VEYNES, France — Jean-François Deval, a warm, wiry man in his early 60s, met me at the train station in this southern town of around 3,000 people, tucked into a quiet valley in the Alps. It was mid-November and overcast; bright yellow and green leaves popped against a deep gray sky layered with a cryptic mix of sunlight and rainclouds.
“That trial was a total farce,” he told me as soon as I had buckled my seatbelt. He was referring to the prosecution two days earlier of seven pro-migrant activists, in the nearby city of Gap, who were accused of helping foreigners illegally enter France. “I’m not an anarchist, I’m not a far-left extremist,” he added, smirking. “But it’s gone too far. The state has shown that it won’t do the minimum to welcome migrants and refugees,” he said, turning on the ignition. “So we’re doing its job for it.”
We arrived at our destination—a squat that goes by the acronym CHUM, the Urgent Housing Center for Exiled Minors—a few minutes later. It’s a decrepit building on the side of the road. A banner reading “No minor on the street!” hangs from the third-floor window. A group of volunteers opened the center in September 2017, echoing the story of many other such collectives that have emerged in the past couple of years in the Alps.
The region has become a significant point of entry for migrants and asylum-seekers making their way into France from Italy—an influx that has been met with a harsh response on both sides of the border and, accordingly, has started to wane in recent months, shifting primarily to Spain. With an ongoing crackdown in Italy led by Matteo Salvini—the country’s far-right interior minister, deputy prime minister, and leader of the anti-migrant League Party—coupled with increasingly harsh practices by the French border police, pro-migrant activists have upped their engagement. Many of CHUM’s residents entered France through difficult Alpine routes, often in low temperatures, ill-prepared for the high altitude.
Since 2015, tens of thousands of the migrants and asylum-seekers pursuing refuge in France—the majority young men from sub-Saharan Africa—have arrived unaccompanied, and claim to be minors. That would make them eligible for special protections: access to housing, education and health care, even without applying for refugee status. For Deval, “they’re migrants, they’re from Guinea or Mali. But they’re first and foremost children.”
However, French immigration authorities tend to take the opposite approach, and extensive evidence indicates that flawed age-assessment procedures push many unaccompanied minors through the cracks of a saturated system. At any given time, CHUM is home to around 20 such boys, who range from 14 to 18 years old, or at least say they do, waiting for what will happen next.
The child-protection lottery
Kévin, 17, squirmed in his chair as we sat in a dimly lit, drafty space on the third floor, just down the hall from the dorm-style room he’s called his home for a year and a half. (I’ve changed the names of the minors interviewed in this newsletter to protect their safety.) He left his native Cameroon after his father died; his stepmother pulled him out of school and put him to work. “I wanted to continue my studies,” he said, looking down at his hands. “I think we all do—I think so many of us came here just to try to become something.”
Unlike the majority of migrants I met in the area, who entered France through Italy, Kévin had arrived via Spain. But like the rest, his journey was difficult and protracted: he hitched rides from Cameroon to Nigeria and onto Niger, through Algeria to Morocco, where he spent months in the Nador forest, waiting for an opportune moment to slip past police—Morocco’s are notorious for their brutality—and head to the coast. After four months and several failed attempts, he managed to cross the Mediterranean to Spain, where he spent three months, often sleeping on the street.
Kévin is boyish and soft-spoken‚ with spindly legs and an oversized hoodie with sleeves that droop well below his hands. Hoping to settle in France—Cameroon, like much of West Africa, is a former French colony, with predominantly francophone nationals—he sought protection as a minor in the southeastern city of Grenoble, 100 miles from Veynes, but his status was denied. He had kept his birth certificate with him throughout his eight-month journey to Europe, but immigration officials told him it wasn’t credible and, after a 35-minute interview, concluded he seemed too mature to be believably 17. “I told them I made it to France by myself, that I had left my family in Cameroon,” he said, fiddling with a pen. “They told me no child could have possibly done that. They don’t realize that even as a kid, it’s what I had to do.”
For immigration officials, Kévin’s apparent life experience was proof enough that he wasn’t eligible for child-protection services. He appealed the rejected decision, but has been waiting months for a response. In the meantime, he’s in administrative limbo. He’s finished all the books in CHUM’s “library”—two sparsely filled bookshelves in the corner of the room where we met—and wonders if he made the right decision coming to France. “In Grenoble, they said it just wasn’t going to happen for me,” he recalled, eyes glued to his lap. “They told me I should just give up.”
