The unbearable lightness of the "Balkan route": interview with the secretary of the Trieste SAP, Lorenzo Tamaro

(To Andrea Gaspardo)

Since 2014, almost all the mass media have given increasing prominence to the flow of illegal immigration from the so-called "Balkan route". However, the level of media coverage reserved for it has never been in the least comparable to that of the so-called "Mediterranean route".

Paying attention to the "Balkan route" is fundamental to guarantee the stability and national security of our country and, for this reason, the alarm cry from the men and women who make up our "first line of defense" must absolutely not be ignored.

The provincial secretary of the Autonomous Union of Police of Trieste, Lorenzo Tamaro, has agreed to share with us the experience on the ground and the difficulties that the police are facing in this very delicate historical moment.

Could you describe, for the benefit of the readers, what were the stages of your career within the police force and how did you arrive at the secretariat of the SAP (Autonomous Police Syndicate) of the province of Trieste?

I am a superintendent of the State Police and currently hold the position of provincial secretary of Trieste of the SAP - Autonomous Union of Police.

I entered the police in February 1989, I served in the 1992rd Mobile Department in Milan until 90 (during which I carried out numerous public order services, also on the occasion of the "Italia 1992" World Cup, and service of "Volante" in the cities of Bergamo, Pavia and Rimini) and then in Trieste, from 1994 to XNUMX to the Railway Police.

I continued my professional career from 1994 to 1999 at the Trieste Police Headquarters for the Judicial Police Team of the Foreigners Office, and then from 1999 to today at the Mobile Team, carrying out investigative duties in the fight against organized crime and foreign crime. and, subsequently, in the fight against widespread crime and prostitution and today in the fight against crimes against the person.

I have been a member of the Autonomous Union of Police since 1989 and have actively participated in union activity since 2004. From 2009 to today I am the Julian provincial manager. I also hold the position of national councilor and, from 2019, also that of regional assistant secretary of the FVG

In the light of his personal experience, how the "work" of the police force "on the ground" has changed over the decades. What challenges have most come to your attention in recent years?

During these thirty years of my professional career there are many things that have changed in the "work" of the police forces "on the ground", both nationally and locally, due mainly to the change in society, but also to the both technological and regulatory innovations and the difficulties due to the shortcomings that the State Police and the other Law Enforcement have been suffering from for years due to adverse policies and decisions that I believe are wrong.

Today we are faced, at national level, with phenomena such as organized crime, terrorism, in particular that of Islamic origin, antagonistic political movements, organized violent typhus, but also widespread crime, with types of crimes that worry and create greater alarm social and affecting good people in everyday life; a difficulty, that of contrasting these phenomena, expanded by inadequate regulatory instruments and now no longer in step with current times and needs.

Over the years, our profession has lost on the field that necessary "authority" quite different from an "authoritarianism" that none of us invoke; an authority necessary and that risks being again weakened by the reintroduction of the "slight entity" on the facts committed against the agents.

There is a strong risk today for police officers to be at the bar of defendants for carrying out their duties. This is a paradox: we live an inverted reality. Reality in which the good is condemned and held up as bad and the evil carefully caressed.

The greatest fear, for a police operator today, is not to hurt himself or even die on duty, but to see his own life and that of his family affections crumble, mentally and economically, following events judicial inherent to what happened during his profession, finding his names slammed in the media and painted on the pages of newspapers like monsters, and then continue in very long legal events where then having to pay the legal fees are always and only them.

The worst thing is that we find ourselves alone! A recent and evident example was the so-called "Alina case" of Trieste. Eight years of legal proceedings with the charge of very serious crimes, such as that of "kidnapping", and fierce adjectives used by the press (as "jailers") to define our colleagues and the Opicina Commissariat degraded to "Commissariat of Horrors ”, And then resolved, how it was right and how it happens in 90% of cases in which the members of the police force find themselves accused, definitively and positively. Also in this case those terrible adjectives have been replaced by others: absolved, innocent!

