Policies designed to dissuade people from migrating are making the journeys of minors arriving in France increasingly dangerous. The distress of those who arrive is exacerbated by abuse and organised institutional rejection. MSF has released a report, Unaccompanied minors: symbols of a policy of mistreatment, which describes the situation.
Read the executive summary and download the report (in French) Unaccompanied minors: symbols of a policy of mistreatment.
Behind the administrative designation “unaccompanied minors” are under 18-year-old children from foreign countries who journey to France without their families. While some leave their home countries voluntarily, the majority have no choice. Although laws and international conventions require France to ensure their protection, in reality very little is done to provide unaccompanied minors with shelter and appropriate care.
Worse still, the French administration imposes deliberately complex administrative procedures calculated to reject them on the basis of an examination of their cases −a system that drives young people into a rootless and precarious existence, while exonerating the authorities of all responsibility.
Source: French Ministry of Justice – Unaccompanied Minors Department
A traumatising journey into exile
Unaccompanied minors who arrive in France have undergone long, arduous, and often traumatising journeys, during which violence is commonplace. In addition to the brutality that forced them to leave everything behind in their home countries, they have had to contend with the violence − sometimes extreme − encountered along the road into exile, especially when passing through Libya (captivity, sexual violence, physical abuse, etc.).
Eighty-seven per cent of the young people MSF assisted at our centre in Pantin in 2018 said during medical examinations they had been subjected to violence, torture or abuse during their journeys.
And there’s little respite when they get to France. Left to fend for themselves, in unfamiliar territory and with no money, they are particularly vulnerable. If they don’t want to sleep rough, they have to quickly get to grips with the complexities of France’s administrative procedures to be able to negotiate their way through the system.
Mark, a young Cameroonian in France, speaks about his journey (in French).
Mark*, a young refugee from Cameroon
I’m from southwest Cameroon. My father, who was Beti [an ethnic group in Cameroon], was Captain of the Guard at the army base in Kumba. He was killed because he opposed the country’s Anglophone minority. I didn’t live with him, but with my sister and her husband in Douala. My mother’s still alive. She’s in Boulou, but I don’t know where. It’s a really long story, and I don’t want to talk about it.
When my sister’s husband died, I had to leave Douala. I went to Bamenda to live with my big brother and my little sister. I had to stop going to school; I was in the 3rd year of secondary school. But, on 1 January 2017, my big brother, who’s against the regime, told me to leave.
Bullets were flying in all directions in Bamenda. My brother told me his rebel group wanted to give weapons to the children, even the girls. Things had become really dangerous. He told me I had to leave the country. I said, “I’ll go, but where to?” He didn’t answer. He sent my little sister and me off with Moussa, who took us to Nigeria.
My little 13-year old sister and I walked across the border in Bamenda. We found Moussa and passed through Nigeria via Lagos. At the border between Nigeria and Niger, people smugglers take you by motorbike to their ghetto and then put you in a car.
There are loads of checkpoints in Niger, but as long as you pay the police let you through. In Niamey, 27 of us climbed onto a pick-up. We were so many different nationalities—Ivoirians, Cameroonians, Gambians… The arrival in Agadez is well-organised. You arrive at the station and motorbikes come and pick you up.
The police know exactly what’s going on, but they take money and turn a blind eye. The Nigerians took us to a closed camp 20 minutes from the station. It was a two-storey house with people upstairs and downstairs. Nobody was allowed out. They told us the police don’t like seeing migrants.
We spent a week there and one evening the problems began. Several Arabs came to get us late at night. They knew the right time to cross and the routes to take through the desert. All they gave us was a five-litre can of water and some tapioca with powered milk.
In the desert I saw the epicentre of people trafficking. Pick-ups crammed with Ethiopians and Eritreans joined us in the middle of the desert. There were 32 pick-up trucks, and we must have been 700 migrants. We took off in groups of five trucks.
After five days of driving through the desert, at 10 am in the morning bandits attacked us. The attack lasted two or three hours. They started shooting and I told my sister, “Get down and go in the cave.” My friend told her to go the other way and that’s when a bullet hit her in the ribs. We wanted to take her to the hospital, but we couldn’t. The poison in the bullet killed her. Seven or eight people died in the attack. Nobody’s going to give you any help over there.
When the bandits took off, all the drivers said was, “Haya, haya!” (Hurry, hurry). We didn’t even have time to bury all the bodies. I had a sheet in my bag. I wrapped it round my sister’s body and buried her. When I lost my little sister, I went crazy. All I wanted was to go home.