“It’s a total lottery,” Deval, from CHUM, told me. “We get new arrivals, and in my mind, there’s no question they’re minors—they’re kids, but they’re considered adults.” We walked into a cluttered study, where a group of boys—from Mali, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire and Gambia—were playing video games. “In a given week, I’ll have 10 show up, and only one will have passed his age-assessment test. And the rest appeal the decisions, but in the meantime, well, the time passes—in the life of a 16-year-old, a year is a long time. And they wait, and wait, and it leaves them broken.”
With his 18th birthday around the corner, Kévin’s appeal—even if accepted—could be meaningless. As an adult, he’ll have to apply for asylum, but his claim would likely be considered weak. Or worse, he could be forced to leave France immediately: Per the Dublin agreement regulating asylum-seekers in the EU, migrants are required to open immigration proceedings in their country of entry.
“Some of these kids could have asylum claims precisely because they’re children,” Michael Bochenek, senior counsel to the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, told me in an interview. Bochenek, who authored a 2017 report on age assessment and unaccompanied minors in Paris, cited domestic violence in countries with weak justice systems, or the death of a parent that “could lead to abuse or forced labor”—the case for Kévin and several other teens I met at CHUM and similar centers. “Those issues are not just about wanting a better life but about living in an environment that simply isn’t protective of their lives as children,” he said. “If you’re a kid, you may not need to apply for asylum at all—getting into the child-protection system will qualify you for a variety of services upon reaching adulthood that you wouldn’t access otherwise.”
Kévin’s case mirrors that of so many other teens I interviewed. Boubakar, a lanky 16-year-old had made a nine-month journey from Abidjan, in Côte d’Ivoire. I met him in Lyon, in a large gymnasium at the Collège Maurice Scève, a closed-down middle school in the city’s hilly Croix-Rousse district that local advocates converted into a shelter for some 50 unaccompanied minors. He, too, had been deemed an adult after presenting a birth certificate to departmental authorities in Lyon. The document couldn’t be verified, officials told him.
Boubakar’s case was rejected on appeal. “The judge said my height made it seem like I was older than 18. But height doesn’t show your age,” he said incredulously. “They say our claims will be stronger if we show identity papers”—he wired 60 euros, around $68, which he borrowed from a volunteer, to have a cousin send his birth certificate from Abidjan. “But clearly it didn’t help me it all. It’s like they’re making it intentionally impossible.”
Another boy in the room, from Gambia, who had seemed impatient with my questions—all he had done since arriving in France was answer questions, he told me—chimed in. “That’s fucked up, man,” he interjected in English. “How can they even expect us to come with any papers at all, across Africa, across the Mediterranean? How can they expect us to hold onto them when we go to prison, when we’re chased by the police?”
Boubakar took the Alpine route into France after making his way to Italy via Libya. Nearly every migrant I met, minor and adult, who had passed through Libya shared the same chilling details of the exploitative web of human traffickers and militias that seems to have free reign in the unstable North African country. “Libya is hell,” Boubakar told me. “Everywhere is a prison.” He and so many others described the so-called Asma Boys—particularly brutal gang-members, militias, and even members of the Libyan police—who capture, imprison and enslave sub-Saharan migrants. They manage to extract themselves only after paying hefty ransoms that can range up to $10,000. Boubakar spent four months in Libya—and was sold among militias, held captive in three prisons and forced to do manual labor, he told me—until a cousin wired around $6,500 to have him released.
“At a certain point, all you can think about is making it,” he said. “All of your pain, your injuries, what you lost”—he left Abidjan with a group of five others, he said, but made it to Libya with just three before losing two companions crossing the Mediterranean. “You don’t see any of that,” he said of the hardships. “You can see only Europe. It kept getting worse, but every time I became more motivated. All I could see was Europe.”
Frédéric Monget, a volunteer with La Marmite, an organization that assists unaccompanied minors with administrative processes, had quietly walked into the room as Boubakar was telling his story. “The problem, when they’re not recognized as minors,” he said, looking at Boubakar with consternation, “is that they can disappear. He, right here, in the eyes of the state, just doesn’t exist.”
A system at its breaking point
According to European Union law, age-assessment exams should be administered only amid serious doubts about asylum-seekers’ ages. When initial evaluations are inconclusive, officials must give applicants “the benefit of the doubt” to ensure that children’s rights are respected, said Bochenek, the Human Rights Watch counsel. Typically, such an assessment should involve a series of in-depth interviews with the child—or person claiming to be a child—as well as a review of a birth certificate or other documents, when available. But these “best practices,” laid out in both French and European law, are enforced inconsistently at best.
Although Boubakar and other teens told me that both immigration officials and judges rejected their claims based on physical attributes such as height, Bochenek said, “age assessment isn’t something that can be done based on appearance alone.” It can’t be done in a summary way, either—you can’t say, ‘oh, he speaks eloquently about his past and so must be an adult,’” he added. “We all know kids who are quite articulate.”