It is for events like this, and unfortunately many others, that SAP has long been asking for functional guarantees. It is necessary to remodel the criminal proceedings against the operators of the law enforcement agencies, so that each case is managed directly by the attorney general, and that a special archiving formula is also provided for in the event of reasons for justification. This is due to the serenity of the police officers in case they are innocent and not to allow those who may be guilty to continue to carry out these functions so important for the security of the country.

But even the equipment is often completely inadequate.

After the battle for expired bulletproof vests, which saw SAP expose its union leaders in a strong and front-line manner, the problems in some very serious cases related to the endowments continue, such as the issue of holsters that break, with dramatic consequences, but also the lack of armaments in step with the times, such as the long-awaited and never distributed "Taser", despite the fact that experimentation has long ended successfully.

An instrument of this type would be used daily and would positively resolve most of the interventions that often cause injuries to both police operators and their attackers following scuffles, since in this way they would be avoided.

At the local level, Trieste has undergone a profound transformation over the past few years; has a port business in full development and today of primary importance on a national and European scale, with all the consequences that this entails, also in terms of "interests and appetites" by organized crime.

But the Julian capital has also undergone a significant transformation on the tourist level; this requires attention in terms of security precisely to guarantee those who want to enjoy the beauty of this city, but also a prevention of "threats" that could be terrorist in nature.

Then, last but not least, the issue of illegal immigration, which directly and strongly affects this territory and which is putting the police forces located here in difficulty because they are in a strong deficit in terms of men, means and logistical structures to face a phenomenon constantly growing, in an area made up of about 54 km of Karst which, due to its geographical and geological conformation, is easily "violable" and "permeable" from anywhere.

Since 2014, numerous journalists and political commentators have spoken with increasing insistence on the so-called "Balkan route" of illegal immigration. But is it really such a recent phenomenon or does it sink into history?

It is incredible, for those who live in this area, to think that in the common imagination, including that of journalists, commentators and politicians, the "Balkan Route" passes through something new, recent, only a few years old.

I should add that I have often been asked about it because the topic continues to be little known, but above all underpowered, if not yet unknown, nationally, sometimes even just outside Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

Since I have been in the police force, therefore three decades, I have actually been "dealing" with the work of the so-called "Balkan Route".

It is a well-tested route, which has undergone significant changes and conformations over time, but which over the years has been able to adapt to the needs of the time. A constant flow of migrants, however, which has certainly increased significantly in recent years, often also changing the ethnic groups that have used this transit area. A flow that passes through Trieste, which is certainly a fundamental stage of the journey, the central entry point for Europe.

Could you please explain how the flows have changed over time and how the percentage of nationalities most representative of the population of "migrants" crossing the Balkan route has changed?

Today's "Balkan Route" differs greatly from that of the XNUMXs. At the time the "illegal arrivals" were hidden, hidden, they did not have to be seen, discovered; at the sight of the police, the immigrants fled.

The aforementioned arrivals took place almost exclusively on board vehicles, led by local "guides". Those of today, on the other hand, are clear passages, in the light of the sun, often using well-known entrances, also to facilitate the police in their tracing, and then "take refuge" in the request for the status of "political refugee".

The trips are now made in most cases on foot, starting from Bihac, a town in Bosnia located near the border with Croatia, then going through the forests of Croatia and Slovenia. A long, tiring journey, which certainly puts immigrants to the test even in terms of health, a problem that adds to the others.

Today's Italian politics and laws influence the phenomenon a lot, not hindering it, but facilitating it.

Ethnicities have also changed over the years. From the migrations of the late eighties - early nineties, made up of Asian ethnicities, such as individuals originating from China, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, then those coming from the Balkans after a fratricidal war that brought sedentary ethnicities to our territories such as Serbian, Macedonian, Bosnian, Albanian, Kosovar. Migrations of entire families, intent on rebuilding a better life, albeit away from home, which differ profoundly from those of today made up mostly of Pakistani, Afghans, Iraqis; young men without their families following, a detail that must necessarily impose a deep reflection. There are also groups from the Maghreb area, an apparently unnatural passage that must ignite proper attention to the phenomenon.