We continued driving through the desert, but only during the day. They’d stop the cars in the evening so they wouldn’t be seen. The journey took a long time. They used their Thuraya phone to communicate with other people smugglers. We had nothing left to drink or eat, and a friend showed me what to do when water runs out. You pee in a can and drink it.
Several days later we arrived at the Libyan border. We stopped off in Gatroun. We rested, washed and we were able to change our clothes. Then they took us to Sebha, which is where their base is.
When we got to Sebha, the boss asked us for our full names and noted them down. He told us, “You’ve been sold by Moussa. You have to call your families so that we can let you go. Then you’ll go to France.”
But I had no one to call, and they tortured me in every way possible. They beat me with pipes and hurled cement blocks at my chest. They yanked out one of my teeth with a crowbar and I bled so much my head swelled up like a balloon. They started raping the women, even the little girls, right in front of us. They’d hit their mothers when they tried to help them.
I couldn’t pay, so I was sold several times over. First it was to a Ghanaian who works with the Arabs. He demanded 700,000 CFA francs (around €1,070) to let me go and send me to France. I was sold again, still in Sebha, to a Libyan who demanded 200,000 CFA francs (around €300).
But the prison was the worst. There were around 2,000 people in one yard. When one of the guards had smoked, he’d come and beat us up. He was capable of beating people to death by slamming them against the wall. We couldn’t escape because, although there wasn’t a roof, they’d strung up high-voltage wires over the yard that fried you if you touched them. We couldn’t sleep at night. There wasn’t enough room to lie down so we had to keep sitting up. We’d eat in groups of 15 at a time. We’d mix Maggi cubes and salt in tins of tomatoes. People died every day, from starvation, or because of the torture.
I was sold for a third time and taken to Zawiya. In Tripoli, I was sold for the fourth time. That’s when I managed to escape… I don’t like talking about everything that happened, looking back at the past.
Providing immediate, appropriate and unconditional accommodation for a minimum of five days is a legal obligation for any minor initiating the assessment process in a département. However, hundreds of teenage migrants say no temporary accommodation is made available to them during the process and that they sleep rough on the streets of France while waiting for the authorities to recognise them as minors.
The young people Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams assist at our Pantin centre are those who have been deemed insufficiently convincing during their minority assessment interviews. The verdict pronounced, despite their claims, the administration does not recognise them as minors. This means they receive no assistance with accommodation, food, medical care or education, which would enable them to survive and also facilitate their integration into society. In 2018, more than half were sleeping rough at the time of their first visit to the centre.
I was hoping to sleep in Gare du Nord train station but lots of people drink alcohol and take drugs there. It’s too scary, so I sleep near the canal in République.An unnacompanied minor in Paris
Their only recourse is to file for an appeal before the courts to try and obtain protection—yet another slow and cumbersome process. Many minors rely on associations and civil society support organisations for their survival as the authorities shirk their obligation to ensure the protection of children, despite the fact that the law stipulates all young people must be considered minors until all legal recourse is exhausted.
After challenging the initial decision in court, many young people succeed in being recognised as minors ─ a woeful reflection of the shortcomings of often arbitrary and cursory assessments conducted by the various départements.
Of the 431 unaccompanied minors assisted at the Pantin centre in 2018 who succeeded in filing an appeal before the courts for a review of their application for protection, 57.5% were recognised as minors and placed in the care of Child Protection Services.
An uphill struggle to secure access to health care
For young unaccompanied foreigners, securing access to health care is an uphill struggle. Neither minors nor adults, the care they receive is often both inadequate and sporadic. The administrative procedures that could enable them to benefit from social protection are onerous, even though France is required to ensure access to health care and protection for all minors residing on its territory.
But the State takes no account of the special status of these young people. Given the harrowing conditions and possibly torture they experience during their journeys and that they live out on the street, they not only need medical care but also psychological support.
Of the young people seen by psychologists at MSF’s Pantin centre, 34 per cent suffered from psychotraumatic stress disorders that need immediate treatment to prevent them from becoming irreversible. Treating young, foreign unaccompanied patients is a challenge , as it requires taking account of the extreme instability of their lives. It becomes impossible when they are not placed in the care of Child Protection Services.
The reality is that the care available to unaccompanied minors does not allow them to escape the insecurity of their living conditions, let alone provide them access to health care. Worse still, it appears to be set up in such a way as to dissuade them from claiming the assistance to which they are entitled.