge which separates northern Italy from the French Riviera.
We witnessed large groups of migrants being frogmarched into the Police Aux Frontiers station in the town of Menton.
They were processed before being dumped back on the less affluent Italian side of the border, where they would have to walk five miles back to Ventimiglia if they could not afford the bus fare.
A senior French officer at the border post said he could not discuss security efforts without authorisation from his bosses in Nice — permission that was not forthcoming.
However, a UK Freedom of Information request by the Politico website has revealed that an undisclosed chunk of UK government money has been spent on new vehicles to guard the Italian border, along with office equipment and Mavic 3 Enterprise drones, which have thermal imaging cameras and cost up to £5,000 each.
Cessna light planes have been used for reconnaissance operations, along with a helicopter.
The result is a record number of push-backs, with 40 drone operations over the woodlands since May and 40,000 evictions expected by the end of 2023, 20 per cent up on 2022.
Official French figures show 38,000 migrants have been caught on the Italian border in 2023, 8,000 of them unaccompanied minors.
However, the Italian route into Europe, via Tunisia and Libya, is considered the most dangerous and expensive.
Experts say those heading to Britain — especially from Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Albania and Syria, who make up 71 per cent of small-boat arrivals — are more likely to take the Balkan route further north.
Serena Regazzoni is Refugee Co-ordinator at the Caritas charity in Ventimiglia, which has been offering accommodation to female and child migrants since the main refugee centre closed in 2020.
She said: “Most of the people we see here are young men aged between 19 and 25 and the vast majority want to settle in France, because they are from French-speaking countries in Africa such as the Ivory Coast and Cameroon.
“The push-back has been happening since 2015, when the French suspended the Schengen Agreement (allowing virtually free movement across borders), and the reason is they don’t want migrants there.
“They only stop black people at the border.
“If they see white people they don’t stop them.
“It’s racism — what else can you call it?
“Some have tried to cross the border ten times with no success but they do not stop, they try every day.
“Only five per cent of migrants claim asylum in Italy and 95 per cent want to go to another country.
“Locals here are very stressed about the situation as they are tired of seeing people living on the street and using it as a toilet.
“A lot of the asylum seekers drink and fight because they are addicted to drugs.
“Last month two Nigerians had a fight outside the train station and one of them died when his neck was slashed with a broken bottle.
“The locals were shocked and it is sad for us because we knew them both well.”
Jacopo Colomba is project manager at the WeWorld charity in Ventimiglia.
He works in an office near the train station, where migrants used to be able to buy tickets to travel to France until police stopped the practice.
He says French President Emmanuel Macron is determined to appear tough on immigration and has used the 2015 terror attacks in Paris as an excuse to repeatedly opt out of the Schengen Agreement.
Jacopo says cops are returning unaccompanied minors to Italy, despite asylum laws stating they should be offered sanctuary in the country where they are found.
He said: “The French police seem to have great difficulty in recognising unaccompanied minors.
“Children have been stopped and returned to Italy without their documentation being checked.
“They are simply put on the next train back.
“The Italians sometimes return them, which has created a game of ping pong on the border, and it’s putting a lot of stress on the system.
“The French are clear that they don’t want these kids.
“There is big pressure on Macron from the extreme right to stop illegal immigration and the push-backs have definitely increased this year.
“By the end of the year we believe 40,000 people will have been pushed back.
“It was 33,000 last year, so the number has gone up considerably.”
Ventimiglia’s mayor Flavio Di Muro estimates that at least 20,000 migrants have passed through his town this year and that there are currently 150 sleeping rough.
He compares the French President to Viktor Orban, Hungary’s hard-line, anti-immigration leader, and calls the UK’s decision to hand money to Macron “absurd”.
He said: “Most of the migrants want to go to the big cities like Marseille and Paris, where they can find work and integrate easily.
“Only a small portion go to other countries such as the UK.
“French leaders only care about winning elections and Macron has sent back more migrants than Orban in Hungary.
“It seems absurd to me that the UK government is handing money to the French.
“We need a European solution to this problem and the French are acting against the spirit of Schengen by carrying out these massive pushbacks.
“If all countries operated like that it would be the death of Europe.”