What are the countries crossed by the "Balkan route" and what policies have they adopted to manage this phenomenon? What are the main "hot spots"? What collaboration relationships does Italy have with each of them?

The so-called "Balkan Route" starts from Turkey and Greece and then goes to Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia and Slovenia and finally, through the Karst plateau, to access the regional capital of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, or continue towards Milan, then head towards other European destinations.

Currently, a large collection center for immigrants who are waiting to make their way to Trieste is precisely that of Bihac, which is located in Bosnian territory close to the border with Croatia. One of the reasons for strong concern now is the fact that the news coming from that site speaks of about 10-15 thousand people who are waiting at this moment to leave for our territory.

Do you believe that behind the logistics of the "Balkan route" there is the hand of the great international criminal organizations interested in exploiting migrants economically, or of foreign powers interested in geopolitically destabilizing this area of ​​Europe?

Absolutely yes! It is unthinkable that such human trafficking cannot be someone's source of income.

Surely we are faced with very different criminal organizations compared to those of the nineties. At the time, we opposed organized crime organizations that were well structured and rooted in the territories, with very specific roles, mostly made up of people from the territory. Today we have the impression that there are "lighter" organizations often made up of men of the same ethnic groups who illegally enter these territories.

A trip costing between seven and ten thousand dollars can only be a good business for criminal organizations.

Over time, Trieste and the Karst area in general have turned into the real "gateway" of illegal flows to Italy and northern Europe. What forces are our border police capable of opposing this tectonic movement and are they sufficient to fulfill the mission?

Much has changed over the past few years for the men and women of the Trieste Border Police.

Before the entry into force of the Schengen Treaty, the Trieste Border Police had about two hundred and sixty operators to be deployed between the border crossings, which consisted of around thirty garrisons of various sizes: international, second-level and agricultural . At that juncture one hundred and fifty men were lost, remaining with one hundred and ten, in the prospect that Italy should play its role of "internal" border within the Schengen area. However, the number of staff is reduced compared to that envisaged by the organic plants which provided for the Trieste border to have one hundred and twenty units distributed between the three subsections of the Land Border Police of Villa-Opicina, Fernetti and Rabuiese and the Land Border Police Sector which carries out tasks coordination, administrative-logistical functions and also takes care of the investigative part through the judicial police team.

Currently, with the staff available, it is possible to put two or three patrols on the road for each quadrant that perform a "retro-pass" function and therefore must guard a boundary belt fifty-four kilometers long and make up for all those activities inherent in the "frontier". ".

It should be noted that among the functions of the Border Police, the theme of illegal immigration is only a part and not the exclusive one of the duties on which to intervene. In fact, there are documentary checks on the means and people who enter and leave our territory and, in this period, also the issue of controls related to standards and DPCM to prevent the spread of viruses, linked to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Today the workforce is around one hundred units, therefore already heavily undersized compared to an ordinary situation, which with the pandemic and, above all, with the issue of illegal immigration, today assumes extraordinary characteristics, although highly predictable.

There are also other situations, such as those of the possibility of the "closure" of Schengen, in certain circumstances, as it was on the occasion of the G7 in Taormina, during which the forces in the field have already shown that they are not sufficient to "seal" really the frontier that in situations of that type becomes "external". Problems in this case deriving not only from an insufficient staff, but even from evident structural deficiencies, not even the offices of the past that were on the "entrance doors" of the passes, no longer existed, demolished at that time as expected and which in the The occasion of a reinstatement of the borders are not even replaced with modular or prefabricated structures. In that case the checks are carried out by the operators directly on the road without even being sheltered from the weather.

