Children inside the former Liniere camp in Grande Synthe, northern France. Many who couldn't cope with life inside reception shelters had ended up in this camp.On New Year’s Eve, when cities were cheering and watching fireworks, Jahid called me from his shelter in France. He had been there since spring 2017, and had been living with the hope that his life would be sorted out in the not-too-distant future.
The underage refugee I had met in Lampedusa eighteen months ago was entitled to protection, and as such was promised by the French authorities that he would be given an “immigrant card” within two years that would ensure his indefinite leave to remain in the country. Ten months later, however, he was abruptly informed that his entitlement to protection will be coming to an end in five months’ time when he reaches eighteen.
Where will he go? What can he do? I have as few answers as he does.
This is the agonising cycle of life for tens of thousands of refugee and undocumented children and teenagers in Europe. Their lives are held hostage by the border regime across the continent, and they are experiencing hardship and destitution like many adult refugees. The majority of these children and youths are unaccompanied and without resources, and barely even understand why their misery continues beyond their arrival in Europe.
35 million, that is 15%, of the estimated 232 million migrants worldwide, are children and youths under the age of twenty. The majority of them are in developing countries, rather than in Europe. In 2016, more than 63,300 unaccompanied minors entered the EU (half of them Syrian and Afghan refugees). Among them, more than 25,000 reached Italy via the Mediterranean sea route.
As the world’s wealthiest continent, Europe has nevertheless been unable or unwilling to offer protection and provide a safe haven for these displaced young people. Child rights are enshrined within a Treaty of the EU and that it is a right recognized by the Council of the EU (the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child establish how children should be treated regardless of their migratory status, nationality or background, and “children shall have the right to such protection and care as is necessary for their well-being and that the best interests of the child must be a primary consideration in all actions relating to children”). However, EU countries have miserably failed to protect children despite their migratory status and ethnic background.
Why don’t French local authorities have the resources to cope?
My new book, Bordered Lives: How Europe Fails Refugees and Migrants, documents the destiny of some of these children who have ended up in the camps in Italy and other parts of Europe after their rescue at sea. More than 600 migrants were kept in the camp on the island of Lampedusa when I visited, 400 of them underage. These minors were then transferred to camps across Sicily and mainland Italy. Finding themselves in miserable conditions and enduring long bureaucratic delays about decisions on their status, many of them absconded from these camps and went north, either to Germany or further north to Scandinavian countries, or France.
France, despite politicians across the spectrum talking about the country being “overburdened” by refugees, has not developed sufficient infrastructure to support the incoming minors, let alone adults. Across the country, there are between 6,000 and 8,000 undocumented minors in the care of local authorities, who are legally bound to support them but not always equipped for such a task. “Local authorities don’t have the resources to cope,” is the standard line repeated by everyone, yet nothing has been done to expand their capacity. Undocumented migrants and asylum seekers, including large numbers of children, become visibly destitute in France’s cities and towns.
Inside Dunkirk Grand Synthe Liniere camp, northern France.In Seine-Saint-Denis (in Paris’ northern suburbs) and in central Paris, where the majority of young migrants arrive, they sleep rough in the streets and rely on charity for basic food provision. Homelessness of migrant minors has become part of the urban landscape in this First World country. Some of them move out into rural France, to get away from the harshness of being destitute in a metropolis. Many try to seek protection in shelters: others end up again in the streets outside Paris.
I followed the lives of some of these children from their arrival in Europe and saw how their dreams of finding a safe haven and secure livelihood fell apart along the way. Many times when the walls of borders closed in, it was impossible for me not to want to intervene and try to offer a way out. But the system always overwhelmed. I witnessed how these young minds were toughened, and hearts broken – by local hostility and racism, by the trickery and deception of those who were supposed be in the position of care.
Inside shelters, the minors have their basic needs met, such as food, lodging and some language lessons depending on what is available. The quality of care varies according to the allocation of resources, and in most cases, little individual attention is given. As time goes on, the children often realize that these places are as transitory as those they’ve been in all along their long journey, the security only illusory, and that they may cease to be sheltered when they reach eighteen.
In theory, France is one of the five EU member states (along with Cyprus, Italy, Spain and Sweden) where undocumented children are entitled to the same level of health care as citizen children (although they’re not eligible for mainstream healthcare insurance except when they’re unaccompanied minors). In reality their access to healthcare depends on the shelters in which they are placed and how much care they are given in those shelters. I have not met one child who told me that they had been given immediate health care when they fell ill, if at all. Jahid, the 17-year-old I mentioned earlier, for one, had waited for over four months just to see a doctor.
Children who are living in these shelters often feel isolated from the rest of society, with little guidance and advice from those providing their care, and grow increasingly more anxious about their migratory status and their future in France. Jahid often revealed that he felt alone and confused. Social workers who are responsible for him rarely paid him attention. When he enquired about their plans for him, they often responded in a casual manner, showing no commitment to his case. Jahid had come to know them as “irresponsible adults”, in his words.
He isn’t alone in the way he’s been “dealt with” by those in position of care. Most minors in shelters are left in the dark about what might happen to them, whether they will be given regular status and whether there will be any change in their situation when they reach eighteen.
