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Left out in the cold: MSF provides emergency beds for teenage migrants

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Hundreds of young migrants and asylum seekers across France are being forced to sleep rough because of the state’s failure to provide them with accommodation during the winter months, despite having a legal obligation to do so. In response, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is working with local organisations to provide emergency accommodation for 150 unaccompanied minors each night in the cities of Paris and Marseille.


Paris: Alpha, Boubacar and Koné, foreign minors living in the streets

Mohammad Ghannam/MSF

Teenage migrants living on France’s streets in winter 

Their names are Koné, Alpha, Boubacar, Medhi and Suhail. They are aged from 15 to 17 and come from Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea and Morocco. All have experienced the hardships of living on the streets of Paris and Marseille. 

Like many others of their age, these young people were deemed “too self-sufficient,” “too mature” or “not precise enough about their migratory journey” to be recognised as minors when assessed by officials from the local département [administrative region]. To qualify for protection, young people must be recognised as being under the age of 18 and unaccompanied.

There are nights when you can't even sleep because it's so cold Koné, 16-years-old, from Côte d’Ivoire

In Marseille, in the south of France, however, even teenagers who have been officially recognised as unaccompanied minors – and should therefore qualify for social protection – are sleeping on the streets, after the département claimed it had too few places in shelters to accommodate them. 

In winter, the state has an obligation to provide emergency shelter, unconditionally, for all rough sleepers. Both département and state are failing to uphold their responsibilities towards these vulnerable young people. 

Sleepless nights, illness adds to hardship faced by young migrants 

Faced with this failure by the public authorities, MSF decided in December 2019 to finance 150 places each night for teenage migrants in hotels and guest houses in Paris and Marseille. 

The winter temperatures make these young people more than usually vulnerable, both physically and mentally. “There are nights when you can't even sleep because it's so cold,” says 16-year-old Koné, who comes from Côte d’Ivoire. Shivering, he and his friends huddle all night around fires made of pallets, often not falling asleep until daybreak. 

Mobile clinic for migrants in Paris
A group of men try to keep warm around a fire in a camp in Porte d'Aubervilliers, Paris. France, January 2020.
Mohammad Ghannam/MSF

Vulnerable teenage migrants even more vulnerable in street camps 

Until recently, most young migrants and asylum seekers arriving in Paris ended up in one of the makeshift settlements that surrounded the city before the authorities dismantled them over the past three months. 

Boubacar remembers the first day he arrived at the Porte d'Aubervilliers camp. “You say to yourself: 'It's not possible, I can't sleep here’,” he says. “Imagine, people die in the Mediterranean to come here. But we have no other option, so we end up doing it – we have to.” 

After he was assessed and deemed to be an adult by the département, Boubacar spent two months sleeping rough. Recently a juvenile court judge ruled that he was a minor, and since then he has been provided with social protection.

Imagine, people die in the Mediterranean to come here. But we have no other option, so we end up doing it – we have to Boubacar, teenage migrant living in Paris

Every teenager forced to live on the streets tells of the dangers of this kind of existence, living without family, friends or support networks. 

“The most dangerous thing is to be alone,” says 15-year-old Alpha, from Guinea. “You see some people beating people up and there's no one talking. That hurts a lot.” 

Alpha was violently assaulted in the makeshift camp where he had pitched his tent after asking a man to give him back his few possessions, stolen from him the day before. 

MSF teams providing shelter and support in Paris and Marseille 

The 65 minors currently sheltered by MSF in Paris are being followed in our Pantin day centre for medical, psychological, legal and social support. Since it opened in December 2017, a total of 1,520 young people have received support at the centre. 

In Marseille, MSF teams are currently providing emergency accommodation for 60 young people, who are also being supported by a network of charities and grassroots organisations, which have been forced to make up for the shortcomings of the public authorities.
Since 2018, MSF teams in Paris have accommodated and supported nearly 350 unaccompanied minors with medical, psychological, legal and social support, and have provided emergency accommodation in the form of 900 hotel beds.