To die on the train tracks struck by a train speeding at 80km/hr. It happened the night of Saturday January 20 in the district of Balerna, Switzerland, not far from the station of this border Country along the railway line Chiasso-Lugano. There was nothing the driver could do. Only at the last minute did he see the man walking in the middle of the train tracks, while another train was proceeding on the opposite side. The victim, a migrant whose identity is still unknown, didn’t see the Eurocity train arriving from Milan and directed to Zurich. His companion, who was unscathed, of Moroccan nationality, testified that the victim was a thirty-year-old undocumented migrant who had arrived from Morocco with him. The tragedy occurred in a few instants. Rail traffic was blocked for several hours. It’s the third, tragic case registered in less than a year along the Swiss railway line, a few hundred meters from the border with Italy. On February 27 2017 a twenty-year old man from Mali, Youssuf Diakite, died after being electrocuted on the roof of a regional train where he was hiding to avoid controls. The change in voltage of the two electricity lines – from the 3 KW output of the Italian transmission line to the 15 KW of the Swiss power line – was lethal. The charred remains of the victim were found when the train stopped in the station of Balerna. Less than a month later a twenty-two-year-old man from Cameroon, who was also in hiding on the roof of a freight train, was severely injured after coming into contact with the overhead power lines in Chiasso’s train station. For weeks he struggled between life and death. The two news stories shocked the public opinion of the Canton of Ticino. The managers of the Swiss Federal Railways and those of Trenord thus decided to plan a communication strategy to inform refugees of the danger of hiding on the roofs of freight trains. A desperate, reckless decision on the part of those crowding the train station of Como San Giovanni, seeking to reach Northern Europe passing through Switzerland.
Today, less than a year since that first tragic incident, another absurd death occurred on the rail track. Also in this case, as in 2017, the two decided to seek shelter on the train, just like tens of refugees do every day, covering by foot a route they consider safer, as it is distant from the controls that Cantonal police and Swiss border guards perform along the streets. However, if those entering Switzerland don’t file an asylum request after a night in a temporary refugee-reception centre, they are sent back to Italy. And they try again. The population of the Ticino Canton did not fail to show solidarity; the ecclesial communities on the border zones intervened with their volunteer workers. This led to increasingly stronger cooperation with Como’s volunteers, until, in the summer of 2016, a veritable emergency broke out in Como owing to the rigid enforcement of the Schengen agreement on the part of Swiss authorities followed by a number of refoulements along the border. The situation escalated to the point that Caritas Como and the local community led by Fr Giusto Della Valle, parish priest in the town of Rebbio, took action to organize an unplanned hospitality initiative of huge proportions with the help of many inhabitants in the Ticino Canton. Even the diocese of Lugano, in 2015, when thousands of Syrian exiles amassed the border zone, sent an invitation to parishes and communities to identify and make available to the Canton authorities all structures that could be used for reception purposes (empty buildings, prefabs, housing units or apartments.) In 2017, on the occasion of the death of Youssuf, a prayer vigil was held in the train station of Balerna with people of Como who arrived from across the border. An awareness-raising day – also promoted together – followed in a parish at the centre of Como with the active participation of some refugees. Now the two dioceses, in the person of the bishop of Lugano Mons. Valerio Lazzeri and the bishop of Como, Msgr. Oscar Cantoni, are studying forms of cooperation that may become effective witnesses of hospitality.
*journalist RSI, Swiss Radio and Television