France, land of asylum
I visited Amiens in France, nicknamed “little Venice of the North”, a couple of times, and saw how many underage undocumented migrants found temporary solutions to their isolation. This city, only an hour north of Paris, has had a growing number of undocumented children and youths coming in over the past two decades. Since 2011, around 100 of them came to this city every year. However, in Amiens, like in other places in the Somme region, the child welfare services (ASE) do not have enough beds in group homes. Some young refugees are housed in hotels.
Charities have come in to fill the gap – a pattern that has been repeated elsewhere all over France. For instance, France Terre d’Asile (“France Land of Asylum”), provided local-government-subsidized housing to dozens of unaccompanied children from Congo, Sudan or Guinea, and organised French lessons and workshops for them. Organisations such as this have helped the local authorities ease the pressure by sharing the task of providing housing and support to young refugees and migrants.
I came across a group called Solidarity Network of Amiens, a grassroots gathering of volunteers who were organised on social media. One of the children I was visiting invited one of the volunteers, a local teacher in her thirties, to come to meet me. She met the children often and helped them with learning French. “Everybody can decide to help as they want,” the volunteer told me. “Often, we put up posts on Facebook about needing help with food, with accommodation, books or transport… We also organise social events like birthday parties, Eid, visit to the zoo and various shows in town…” Apart from providing the much-needed temporary housing (albeit on an ad-hoc basis), the group volunteers become an important social network for the young. Social interaction with the outside world is much needed, and I could see how it helped the children cope with their lives in limbo.
Bone-tests and beards
Inside these shelters, the senseless, lengthy waiting for an unknown future is a massive weight on a young spirit. As it turns out, in France, only 40% of these unaccompanied minors who ask to be taken into care are actually accepted and able to stay in the system. The key idea for the authorities is not to provide protection but to “de-incentivize” and deter more minors from coming into the system.
A school poster, 'people not borders', in Lampedusa, where Jahid (in the article & book) was detained when arriving in Europe.The deterrence, as shown by the experience of many children seeking protection, is provided by a series of obstacles to keep them away from being accepted and given regular status. For instance, the French authorities adopt a racially-motivated, “guilty before proven innocent” approach and use a bone test system to determine the age of migrants – this is despite the practice having been condemned by many in Europe as inhumane and, in fact, unscientific: the bone test was originally conceived for height prediction and not age, and can give results with up to twenty-year margin of error.
Boys and girls who are staying in shelters are constantly monitored (by those responsible for their care) for changes in their appearances, and signs of growing up, such as boys growing a beard. Soon enough, these youngsters would be singled out for assessment and have to go through a complicated series of legal procedures, to determine whether they are eligible for protection. Can you imagine European children being subjected to such a deeply offensive age assessment mechanism?
Macron in Le Pen’s footsteps
Many unaccompanied children and youths are simply unprepared for the level of racism in French society. Their right to healthcare and education is something that France’s Front National wants to end. Its leader Marine le Pen had put it like this: "I’ve got nothing against foreigners but I say to them: if you come to our country, don’t expect that you will be taken care of, treated (by the health system) and that your children will be educated for free. No more playtime.” The racial hatred of Front National unfortunately often echoes throughout mainstream society. The culture of suspicion and resentment towards refugees and any “foreign-looking” people is evident in the segregated existence of those seeking protection.
There were sighs of relief when Marine Le Pen failed to win the presidency in last May’s election. But soon enough, refugees and asylum seekers came to see that Macron was occupying what used to be Front National territory and bringing in anti-migrant, anti-refugee policies. Under Macron, an action plan was launched a month after the election, to “systematically deport” failed asylum seekers and “illegal economic migrants”. In 2016, 16,489 people were deported; deportations rose by 14% in 2017.
Last Tuesday (January 16) in Calais, Macron outlined his new immigration and asylum policy which ensures a higher number of expulsions of failed asylum seekers and undocumented migrants. Tougher immigration controls will be introduced in a bill and discussed at the council of ministers in February.
A large part of the impact of the French immigration regime has been the fear of the police who are seen by most migrants as a threat to their safety. As the police are tasked with enforcing migration regulations, no migrants, particularly the undocumented, would see it as safe to report any incident of violence to the police, who are already known for their racism. I often saw stop and search on French streets and station platforms, where police officers were physically aggressive. Police brutality was (and still is) ingrained in the experience of every migrant in Calais and Dunkirk as it has been part of their everyday life.
Tougher internal controls under Macron are only giving police more powers, allowing them to conduct identity checks in places where migrants live, even in emergency shelters. Brutality towards migrants is likely to become even more common. Many of these unaccompanied children are already living a precarious life on the edge of society. These tougher controls will put them at even greater risk of racial violence from both the far-right and the police.
Jahid remembers the day when he arrived on an island that he did not know was called Lampedusa and how far away he was from home. Back then, he had escaped slave labour in Libya, and never expected to battle away his life with borders in Fortress Europe. The only path left for him now is going underground and joining the sans papiers, because, like many trapped in Europe, returning home is no option.
Bordered Lives: How Europe Fails Refugees and Migrants, is published by New Internationalist, on 18 January 2018.
Get our weekly email