Paris child protection authorities employ inadequate procedures that arbitrarily deny formal recognition as a child to unaccompanied migrant children, denying many the services they desperately need.
Human Rights Watch found, similar to the situation it reported in July 2018, that authorities are using summary age assessments to determine eligibility for services, in violation of international standards and French regulations. As a result, children are deprived of access to essential services they are entitled to, including housing, education, and health services. In the meantime, many must sleep on the streets.
“Migrant children who arrive in Paris alone are living in the streets because of unfair procedures,” said Bénédicte Jeannerod, France Director of Human Rights Watch. “Child welfare authorities in Paris should make sure that no child faces danger because of slipshod and arbitrary assessments of their age and their needs.”
Paris officials said that they already had taken steps to address the problems even as Human Rights Watch issued its report in July outlining the concerns. But interviews with children who sought recognition of their status in August and September and a review of documents indicate that little had changed.
French regulations require authorities to follow comprehensive, multidisciplinary age assessment procedures, ordinarily meaning interviews of several hours in duration.
In a typical case, a 16-year-old Afghan boy told Human Rights Watch that authorities concluded he was not a child after speaking with him for 30 minutes the day he arrived in Paris. Similarly, a humanitarian group tracked the cases of about 100 youths who sought formal recognition as children in August and September and found that 60 percent had interviews of only about 20 minutes.
Unaccompanied migrant children in France are entitled under French law to housing, education, and other services. However, authorities must formally recognize them as children for them to gain access. There are ssignificant differences in material benefits and legal status available to child migrants under the Family and Social Action Code (Code de l’action sociale et des familles) and the immigration law as compared with adult migrants, creating incentives for young adults to misrepresent their age. If authorities have serious doubts about an individual’s claim to be under 18, they can take appropriate steps to determine age, provided that they do so in line with appropriate standards that ensure respect for their rights and dignity.
The regulations also allow unaccompanied children to receive emergency shelter for five days, and in some cases more, before their interview. Aid workers stressed the importance of allowing unaccompanied children some time to recover from their journeys before undergoing age assessment interviews. Sophie Laurant, coordinator of Médecins du Monde’s Programme for Unaccompanied Minors, told Human Rights Watch that a period of recuperation after the child arrives in the city is imperative for a proper assessment.
But in many cases, authorities interview unaccompanied children immediately after they go to the the Paris evaluation facility (Dispositif d’evaluation des mineurs isolés étrangers, DEMIE), meaning that children must answer detailed questions without understanding the purpose of the interview. Some children told Human Rights Watch they had just arrived in Paris and had not slept, showered, or changed clothes before their interview. “I was really tired. I don’t even remember what they asked me and what I told them,” the 16-year-old said of his interview, which took place in mid-September.
Authorities rely on invalid grounds for concluding that a person is an adult. Youths are often denied recognition as children if they lack identity documents. Work in the home country or on the journey to Europe is also regularly cited as a basis for negative decisions, though many children around the world work. And child protection authorities frequently relied on subjective factors such as “bearing” or comportment.
Human Rights Watch found that Paris child welfare authorities have made some slight improvements in their procedures over the past three months. Just one of the children Human Rights Watch interviewed in August and September was turned away at the door, a frequent practice earlier in the year. Even so, humanitarian groups saw other cases of children rejected in that way at the beginning of September.
In another improvement over past practice, all but one of the children interviewed received a letter from the Directorate of Social Action, Children, and Health (Direction de l’action sociale, de l’enfance et de la santé, DASES) indicating the reasons for the refusal to formally recognize them as children. A written notification allows young migrants to appeal the decision before the juvenile judge.
Appeals take several months or longer, during which time young migrants cannot get child protection services or emergency accommodation for adult migrants. Some receive help from aid groups and networks of volunteers. But many live on the streets, where they are exposed to many risks, including exploitation and illegal or other hazardous work. “On the street, you see some kids who sell hashish, other drugs – they have nothing to eat,” said a 15-year-old boy from Guinea. “You’re forced to take risks.”
While they are appealing negative age assessments, unaccompanied children also have no access to school or apprenticeships, which they would otherwise receive.
Paris child protection authorities should ensure that all unaccompanied migrant children receive the comprehensive, multidisciplinary evaluation to which they are entitled under French regulations, Human Rights Watch said. Child protection authorities should also ensure that unaccompanied children receive emergency shelter and adequate information about the purpose of the evaluation beforehand, to allow them to recuperate from their journeys and prepare and effectively take part in the evaluation. Children should be provided with shelter while their cases are under appeal.
“Child protection authorities in Paris have begun the process to meet their obligations under French and international standards,” Jeannerod said. “They should urgently see through further reforms to ensure that age assessment procedures fulfil the purpose of French regulations and international standards.”
In a report published in July based on research conducted between February and June 2018, Human Rights Watch documented the arbitrary and flawed nature of age assessment procedures for unaccompanied migrant children seeking recognition of their status as children from child welfare services in Paris. Human Rights Watch undertook additional research in August and September to investigate authorities’ claims that they had addressed the serious shortcomings identified in the July report.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 19 migrant adolescents in Paris who identified themselves as children under age 18. The total included those who presented themselves between July 4 and September 20 at the Paris evaluation facility to have their age assessed. Human Rights Watch also interviewed humanitarian workers and lawyers working with young migrants and reviewed 21 denial letters issued by the Directorate of Social Action, Children, and Health (Direction de l’action sociale, de l’enfance et de la santé, DASES).