Unaccompanied children arriving in France’s Alpine region undergo flawed age assessment procedures that deny many access to needed protection, Human Rights Watch said in a new report.
The 80-page report, “Subject to Whim: The Treatment of Unaccompanied Migrant Children in the French Hautes-Alpes,” found that examiners whose job is to certify a child’s status as a minor – that is, under age 18 – do not comply with international standards. Human Rights Watch found that examiners use various justifications to deny children protection. These include children’s minor mistakes with dates, their reluctance to discuss particularly traumatic experiences in detail or work they did in home countries or while in transit, and what examiners deem as unrealistic life goals.
“Child protection should not be a matter of caprice,” said Bénédicte Jeannerod, France director at Human Rights Watch. “Age assessments should afford children a fair process, not look for excuses to deny them protection.”
Human Rights Watch has found similar flaws with age assessment procedures in Paris and has heard accounts of arbitrary decision making by authorities elsewhere in France, suggesting that flawed procedures are a problem across France.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 59 boys, one girl, and one 18-year-old man in the French Hautes-Alpes department and reviewed an additional 36 case files for the report. Human Rights Watch also spoke with lawyers, healthcare providers, staff and volunteers of humanitarian agencies and informal associations, and officials.
Under French law, unaccompanied children should be taken into care by the child protection system, the Service de l’aide sociale à l’enfance (ASE). As a first step, child welfare authorities require unaccompanied children to undergo age assessments before they are formally recognized as children.
International standards call for age assessment to be used as a last resort and only when there are serious doubts about a person’s declared age and documentary evidence is lacking. French regulations provide that age assessments should be conducted in a manner “characterized by neutrality and compassion.” Following international standards, age assessments should give the benefit of the doubt when there is a reasonable possibility that the declared age is correct.
Many children who arrive on their own in France, whether in the Hautes-Alpes or elsewhere, have suffered serious abuses in their home countries; endured torture, forced labor, and other ill-treatment in Libya; and undergone terrifying sea crossings on overcrowded boats on their way to Europe. Many show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, doctors told Human Rights Watch. But the age examination process does not appear to account for these circumstances and the well-documented effects of PTSD on memory, concentration, and emotional expression, Human Rights Watch found.
An immediate consequence of a negative age assessment is eviction from emergency shelter for unaccompanied children, even for those who seek review before a judge. Some children found shelter with families or in squats run by volunteer networks. Others stay in shelters for adults or live on the streets. The review process can take months, which may affect their eligibility for regular immigration status when they turn 18.
Most of the children interviewed said they spent six months to a year or more in Italy before deciding to make their way to France. Many cited lack of access to education and health care as the primary reasons for leaving Italy. Some cited discriminatory attitudes by government officials and the general public.
Flawed age assessments are not the only obstacle unaccompanied children face.
Border police in France’s Hautes-Alpes department have summarily returned unaccompanied migrant children who attempt to cross the border between Italy and France, instead of referring them to protection services, Human Rights Watch found. These accounts are consistent with reports from the French Defender of Rights, nongovernmental organizations, lawyers, and volunteer groups.
Amadin N., from Benin, 17, said: “I showed my papers that said that I was a minor, but the police didn’t want to hear it.”
French law provides for an expedited “entry refusal” process for children and adults apprehended within 10 kilometers of the border. In such cases, police provide a written notice of the reasons for refusing entry and of the rights to seek asylum and to appeal. Children should be appointed a guardian. Police did not appear to respect these limited procedural protections in the nine cases described to Human Rights Watch.
To avoid apprehension and summary return, unaccompanied children said they hiked high into the mountains, off established trails, experiencing significant risks as a result. Many children arrive in Briançon, a major city in the region, suffering from frostbite, other injuries, and exhaustion.
French police harass and sometimes seek prosecution of people who help migrants in distress in the mountains. Authorities have continued to pursue criminal charges despite a July 2018 court ruling that helping others in need, including undocumented migrants, is constitutionally protected.
Aid workers, volunteers, and activists who take part in search-and-rescue operations in the mountains report repeated document checks, vehicle inspections, and citations for minor road violations in circumstances that suggest that police are not employing them for public safety or other legitimate policing purposes, but instead to create a hostile environment for humanitarian workers.
Such forms of harassment are not unique to the Hautes-Alpes; aid workers, volunteers, and activists operating in and around Calais have described similar practices to Amnesty International, the French Defender of Rights, Human Rights Watch, and UN special rapporteurs.
France shares the same obligations as all other European Union countries to afford unaccompanied children who arrive at its borders special safeguards that protect their human rights as set out in international and EU law. As other Human Rights Watch research establishes, France is not alone in the EU in failing to meet these human rights obligations consistently. The fact that other countries may have violated the rights of unaccompanied children does not mitigate France’s duty to comply with international and regional norms and EU law, Human Rights Watch said.
French authorities should reform age assessment procedures and practices to conform to international standards and ensure that children are not arbitrarily denied formal recognition. Among other steps, screening for post-traumatic stress disorder by qualified psychiatrists, with counseling prior to assessment for those found to have symptoms, would result in a fairer process. Protocols should be developed with input from experts to determine when, how, and by whom these children should be assessed.
Authorities should end summary returns of unaccompanied migrant children to Italy and instead immediately transfer them to the child welfare system for appropriate protection and care.
French authorities should also prevent and ensure accountability for police harassment of humanitarian workers.
“Helping children and adults in need, whatever their migration status, should never be treated as a crime,” Jeannerod said. “Migrant children should have a fair assessment leading to the protection they are entitled to.”