The task carries an inevitable margin of error—it is inherently difficult to determine whether someone is 17 or 19, especially with heavy caseloads that force evaluators to rush through assessments. In 2018 in Paris alone, the Red Cross assessed 8,000 cases, and recognized only 30 percent as minors. According to children’s rights advocates I interviewed in Lyon, Marseille and Paris—major metropolitan areas where reception services are particularly strained—migrants often enter evaluations immediately after arriving, although they should have several days with proper shelter and food before participating in interviews.
‘I imagined that in France I’d be free, that because I was a kid, I’d be able to go to school. That idea has turned out to be entirely fake.’
“There’s a big gap between what’s outlined in the texts and the way it’s applied in each department,” Laurent Delbos, a spokesperson for the Forum Réfugiés, a Lyon-based NGO that assists asylum-seekers, said in an interview. Ideally, several immigration agents with solid knowledge of the social and political contexts in an applicant’s country of origin, would review a given case. But more often than not, Delbos said, “a social assistant who knows nothing about Mali or Côte d’Ivoire has time to devote just 30 minutes to each case. They try to do their best, but in many cases it’s often arbitrary and not very professional.”
There is no national protocol for age assessment; a migrant deemed a child in Grenoble or Lyon might have that status revoked upon further administrative review in Paris. Advocates have raised particular concerns about the use of medical examinations, such as dental x-rays and bone tests, which international and national medical authorities—the French Academy of Medicine, UNICEF, the French ombudsman for human rights as well as a host of advocacy groups—have deemed inaccurate and unreliable. Faced with such criticism, certain departments have stopped conducting bone tests altogether. But they remain common practice in Paris, and teens I met in Veynes, Lyon and Marseille claimed to have undergone such exams after appealing rejected applications.
Medical exams include x-rays of teeth, hands, wrists and clavicles—and typically take place only after those seeking child-protection services have presented birth documents and undergone interviews. But medical experts say that the results provide only age ranges of up to three years at best—far too inexact when a young adult’s ability to prove his age carries such high stakes.
In France, in limbo
For immigration officials, the dilemma is more complex than the simple suspicion that migrants are trying to game the system by posing as children. “It’s extremely difficult to figure out the right way to respond,” Delbos, of the Forum Réfugiés in Lyon, said. Some departments will “opt for a closed response,” and “work arbitrarily, quickly, to refuse access as much as possible”—conducting, say, 20-minute interviews and making snap judgments not necessarily in a young adult’s interest. Others will be more generous, taking age claims at face value. “They’ll say, we need to believe anyone who says he is a minor in order to protect children’s rights. But that doesn’t work either,” he said: Child-protection services are designed for minors, and shouldn’t be expected to accommodate adults.
With no easy answers and a system at its breaking point, President Emmanuel Macron’s immigration policies are likely to further complicate the situation. A controversial law that took effect on Jan. 1 stipulates the creation of a “biometric database” that will register the photograph and fingerprints of any migrant or asylum-seeker who was denied access to child-protection services. Politicians who backed the provision say it will increase efficiency by reducing “double evaluations,” making it impossible for people to undergo age assessments in multiple departments and thus freeing up limited resources. But advocacy groups, including UNCIEF and Médécins du Monde, have argued that the database will limit appeal rights for kids wrongfully deemed adults. The current system’s flaws make appeals and repeat applications all the more important—in Paris, for example, half of appealed rejections are reversed in favor of the teens.
Macron’s immigration law also reduces protections more generally, which could incentivize young adults to pose as children—both further straining the system and increasing suspicion on the part of the authorities. The French president, consistently hailed as a guarantor of progressive values amid rising far-right populism in Europe, has pledged to fight illegal immigration and limit migrants who “do not plan to apply for asylum”—statements he reiterated during a September meeting with Austria’s far-right chancellor, Sebastian Kurz. The new law will do just that, but will also make it more difficult to apply for asylum, critics say, by reducing application periods and curbing appeal rights, increasing the risk that rejected applicants will be wrongly deported.
“The more difficult it is for adults, then of course there is an incentive for people to pretend they’re under 18,” Bochenek, of Human Rights Watch, said. “It’s better in general to have protective systems for adults as well and then you don’t end up in this perverse system.”
Boubakar, the Ivorian teen, is running out of options. “In my mind, I imagined that in France I’d be free, that because I was a kid, I’d be able to go to school,” he said wistfully. “I created a whole story about France in my mind. And now that I’m here, waiting and waiting, that idea has turned out to be entirely fake.”