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Rise in unaccompanied minors, Parisians step in as volunteers
As Europe’s refugee crisis continues, an increasing number of unaccompanied minors have been arriving in France over the last two years. Europe requires children to be protected, but many of them are not officially recognised as minors, leaving them without support and out of school. Some Paris residents have stepped in, creating informal networks to help guide, and even house some of these teenagers.
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“If we don’t do it, who will?” asks Kandioura, referring to his volunteer work with minor migrants in Paris who arrive on their own, with no family to turn to.
When he has time off from his job as a health aide, Kandioura joins Agathe Nadimi and other volunteers to look for for teenagers who are loitering around the Demie, the one facility in Paris that does official age determinations for unaccompanied minors.
Midmorning on a grey day in early January about a dozen young men stand in front of the centre’s gates. They look aimless, some are holding documents.
Nadimi, pulling a shopping cart behind her, encourages them to follow her to a nearby park for lunch. When they arrive, dozens of young men are already there along with other volunteers who start unloading boxes of food onto a ping-pong table: quesadillas, still warm in their foil wrappers, bananas, yogurts and bottles of water.
Nadimi, who works as a teacher, started these lunchtime gatherings after spending time trying to help young migrants on her own. A call on Facebook in 2016 has since brought a few dozen volunteers on board, to form the Midis du Mie collective, which prepares and serves lunch at the park.
“This is where they can address all kinds of problems," says Danika Jurisic, a regular volunteer at the lunches, where volunteers also distribute food and phone cards for those sleeping on the street.
The teenagers ask the volunteers for everything, from day-to-day necessities, like a request for shampoo, “or it can be a really, really complex issue, like… they need a lawyer. So we just try to orient them.”
The young people who come to the park tend to range in age from 14 to 17 years old, though some are older. Though there are many nationalities, most of them come from West Africa – Guinea (Conakry) in particular.
“Nobody sees them as children,” says Jurisic. But they are. “They might have been through a lot, but they're still not developed people, they’re not adults," she says, adding that they can't take care of themselves.
Naim, waiting to be recognised as 15
Naim, with thin, slightly bluish lips, shivering in the cold, despite a newly-acquired winter coat, says he is not handling Paris winters very well, as he is used to much higher temperatures in his native Bangladesh.
He arrived in France two months ago, and has gone through the interview process at the Demie evaluation centre, which is run by the Red Cross. A first interview went well, but they lost his file, he says.
The man who interviewed him again, a month later, did not believe Naim was 16, despite his birth certificate. “He told me that I do not believe you're minor,” says Naim. “I was shocked! What is this?” He found temporary housing, and is waiting for results from the evaluation.
And like a teenager, he complains about the food. “French food is new for me!” he says with a laugh. “I cannot eat it because it's a new taste for me! But I'm trying.”
Not considered children
Naim's is not a unique situation. Many who pass through the Demie see their status as minors rejected, often based on a cursory assessment.
European law requires states to offer protection to unaccompanied minors – those under 18 – regardless of their immigration status. But systems are overrun. The numbers of unaccompanied minors showing up in France has been increasing steadily in the last few years. In 2017, child welfare services registered 25,000 unaccompanied minors.
And that is how many people are in the system, recognised as minors. Hundreds of others’ claims have been dismissed, a situation that NGOs have denounced as arbitrary. Human Rights Watch, in a July 2018 report, called the age determination in Paris a “lottery”.
These decisions can be appealed to a judge, but it takes months, and until they are recognised as minors, they have no access to services or, more importantly, school.
And so they wait.
Mohammed has nothing to do all day
Mohammed, who has come to the park for lunch, says he’s 16 and arrived in France from Gambia in October 2018. He had an interview with the Demie two months ago and he is still waiting for an answer.
He says when he first arrived in Paris he slept in a park. Now he has temporary housing, but he has to leave during the day, from 7am to 6pm. He says he tries to fill his days, shuttling between the Gare du Nord train station and the Republique plaza, two places he knows in Paris. “I go there to spend my day,” he says. He charges his phone at the train station, and at noon he comes to the park for lunch: “I come here and eat, after I go back there again and sit there.”
Veronic Joly says this is a good way for teenagers like Mohammed to get into trouble: “A young person, whatever his age, when he is in the street, everything is set up for him to do something stupid: burn garbage cans, deal drugs or break into cars,” she says, in her home in northern Paris.
For the past year, she has been organising a group of ten families to take in an unaccompanied minor on a rotating basis. Once every three months, a teenager from Cameroon stays for a week in her home. He sleeps in her son’s room, on the top bunk of a bunk bed.
Like many others, the young man was not accepted as a minor. Joly says that when she first met him she thought he could be 17 years old, not 15 as he claimed. But since living with him, she says it’s become clear he is indeed younger.
“We’ve had to discipline him and set limits,” she explains. She insists on knowing where he is in the evenings and tries to limit screen time.
“These are teenager problems,” she says. “That’s how you see that he’s 15! Sometimes I would like to invite the judge to spend a day with us. He’ll be recognised as a minor right away!”
Joly, who works as an actor, says she and her partner, who works as an urban planner, feeling terrible about the idea of teenagers living on the streets.
“It was hard for us to know that we have two teenagers at home, and there are teenagers outside,” she says, tearing up.
She looked for organisations that set up homestays, but there were few, and those that existed only offered short-term hosting.
After she learned about informal hosting networks, she got in touch with people she knew in the neighbourhood and found ten families willing to host a young migrant on a rotating basis, five to seven days at a time.
When that was in place she went to see Agathe Nadimi, who had her eye on a young man who was suffering on the street.
Since March 2018, Joly puts together a hosting calendar for the group, which has become committed to the young man, and has been able to find a way to get him into a school, despite his lack of papers.
Personal experience with refugees
Joly says her willingness to get involved may have something to do with her past experiences. She has worked with refugee advocacy groups since 2006, and as a child, her parents hosted a Vietnamese family.
“I would say hosting is a bit of a family tradition,” she says, adding that people don’t always act on their wish to help because they do not know what is possible. “You have to have seen with your own eyes. I saw it with my parents. I saw others as a volunteer. So I know it’s possible to do it.”
Others, like Danika Jurisic, have gotten involved because of their own personal experiences.
“I know very, very well what this is like, as I was a refugee minor," she says. Jurisic left Sarajevo, in Bosnia, in the 1990s when she was 16 and ended up in Croatia, before resettling in Paris.
“I’ve been through the system, I know what it is, I know how cruel it can be,” she says, adding that not much has changed in the system in 25 years.
She says the work with migrants in Paris today is about keeping them going until they can get the system to work: “We're trying to keep them alive until the system actually starts working for them and they actually get their rights.”
Find this story on the Spotlight on France podcast.
For more information about the volunteer group in this piece, visit the Midis du Mie collective.