Children as young as 12 are being physically abused, detained and illegally returned to Italy by French border guards, according to a new report by Oxfam.
The report, Nowhere But Out, describes how French police routinely stop unaccompanied children and put them on trains back to Italy after altering their paperwork to make them appear older, or to make it appear that they want to be sent back. It also details how Italy's overstretched and bureaucratic reception system is leaving vulnerable refugees and other migrants living under the radar in dangerous conditions.
Children report being physically and verbally abused, and detained overnight in cells without food, water or blankets and with no access to an official guardian - all contrary to French and EU law.
Oxfam staff and partners recount cases where border guards have cut the soles of the shoes of child migrants or stolen their phone SIM cards. In one case, a very young Eritrean girl was forced to walk back across the border along a road with no pavement carrying her 40-day-old baby.
At least 16,500 migrants - a quarter of which are children - passed through the Italian border town of Ventimiglia in the nine months to April 2018, although the rate is likely to rise in the summer months. The majority are fleeing persecution and war in countries such as Sudan, Eritrea, Syria and Afghanistan. Many of them are trying to reach other countries like France, the UK, Sweden and Germany where they hope to join relatives or friends.
Many unaccompanied children report feeling abandoned in reception centres with no opportunity to attend school or training, and no information about how to claim asylum or reunite with family members in other European countries. After months, or even years, of waiting many decide to take a chance and continue their journey alone while others are pushed out of centres as soon as they turn 18.
The only reception facility near Ventimiglia, Roja Camp, provides basic accommodation for up to 444 people. But a lack of clear information, the heavy police presence at the entrance and compulsory fingerprinting deter many from staying there. As a result, many people sleep under a motorway just outside the town where there is no clean water or toilets; where their tents or cardboard shacks are frequently destroyed on the orders of the local authorities; and where it is not safe.
Oxfam staff working in the area frequently come across families, pregnant women and unaccompanied children living in these conditions. Among them are survivors of rape and torture in Libya, which they passed through en route to Italy.
Elisa Bacciotti, Campaigns Director at Oxfam Italy, said: "Children, women and men fleeing persecution and war should not suffer further abuse and neglect at the hands of the authorities in France and Italy. In too many cases, a lack of basic services and information in Italy's reception system is forcing people into precarious and dangerous situations. People with a simple desire to claim asylum in a country where their family members live are being thwarted at every turn."
"Europe must fix its asylum system, and share the responsibility for hosting asylum seekers. Governments and border officials should protect the special needs and rights of children instead of illegally pushing them back to other countries. Children should never be kept in jail cells or subjected to cruel abuse."
The report calls on EU member states to ensure that responsibility for refugees is shared more equally under the Dublin system - the EU rules that set out which state is responsible for processing asylum applications. It also calls for the EU to take into account the legitimate needs of asylum seekers, and to ensure family reunification procedures work effectively and that bureaucratic hurdles do not prevent families from reuniting. It also calls for the French Government to immediately stop illegally returning children to Italy and to put an end to the illegitimate practices by French
police and border guards.
Spokespeople available in London, Brussels and Florence including one recently returned from Ventimiglia. To arrange an interview, please contact Kai Tabacek on email@example.com or +44 (0)7584 265 077
Notes to editors:
- The report will be available to download here after the embargo
- Under the Dublin regulation, child migrants in France cannot be sent back to Italy if they request asylum in France. This is different to adult migrants who can only claim asylum in the first European country they arrive in. Children who do not claim asylum and are intercepted by police in the border area can be willingly returned to Italy but only if certain procedures are followed, including a 24-hour delay and the appointment of a guardian.
- There is no systematic monitoring of migrants crossing the border, or failing to do so, at Ventimiglia. Volunteers working with Caritas keep a rough monthly tally, which totals 16,475 for July 2017-April 2018 (excluding December). Spot checks by Oxfam partners over three 24-hour periods in 2017 suggested dozens of children were being sent back to Italy every week. Children make up roughly a quarter of the migrant population in and around Ventimiglia.
- A French administrative - but independent - report published on 5 June, based on investigations conducted in September 2017, reached very similar conclusions, in particular on the lack of due process, the overall denial of dignity and the lack of enforcement of applicable legislation. The French authorities have so far failed to properly respond to the various shortcomings and issues identified in this report.
- Oxfam is working with other human rights groups to challenge some cases in court. In January and February 2018, the Administrative Tribunal of Nice ruled that French border authorities had illegally detained and returned children to Italy in 20 cases. Following the ruling, humanitarian staff working around Ventimiglia have observed an increase in French border police falsifying the paperwork of unaccompanied children to make them appear older.
- Oxfam Italy provides legal advice, information and dignity kits to migrants outside the reception system in Ventimiglia and on Sicily. Dignity kits are small backpacks containing socks, gloves, blankets, toothbrushes and other hygiene products.
- A total of 17,337 children arrived in Italy in 2017, of which 15,779 (91%) were unaccompanied. This accounts for the vast majority of unaccompanied child migrants who arrived in European countries in 2017.
For updates, please follow @oxfamgbpress