France: Unaccompanied Children Detained at Borders

 France detains as many as 500 children who arrive in the country alone each year in transit zones at the borders, where they are denied the protection and due process rights afforded other unaccompanied children on French territory, Human Rights Watch said today. Any unaccompanied child who arrives in France should be admitted to the country and provided with shelter and care while their immigration claims are decided.
Under French law, unaccompanied children – who arrive at an airport or seaport without parents or guardians to protect them – can be held in one of more than 50 transit zones for up to 20 days, during which time the government claims they have not entered France.This legal fiction allows the French government to deny due process rights to children in transit zones that unaccompanied children in France enjoy. France has not changed its practice despite a 2009 court ruling that children in the transit zones are in fact in France.
“France is using a legal loophole to compromise children's rights,” said Alice Farmer, children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Children are physically in France, yet not in France in the eyes of French law, and this legal trick denies them protection.”
New Human Rights Watch research updating its 2009 report, “Lost in Transit,” demonstrates that France’s adherence to this anomalous legal regime leaves children facing the risk that their asylum claims will not receive appropriate consideration or that their deportation will be improperly expedited.
To update the 2009 Human Rights Watch report, Human Rights Watch visited the transit zones in Roissy Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports in January and February 2014, interviewed 11 detained migrants, of whom three were unaccompanied minors, and followed court hearings for three others. Human Rights Watch also spoke with 22 government officials from the Interior Ministry, the Border Police, and the Office of Refugees, among others, and consulted experts from nongovernmental organizations and academia.
Detaining a child should be a last resort, given the negative impact of detention on children’s mental health, experts say. Children detained in the transit zones, including at the Roissy airport, France’s largest transit zone, are subject to truncated due process and face an expedited asylum test. They are sometimes detained with unrelated adults – in violation of international standards – making them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Unaccompanied children already “in” France are not detained and are given full asylum hearings.
In 2009, France’s highest civil and criminal court, the Court of Cassation, held that “a child held at the Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport transit zone is de facto on French territory,” erasing any legal justification for discriminating between these two groups. However, France has yet to acknowledge this ruling by changing its policy.
The number of unaccompanied children arriving in France has fallen to about 500 a year, from about 1,000 in 2008. Since the first Human Rights Watch report was published in 2009, France, has, with EU support, constructed a children’s zone in the detention area at Roissy airport, but it is too small to hold all detained unaccompanied children. On at least one occasion in 2013, more than half of the children detained were held with adults.
When an unaccompanied child arrives at an entry point, the border police are required to inform the public prosecutor. The public prosecutor must then assign a guardian – known as an ad hoc administrator – to assist the child in the transit zones. Yet police are still able to pressure these children into signing paperwork before the child meets with the ad hoc administrator to find out about their rights and the procedures they face.
The ad hoc administrators, typically volunteers, have very limited resources to respond to the children’s need for assistance with complex procedures, including immigration claims and age assessment. Particularly in more remote transit zones, such as Marseilles or Lyon, children may not receive any assistance.
Human Rights Watch found that the government conducts age assessments of individuals claiming to be children before an ad hoc administrator is assigned, leaving children without assistance. The Convention on the Rights of the Child entitles anyone claiming to be a child to be assigned a guardian as soon as that claim is made; consequently, children have help navigating complex procedures such as age determination. France allows no appeal of an age assessment, meaning that a child erroneously found to be an adult may be deported without adequate procedures.
Under French law, the government subjects unaccompanied children claiming asylum in the transit zones to expedited procedures that deny them their full rights. In transit zones, adults and children alike must first show that their claims are not “manifestly unfounded” before they can have a full hearing. The short deadlines, lack of access to lawyers, and complexity of the procedure conducted by the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons (Office Français de Protection des Réfugiés et Apatrides, OFPRA) leave exhausted, travel-weary children without the capacity to prepare their claims properly.
In keeping with France’s international law obligations, unaccompanied children should not be subject to accelerated asylum procedures such as “manifestly unfounded” hearings, because the process does not make certain that the child’s best interest is the main consideration in deciding whether they may remain in the country.
France should immediately stop detaining children in transit zones, Human Rights Watch said. When unaccompanied children arrive at the border, France should admit them and then assess the child’s immigration status and, if appropriate, the child’s age through multidisciplinary exams. All children making asylum claims should have direct access to a full hearing, without a preliminary test for “manifestly unfounded” claims.
For as long as France operates the transit zones, it should ensure the ad hoc administrator system has adequate resources to provide effective assistance to children. Children should be assigned guardians as soon as they arrive and before they are subjected to age determination or any other procedures.
“There’s no reason why unaccompanied migrant children in the transit zones should be subject to a different legal regime than other children on French territory,” Farmer said. “They should be considered to be in France, with full rights to seek asylum, rather than detained with a mere skeleton of the rights they’re entitled to.”
For more Human Rights Watch reporting on France, please visit:

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