All these issues that have been brought to the fore by the SAP of Trieste which over the years has even organized demonstrations and awareness campaigns that have been repeated several times by the local and national mass media. The request for an increase in men by the SAP which in 2015 led some city councilors from Trieste to ask for an Extraordinary Municipal Security Council to speak on this topic. At that juncture, the local SAP brought the reasons for its alarm cries to the Council, documenting the situation that had arisen with concrete numbers and arguments; a situation then far less heavy than the current one.

In our view, the forces deployed by the Border Police are inadequate to cope with such a flow of people. We are convinced that the "traced" people, those who are physically found and for whom the practices required by law are carried out, constitute only a part, certainly much less than what are the illegal "passages" and "entrances" in the our territory.

The conviction is dictated by the fact that, when such large groups are found, as it happens more and more often, the patrols, those few of the Frontier, also assisted by the soldiers of "Safe Roads" and unfortunately, often by the crews of the " Volanti "and other" Specialties "return to the offices to draw up the deeds and the territory remains unprepared, favoring the passage of other people who earn their way to other cities, such as Milan, and then continue their journey in the various European countries.

But the problem lies not only in the shortage of staff, but also in that of adequate means, just think that we do not even have means equipped with adequate protections, such as separating glasses, between detainees and police officers, as it does the nearby Slovenian police. There are few vehicles that are suitable for traveling on dirt roads and being able to go into the woods, I am referring to Jeeps or off-road vehicles.

In addition, there are no offices that can accommodate such a large number of people.

What does the work of the border police consist of from a material and administrative point of view? What administrative and medical process are migrants subjected to once they are intercepted by our law enforcement agencies?

Since the entry into Slovenia of Schengen, the "external" border has therefore become the Croatian one, transforming an ancient control at the Italian border crossing points into a dynamic self-assembled surveillance along the fifty-four kilometers of border between Italy and Slovenia. The operators of the Trieste Land Border Police have been carrying out this type of service for thirteen years, during which phases of adaptation and evolution have been seen.

The "back-crossing" checks are aimed at preventing and repressing any type of crime, therefore at controlling people, vehicles, looking for drugs, weapons, but also, as in recent years, at the suppression of criminal phenomena such as smuggling of manufactured tobaccos or animal trafficking, the latter two on the rise.

During the era of the Covid-19 pandemic, Border Police operators added to the already numerous tasks, those related to enforcing the measures put in place to deal with the epidemic.

It should also be noted that with the implementation of the Schengen Treaty, one could hypothetically start from the Ukrainian borders and reach Portugal, even zigzagging through Europe, without being subject to any police control. One of the main arteries, for example, starts from Eastern Europe (Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine), passes through Slovenia and has the former Fernetti pass as an Italian mouth, so the vehicle flow has certainly increased exponentially as well as the criminal activity inherent in the trafficking of all goods.

Immigrants who illegally enter the national territory and are traced by the operators of the Terrestrial Border Police of Trieste are usually accompanied to the Fernetti Subsection, where a sort of point for photo-signaling identification has been established. There 118 operators are contacted through the NUE for a health screening in compliance with the current Covid-19 legislation; before the pandemic, these checks were NOT carried out unless at the request of migrants as a result of obvious symptoms or pain due to joint problems caused by the walking days that they had had to sustain, leaving from Bosnia to reach the national territory.

The procedural procedure, implemented by the operator of the Border Police, after the tracing of migrants who entered the territory illegally is:

  • The declaration of one's personal details by the foreigner through a multilingual model assisted by a cultural mediator who simultaneously translates and follows ALL the steps of the procedure;

  • The photo-signaling;

  • The report in a state of freedom pursuant to art. 10 Bis Legislative Decree 286/98;

  • Request for international protection (at the request of the foreigner who is however always aware of this option)

  • Accompaniment at a facility suitable for reception (both for minors and adults) where during the COVID-19 emergency, the 14-day quarantine period provided for by the current legislation is passed (in the event of a positive Eurodac)

  • Readmission to Slovenia, place of origin, in case of negative Eurodac.

