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France: Children Left in Limbo despite COVID-19

Unaccompanied Migrant Children Deprived of Basic Services in Marseille and Gap

Building owned by the Marseille Church, now called Saint-Just squat, where as of March 2020 about 200 migrants lived, including families and about 100 unaccompanied migrant children, Marseille, France, October 2019.  © 2019 Collectif 59 Saint-Just
(Paris) – Migrant children are being left at risk to the coronavirus because of failures by child protection authorities in Marseille and Gap, France, Human Rights Watch said today. Unaccompanied migrant children are not being given shelter and other essential services by the Bouches-du-Rhône and Hautes-Alpes departments, which are responsible for their care, putting them at risk and weakening the authorities’ response to the pandemic.

Despite lockdown and prevention measures decided by the French government, unaccompanied migrant children in Marseille and Gap continue to live in precarious and overcrowded conditions, without the child protection services they need and should receive.

“The treatment of these children by the authorities was already unacceptable before the epidemic, and today it is not only intolerable but also dangerous,” said Bénédicte Jeannerod, France director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should urgently address this and provide these children with shelter and access to essential services to stop the spread of coronavirus in this already vulnerable group.”

In a tweet on March 22, Adrien Taquet, Secretary of State for Child Protection, said “[...] Whether deemed a minor or an adult, every youth who requests it will be provided with shelter. State and departmental services are mobilized to ensure this.”

Despite this important and welcome announcement, around 100 unaccompanied migrant children in Marseille must stay in a dangerously overcrowded squat while an unknown number of others fend for themselves on the streets because authorities have not provided the children protection services they are entitled to by law. In Gap, the capital of the Hautes-Alpes department, where Human Rights Watch recently investigated the poor treatment of unaccompanied migrant children by the departmental authorities, 23 unaccompanied children who are appealing adverse age assessments live in precarious conditions in an occupied building in the city center.

COVID-19 containment measures currently underway in France mean that ADDAP 13, the agency carrying out age assessments of youths in Marseille to determine if they are children or adults, has halted its work, several sources told Human Rights Watch. If nothing is done, migrant children will have to wait for weeks or even months without accommodation or access to basic services while they wait for their age assessment.

While they are waiting, or after they are determined to be “adults” for often arbitrary reasons, children live on the streets, at the railway station, or find shelter in the Collectif 59 Saint-Just squat, an overcrowded building owned by the Catholic Church, which has threatened the occupants with eviction. Médecins Sans Frontières opened three emergency accommodation centers at the beginning of January 2020 to prevent children from ending up on the streets.

Volunteers from Collectif 59 Saint-Just told Human Rights Watch that without the squat, unaccompanied migrant children, as well as other migrants, would be living on the streets but that they were at capacity and could not accept new people.

These precarious living conditions do not allow migrant children to follow the prevention and containment measures imposed by the government in response to coronavirus. People living in the squat are sharing rooms with many other people, making it impossible to practice social distancing or self-isolation.

Unaccompanied migrant children in this situation include children waiting to have their age assessed. For some, a juvenile judge has issued decisions ordering the departmental authorities to provide them with housing while waiting to go through the age assessment process. Lawyers representing unaccompanied migrant children and members of the Unaccompanied Children Commission of the Marseille Bar have called on the department to provide accommodation for all unaccompanied migrant children regardless of their status. The department often does not comply with the judge’s order, saying it does not have enough places.

Saint-Just squat volunteers have managed to get many children enrolled in schools, but it is impossible for them to take part in distance learning because the squat has no internet connection.

Hearings to challenge negative age assessments are also indefinitely postponed. In the meantime, the department should ensure that all those who say they are unaccompanied children are provided with adequate, safe housing regardless of where they are in the process.

“Local and national authorities must put the protection of those most excluded and at risk of contracting the disease at the heart of their response to Covid-19. Unaccompanied migrant children in very precarious situations in Marseille and elsewhere in France are clearly among them,” Jeannerod said.

For additional details about the situation, please see below.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 16 unaccompanied migrant children in Marseille in March 2020, along with volunteers from several groups that help migrant children and three lawyers who represent unaccompanied migrant children. After the French government announced travel restrictions and other containment measures to address the COVID-19 epidemic, Human Rights Watch undertook additional interviews with volunteers, aid workers, and lawyers by telephone.

Abandoned by Authorities

When youths who say they are children arrive in Marseille, they must register with ADDAP 13, a nonprofit agency mandated by the Bouches-du-Rhône department to assess their age. When children register, ADDAP 13 tells them they will be told when there is a place to stay to carry out their age assessment. The agency only carries out the age assessment after it finds available accommodation, a process that can take four to five months.

While they wait, children are on their own, without the emergency shelter and access to child protection services to which they are entitled by law. To keep them from sleeping on the street, since December 2018 the Collectif 59 Saint Just has occupied a building owned by the Catholic Church, where about 200 migrants, mainly unaccompanied children and families, stay.

Nearly 500 unaccompanied children have passed through the squat since it opened. “Before Saint-Just, the youths slept at the train station … The squat is a remedy for the dysfunction of the authorities,” a volunteer told Human Rights Watch during a visit on March 2. In January 2020, because the squat was full, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) decided to open three emergency shelters for what was intended to be a limited period of 3 months, which was then renewed for an additional 2 months, until the end of May. The MSF shelters now house 60 unaccompanied children.

