Border police escort a migrant boy who arrived at Roissy airport to a nearby hospital for age examination.

© 2004 Thomas Jouanneau / Signatures Photo

France's system of detaining and deporting unaccompanied migrant children who arrive in Paris by air puts them at serious risk, Human Rights Watch said today. The conclusions are based on the 60-page report, "Lost in Transit: Insufficient Protection for Unaccompanied Migrant Children at Roissy Charles de Gaulle Airport."

In 2008, airport police deported or removed one third of the 1,000 unaccompanied migrant children who arrived at Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris and who were denied entry into France. France takes the position that those children have not yet entered France and detains them in a "transit zone," where they are denied rights granted to other migrant children on French territory.

"France's claim that these children have never entered France is absurd," said Simone Troller, children's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. "It is irresponsible and dangerous to treat them this way."

Airport border police place detained children in the same facilities as adults, putting the children at risk of abuse. They routinely threaten children as young as age six with deportation, subject children to strip searches, handcuff them during rides to hospitals, and order intrusive age examinations even when there is no doubt the child is under 18. The police take advantage of children's emotional and physical vulnerability, intimidating them and pressuring them into signing documents these children do not understand that renounce what rights they do have.

Children are deported to countries through which they had merely transited, or are forced to continue their journey to another destination, without proper safeguards to ensure that they are not being exposed to a risk of abuse and that they will have a caregiver at their destination. Police may deport children before their appointed guardians arrive, denying children the opportunity to challenge their detention and deportation.

Seventeen-year-old "Daniel S." described to Human Rights Watch how border police initially refused to receive his asylum application and threatened him with deportation:

"[The police] called me to a desk. They took a picture of me and gave me a paper to sign. I said I would not sign. The police officer then said to me that I would be deported anyway no matter whether I signed. I said again I wanted to seek asylum but the police laughed at me and said, ‘There's no point doing that,' and that I would be deported anyway."

"When he said that, that moment, I felt like killing myself. I had lived through so many things and always had the strength to overcome them and made all these efforts to save myself and had arrived where I believed to be finally safe. I felt like it all fell apart. I thought that if there is an opportunity to throw myself out of a window, I'll do it."

The French government contends that detaining unaccompanied children at the airport protects them from dangers, such as falling into the hands of trafficking networks. Human Rights Watch found the opposite to be true. Traffickers in fact visit and call children at the airport detention center. Furthermore, within the course of three weeks, there was a series of disturbing incidents there, including a suicide attempt, a psychological breakdown and sexual harassment of one boy by a fellow detainee.

Guardians are provided for children in most cases, and the government recently pledged that every child held at the airport will be given a guardian. But the guardians have a weak mandate and face many obstacles in trying to carry out their work. Guardians are not immediately present after children arrive, do not have a say in whether a child is detained or deported, often face police obstruction, and find themselves in a race against time if they try to prevent deportation to a country where the child would be at risk.

One positive sign, Human Rights Watch said, is that the minister of immigration has created a working group to examine the issue of unaccompanied children, including those held at the airport transit zone. Yet, the government's refusal to consider doing away with the airport "transit zone" system limits its options for improving protection for these children and their rights, Human Rights Watch said.  

"In the airport transit zone, children end up being treated like adult migrants," said Troller. "French authorities should stop pretending this place is not in France and grant children the protection they are entitled to."

Children tell their stories

Twelve-year-old "Juliette H." told Human Rights Watch how police threatened her and a 6-year-old girl with deportation:

"They said, ‘We don't know whether you will see your parents again.' I started to cry and so did [the other girl]. Then I told [the other girl] that they were lying so she calmed down. The police said they will punish my parents so that this won't happen again."

Sixteen-year-old "Lilian A." told Human Rights Watch how police locked her up for hours at the airport terminal and did not let her go to the toilet:

"They first locked me inside a room. I was with several other people in one room, including men; maybe eight or 10 in total. I tried to call the police to go to the toilet but nobody was there. ... I could not go to the toilet."

Sixteen-year-old "Paco M." told Human Rights Watch how he had to hide inside the detention center because an adult detainee sexually harassed him:

"I was scared because there was one guy who was interested in me. He told me to follow him. I said ‘no.' I stayed inside the room all day. I was scared and stayed inside the room. I could not talk to anybody."

Sixteen-year-old "Omar F.", who came to France as an asylum seeker, told Human Rights Watch that he felt under stress, intimidated and unsafe while detained at the airport:

"The [airport detention center] is very close to the airport so you are not okay until you are far from the airport. Whenever you see the planes you are thinking, ‘It is my turn now.' You see that they take other people for deportation. It is intimidating."