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France: Inadequate Plan for Migrant Children at Airport

Meager Changes in Abusive System No Way to Celebrate Children’s Rights Treaty Anniversary

(Paris) -The French Immigration Minister's proposals to address the needs of unaccompanied migrant children held at transit zones, especially airports, falls short of bringing France into compliance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Human Rights Watch said today. The treaty, to which France and most other nations are parties, was adopted 20 years ago today.

Marking the anniversary, the French immigration minister, Eric Besson, presented on November 18, 2009, proposals to improve the treatment of unaccompanied migrant children held in transit zones, in particular Charles de Gaulle airport. They include stationing children's guardians permanently at the airport and improving their training, and creating a separate detention area for younger children. These proposals are the result of a six-month study by a working group created by the French immigration minister in May. While a step in the right direction, the proposals fail to address abusive police treatment or the forced removal of unaccompanied children, in some cases to countries they merely passed through. Human Rights Watch detailed these violations in its recent report, "Lost in Transit: Insufficient Protection for Unaccompanied Migrant Children at Roissy Charles de Gaulle Airport."

"The minister's proposals for unaccompanied migrant children at the airport are largely cosmetic," said Simone Troller, children's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Children there are put in real danger and the authorities need to take decisive action to fix that."

Unaccompanied migrant children arriving in France by plane are treated differently from other migrant children in France on the pretext that they have not entered the country. Unaccompanied children held at the airport may be forcibly deported without any assurances that they will be met by family members upon arrival, or even that they will arrive in their country of origin. In its report, Human Rights Watch documented how French border police attempted to deport an unaccompanied Chadian boy to Egypt and an Egyptian boy to Madagascar, and planned to remove a 5-year-old unaccompanied Comorian boy by sending him to Yemen. These children faced removal to these countries for the sole reason that they passed through them on their journey to France.

The Minister's statement contends that France sets a positive example in Europe as it does not forcibly remove unaccompanied migrant children from its territory. But that claim is based on the premise that unaccompanied children held at the airport are not yet on French territory. The Committee on the Rights of the Child - the body overseeing the Convention's implementation -explicitly states that governments should implement the Convention on the Rights of the Child in their entire territory, including border zones.

"Pretending that these children have not entered France is absurd," Troller said. "Declaring that they are not here does not relieve France of its human rights obligations or allow it to place these children at risk."

The proposed creation of a separate space for younger children at the airport detention center will make detention of children with adults less likely. But since teenage children may still be held in the same area as adults, the proposal falls short of guaranteeing the separation of all detainees under age 18 from adults at all times, as required under several human rights treaties.

More broadly, the proposals do not address France's failure to detain children only as a measure of last resort and when it is in the child's best interest, both of which are binding obligations under the Convention. Human Rights Watch documented how children detained at the airport have seriously harmed themselves and suffered from anxiety, sleep disorders, intimidation from traffickers, and sexual harassment from adult detainees. These problems remain unaddressed by the minister.

The proposed permanent presence of guardians at the airport will be an improvement, Human Rights Watch said. But France needs to expand the guardians' mandate to give them access to all relevant information and the authority to safeguard a child's interests and needs at all times, including in police decisions that lead to a child's detention or deportation.

The new proposals provide no protection for child victims of trafficking. Border police have failed to identify and protect child victims of trafficking, and in some cases have tried to forcibly deport them. Their detention at the airport, furthermore, did not block traffickers from visiting and intimidating them.

The new proposals also fail to address the fact that unaccompanied children seeking asylum must present their claims in a fast-tracked procedure and lack reflection and recuperation time, legal aid, confidence in authorities, and preparation needed to state their claims accurately in asylum interviews. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has long recommended that countries consider asylum claims by unaccompanied children under their regular procedures, a recommendation that France, in contrast to other European countries such as the UK, does not follow.

"The French government's celebration of the children's rights convention's anniversary rings hollow as long as serious violations of unaccompanied migrant children's rights remain unaddressed," Troller said.

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