“Today, 200 people [women with children, a few couples, and about a hundred children] live in overcrowded conditions that do not allow for the necessary distancing. Neither the solidarity workers nor the residents have protective masks and hydro-alcoholic gel. There are not enough water points and do not allow people to wash their hands often,” a volunteer from Collectif 59 Saint Just in Marseille told Human Rights Watch.

Unaccompanied migrant children awaiting age assessment or appeal before the juvenile judge are forced to live in extremely precarious and overcrowded conditions that do not let them follow prevention and containment measures imposed by the government in response to coronavirus.

Bouches-du-Rhône Authorities Defy Court Directives

Juvenile judges have issued some temporary placement orders directing local authorities to take unaccompanied migrant children into care pending age assessments. Local authorities usually do not comply with these orders, Human Rights Watch found.

Faced with local authorities’ refusal to comply with judicial orders, lawyers regularly file urgent proceedings before the Marseille Administrative Court, which has repeatedly ordered the Departmental Council to provide accommodation and care for migrant children, with a fine in the event of delay.

One lawyer filed a new urgent proceeding on March 18, two days after the French government announced containment measures to deal with COVID-19. In a court filing seen by Human Rights Watch, the Bouches-du-Rhône department asked the court to reject the request, arguing it does not have sufficient accommodation: “In the context of the current pandemic, some hotels that were housing children have decided to close, forcing the department to urgently seek new places and thus considerably increasing the difficulties.” The department also called on the state “to intervene to help the Department deal with this situation and thus enable it to fulfil its legal obligations” and “requests that it participate in the accommodation and care of the youth.” The Administrative Court once again ordered the department to take the youth into care, but with no penalty for noncompliance.

On March 16, the lawyers of the Unaccompanied Minors Commission of the Marseille Bar wrote to the department’s Deputy Directorate General of Solidarity (DGAS) to request that all unaccompanied migrant children with unfulfilled temporary placement orders or awaiting assessment be provided with emergency housing without delay, noting that in the meantime, these children are “forced to live in conditions that expose them heavily to the epidemic.” The department had not responded to this request at time of writing.

Inadequate Protection in the Hautes-Alpes

Human Rights Watch also spoke by telephone with volunteers from Réseau Hospitalité and a member of the Médecins du Monde team working in Gap. They all reported an alarming situation for 23 unaccompanied migrant children living at the Césaï squat in downtown Gap, while awaiting an appeal before the juvenile judge. The Césaï squat hosts 70 residents in total.

“The migrant children are living there because of the authorities’ failure to provide them with accommodation. They are mostly living in unventilated spaces, infested with bedbugs, all over each other and the building only has one water point. In the current epidemic situation, the situation is explosive,” Françoise Martin-Cola, a volunteer doctor from Réseau Hospitalité, told Human Rights Watch in a telephone interview on 24 March.

“The overcrowded conditions in which these children live exposes them and jeopardizes the preventive actions put in place. It is imperative that they are urgently provided with accommodation in conditions that meet the measures required to deal with the Covid-19 epidemic,” Carla Melki, a representative from Médecins du Monde said.

The Regional Health Agency (ARS) and Médecins du Monde have set up mobile medical teams that are going to the Césaï squat among other places.

Local aid groups called the Hautes-Alpes authorities to provide these children with emergency housing and care. In a letter that Human Rights Watch was able to view, the Prefect informed the groups that those children awaiting appeal will not be given shelter and care: “As for the other youths whose names you have sent me, some were not recognized as children after assessment by the departmental council, while others are not known by these services or mine and cannot therefore be taken into care.”

Meeting Obligations

Each department in France is responsible for ensuring that unaccompanied migrant children are provided with emergency shelter and care.

On March 21, 2020, Adrien Taquet, Secretary of State for Child Protection, sent a letter to the Presidents of the Departmental Councils, in which he said: “Priority must be given to [the] accommodation [of unaccompanied children] even if the conditions for assessing the minority are disrupted.”

“The protection of minors, particularly those presenting themselves as unaccompanied minors, must be guaranteed through systematic accommodation,” the letter said.

This recommendation was reiterated in a tweet on March 22: “[...] Whether he is deemed a minor or an adult, every youth who requests it will be provided with shelter. State and departmental services are mobilized to ensure this.”

It is understandable that the age assessment interviews are suspended due to the current health situation, but the Bouches-du-Rhône department should place children awaiting assessment in adequate emergency accommodation where they can be protected, have access to basic hygiene, and have an Internet connection that allows them to continue their education online as offered by the Ministry of Education to all pupils in France, Human Rights Watch said.

For children in Marseille and Gap waiting for a hearing to appeal the rejection of their juvenile status, and deprived of accommodation, the wait will be even longer, as judges are no longer hearing appeals. These children should also be given accommodation to protect them from the coronavirus.

Departmental councils elsewhere in France should also ensure unaccompanied children’s right to adequate housing and provide them with the care and protection they need, including during any period of age assessment or judicial review of adverse age assessments.

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