Did the Covid-19 epidemic influence the flow of migrants through the "Balkan route" in any way? Do you believe that the initiatives put in place over the years by both Italian politics and the European authorities have been of help to you "frontline operators", and if the answer is negative, how could this be remedied?

Surely! The flow of migrants last year saw a sharp increase in arrivals compared to the previous year. In these first six months of the year there has been a substantial increase even compared to last year. In the middle of winter, in January and February, when the weather conditions, for obvious reasons, were prohibitive, the admissions were almost triple compared to last year.

Then Covid-19 and the closure, this time effective, of borders by all states. In March and April there were significant decreases in arrivals, lower than last year, but still very considerable compared to 2017.

With the reopening of the borders in May, although the one between Slovenia and Italy remained closed, a very important surge was recorded, with a figure such as that of the Trieste Border Police which significantly describes the sense of proportion: five hundred twenty-three compared to the one hundred and sixty-eight of 2019.

Like SAP, we have also denounced the lack of attention from national politics regarding what is happening on this "front". We hear daily about landings in Italian ports, but the numbers of arrivals in Trieste are clear: the "land port" of the Julian Karst, metaphorically, records the largest landing place.

Nothing has been done to reinforce the police force, no implementation of means and equipment, no suitable structure to be able to carry out the practices required by law in complete safety.

It is believed that nobody is giving the same attention, as regards the health profile, reserved to the ships of the NGOs that dock in the ports of Italy. For health checks, in fact, it is necessary to contact the health service from time to time to request medical personnel; SAP has been asking for a clear health protocol on this topic for years, which is automatically activated in the event of tracing of illegal immigrants, given the certainly precarious conditions after a similar journey, beyond Covid-19. Pathologies of various nature that can represent a danger for the community and for the police operators, the first responders of immigrants and that only personnel such as the medical one is professionally prepared and able to find.

Just in these days the deputy governor of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia Region, Riccardo Riccardi, has launched the alarm for the pandemic present on the Balkan territories and the danger of the uncontrolled arrival of subjects at risk, further proof that what has been requested for some time by the SAP is necessary for everyone's health.

Diplomatic agreements between the various countries are needed to stem the flow, in particular with neighboring Slovenia.

Lately, the so-called "readmissions" between the Italian and Slovenian internal borders, which constitutes the real extra-Schengen "barrier", are being carried out more frequently. However, these "readmissions" are still difficult to carry out: changes are needed to make them more streamlined and easier to apply.

The "readmissions" give good results. We consider that Slovenia is a country like Italy, which in addition to belonging to Europe, is a country adhering to the Schengen agreement and certainly offers all the humanitarian guarantees provided for refugees.

A phenomenon of illegal immigration which also puts a strain on colleagues from the Slovenian police. SAP, a member of CESP - European Union of Police Unions (the Secretary of SAP of Valle d'Aosta also holds the position of Deputy Secretary General of CESP), has constant contacts with the major Slovenian Police Union PSS.

The Slovenian police is made up of just over 6000 units across the Republic and suffers from a shortage of about 5000 officers: a considerable number. To think that Slovenia and Italy alone can face a phenomenon of these proportions is unthinkable. The answer must be given directly from Europe!

What are your personal predictions for the near future? Do you think the situation on the ground will realistically improve or worsen? Given the escalation of the internal and external crisis, is there a real danger of a loss of control of the territory by the state authorities?

It is difficult to make predictions. Stopping such an important flow is very difficult. Certainly with strong policies and actions, the passage through these territories would be greatly limited, with the risk of perhaps opening new "routes" in other areas.

This territory shows signs of impatience. There have been many protests over the "illegal passageways" during COVID-19 as opposed to the rigid and efficient controls that the cross-border population has undergone. A situation that has subjected the police forces of the two countries, which complain of serious staff shortages, to criticism from citizens who accused them of not addressing the migration phenomenon with the same forces dedicated to that of the health emergency.

One thing is certain, more can be done and more must be done, starting to give proper attention to a phenomenon that must necessarily and in any case remain under control.