Rejected and traumatised: The situation of unaccompanied minors arriving in France

29 Sep 2019
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Minors who arrive in France have endured journeys of an extreme violence made increasingly dangerous by policies concocted to dissuade people from migrating at any cost. The distress of young people who manage to survive and reach France is exacerbated by the abuse and organised institutional rejection they face on their arrival in the country.

Behind administrative designation unaccompanied minors are under 18-year 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 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.

Of the 40,000 young people who arrived in France in 2018, only 17,000 were officially recognised as unaccompanied minors by departements and placed in the care of Child Protection Services .

Source: 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.).

87% of the young people MSF assisted in its 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.

A complex system

From the administrative perspective, the bureaucracy involved in obtaining assistance for unaccompanied minors is a real headache. The first step involves an assessment by the administration of their unaccompanied minor status. Assessments consist in an interview,­ sometimes lasting a matter of minutes, at the end of which it is decided whether or not the young person is not only a minor but also unaccompanied, and as such entitled to the care of Child Protection Services.

In France, Child Protection Services must—regardless of citizenship—provide all young people under the age of 18 years who have no parent or legal guardian protection, accommodation and access to health care and education .

Sleeping rough

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 teams assist at its 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, over 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.”

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.

However, 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.

34% of the young people seen by the psychologists at MSF’s Pantin centre suffer 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, if not indeed 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.