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When Undocumented Immigrants Are Underage

Like other countries, France faces a rising number of young people who arrive illegally into the country, without their parents or other family members. It poses unique questions.

AMIENS - In this French city, an hour north of Paris, the issue of underage undocumented immigrants has found a temporary solution, behind the discreet façade of a bourgeois house near the train station.

In this building, which looks like a guesthouse, the France Terre d’Asile organization (“France Land of Asylum”) started providing housing to 20 young undocumented immigrants last January. They are from Congo, Sudan or Guinea, and all of them arrived here alone, without parents, in the “little Venice of the North” as Amiens is called.

This type of structure is not very common in France, but has been multiplying lately, due to a steady increase in the number of undocumented teenagers over the past 20 years. On a national scale, between 6,000 and 8,000 undocumented minors are in the care of local authorities, who are not always equipped for such a task.

This situation has become financially unmanageable in areas where there are a big number of young refugees. Local authorities are legally bound to take care of them – this obligation has raised such difficulties that the government recently published a circular on the subject. From now on, the state will provide enough financial help to local authorities to cover the costs during the first days of care.

An ideal home

In Amiens like everywhere else, a young undocumented immigrant costs around 250 euros a day to the city. The total amounts to 8.5 million euros a year. The challenge is a financial one, but also a logistic one: in the Somme department, where Amiens is located, as in many others, the child welfare services (ASE) do not have enough beds in group homes. Recently, some young refugees had to be accommodated in hotels.

The France Terre d’Asile group home is subsidized by the local government. It took some pressure off the local welfare services by taking care of the material needs of these teenagers. Here, they sleep in neat dormitories of three or four beds. They are kept busy with French lessons, socio-educational workshops, cultural activities and sports. They also receive legal aid.

You can hear teenagers laughing in the house, obviously happy to have landed here. However, this ideal home, with old wooden floors, moldings on the ceiling and a housekeeper, might not be enough. In 2000, there were only five undocumented immigrant minors in Amiens. Since 2011, there is a 100 of them coming every year.

Getting a residence permit

Why these young asylum seekers came here remains unclear. Most of them say they don’t have any contact with their parents. It is the case of Brigette, an elegant teenager with long dark hair from Congo who says she is 17 years old. She says she “took a flight” from Congo Kinshasa to Paris. She got there on January 20, and says that “a woman” took her to a train station and told her to go to Amiens.

At first, she stayed in a shelter home for girls in difficult situations. Then she was sent to France Terre d’Asile when they opened their group home. “I feel much better here”, she says. Brigette likes “computer science” and would like to stay in France to “study and become a secretary.”

Such fragmented and timid accounts of their past is common among undocumented minors. Some of them have painful life stories. Many of them say they are “orphans” or have “no contact anymore” with their relatives. Most of the time, they were actually sent here by their parents. Even if they do not always admit it, their goal is often to be taken care of until they reach their majority, be able to study and then get a residence permit in order to bring their family over under the family reunification program. If a teenager enters France before turning 16, he or she also has more chances of being granted French nationality.

Two teenagers caught trying to sneak into Britain (UK Home Office)

At the Central Office for the Repression of Illegal Immigration and Employment of Undocumented Workers (OCRIEST), officials admit they do not really control this phenomenon. According to its director Julien Gentile, only “around ten” of these illegal migration channels have been dismantled since 2011. When they come from Africa, most of these young people get to France by plane, using fake IDs. When they come from the Middle East, they take the traditional route through Turkey or Greece. “Everything is organized outside of France,” Gentile explains.

In France, most of these teenagers come from French-speaking or Portuguese-speaking Africa, or from Afghanistan. They are mostly male. But there are also girls, sometimes pregnant. They often come from modest backgrounds, but some of them are from “bourgeois families in countries at war,” says Gentile. Families are making a “double” bet: “They want to protect their kid, and to get a foothold in a country where they could flee in case the political situation gets worse.”

With its new circular, the French government is also trying to solve the issue of geographic “distribution” of these teenagers. Most of them arrive in Seine-Saint-Denis, in Paris’ northern suburbs (they were 800 in 2012), in Paris (1800 in 2012), or in the western department of Ille-et-Vilaine in Brittany (400). Departments located near borders come next, with around 200 teenagers every year. The government’s plan consists in identifying these minors and having them move to parts of the country where local authorities are not as overburdened, and could deal with them more easily.

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