Subject to Whim

Subject to Whim

Subject to Whim

The Treatment of Unaccompanied Children in the French Hautes-Alpes

Joshua F. left his home in Cameroon with his younger sister in 2016, when he was 13, after their parents died in an accident. His father’s family took the house and his father’s workshop, turning the two children out. They left Douala and travelled to Yaoundé, where they lived on the streets for a time until a man offered Joshua a carpentry job in northern Cameroon. In fact, the man took them to Chad and forced them to work long hours without pay in his home.

Joshua and his sister were then abducted and taken to Libya. There, he told Human Rights Watch, they were held by smugglers. “I was the victim of slavery,” he said, describing long days of forced labour in fields and on construction sites. The men who held him and his sister beat them and demanded that they contact their family to arrange a ransom payment. After he repeatedly told the men they had nobody they could call, one of the men killed his sister in front of him.

After he had been in Libya for about a year, once he had worked long enough that the men considered his ransom paid, they took him to the beach to join a large group boarding a Zodiac, a large inflatable boat. The men forced as many as possible onto the boat, at one point firing guns at the water near the group. After several days at sea, a ship rescued the group and took them to Italy.

Joshua had sustained injuries from the forced labour and beatings he endured in Libya, and when he arrived in Italy, he asked reception center staff to see a doctor. But he never received medical care while he was in Italy. He was also not able to attend school.

After six months, he decided to leave Italy. He travelled to Claviere, a village in the Alps on the French-Italian border, and tried to enter France on five successive nights. On his first four attempts, border police sent him back to Italy after he told them his age and tried to explain his situation, even though by law they should have accepted his declared age and, under the procedures the border police director described to Human Rights Watch, should have referred him to child protection authorities.

On his fifth attempt, police let him continue into France. They did not contact child welfare services; instead, he and another boy walked all night to reach the town of Briançon. Volunteers at a shelter there gave him first aid and arranged for his transport to the departmental capital, Gap, where unaccompanied children undergo age assessments to determine whether they will be taken into care.

In Gap, he received a negative age assessment for reasons he still does not understand. “There were things written there I did not say,” he told us. With the aid of lawyers, he asked the juvenile judge to review the negative age assessment and was expecting a ruling in mid-September 2019.

Like Joshua, many children decide to leave Italy and travel to France because they have not received access to education or adequate health care in Italy. The perception of hostility on the part of the Italian government and the general public is also a significant factor in unaccompanied children’s decisions to leave Italy.

Unaccompanied migrant children who travel from Italy to France’s Hautes-Alpes Department may, in violation of French law and child rights protection norms, be summarily returned to Italy by French authorities. To avoid apprehension and summary return by border police, many children cross the border at night, hiking high into the mountains far off established trails.

Even in the height of the summer, in July and August, it is cold in the mountains, and it is easy to get lost in the dark. Children described walking seven to ten hours to reach Briançon, less than 15 km via the most direct route by road. Many were exhausted by the time they reached Briançon, and some had suffered injuries from falls on rocky slopes or while crossing frigid mountain streams. In the winter months, the crossing can be perilous: many of the children interviewed by Human Rights Watch in January and February were recovering from frostbite, and some required hospitalization.

Once they enter France, many are refused formal recognition as children after flawed age assessments. In cases reviewed by Human Rights Watch, many children received negative age assessments because, in the judgement of the examiner, they failed to provide clear accounts of their journeys—in reality, meaning that they made minor mistakes with dates, confused the names of places they travelled through, or did not want to discuss particularly difficult experiences with an adult they had just met. Work in home countries or while in transit to Europe may be taken as an indication that the child is older than claimed, even though many children work at very young ages around the world. Life goals that examiners deem unrealistic, such as overly optimistic assessments of career prospects, may also be factors in negative age assessments.

To read the full report from Human Rights Watch, click here.