The strict COVID-19 lockdown measures imposed in France in March last year hit migrant minors awaiting recognition of their status ten times as hard as the normal population, says a new report from several NGOS, including Doctors Without Borders (MSF).
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and the organization Comede, which advocates for the health of migrants living in France said in a new report released earlier this month that the COVID lockdowns had affected young unrecognized migrants ten times as hard as the rest of the population.
According to the aid groups, the "dehumanizing" two-month period these youths were forced to live through contributed to a steep rise in mental health issues among them, including an increase in suicidal thoughts, anxiety and a variety of sleep disorders.
The report was published on April 6 and contained interviews and observations of how 124 unaccompanied migrant youths lived through France’s March 17-May 11 lockdown in 2020. The youths were all awaiting their status as minors to be confirmed by a court when the lockdown went into force, and were thus not eligible for accommodation or other aid provided by French child protection services. Many of these youths were therefore forced to live on the streets or rely on the help of aid groups and charities throughout the period.
"The negative effects of the lockdown were tenfold among these youths" compared to the regular population, the report said, underscoring that many of them suddenly found themselves without access to basic needs like food and showers, as restrictions affected meal distribution points and essential hygiene facilities.
Although France’s homeless population was actually exempt from the 1-kilometer perimeter movement rule, some of the concerned minors ended up fasting long periods of time for fear of being fined while looking for food.
The report also denounced the "deep sense of dehumanisation" the lockdown installed among the youths. "The entire population was confined [to their homes], leaving the streets empty outside in which these unaccompanied minors were left to live in fear and with a sense of exclusion, along with other marginalized groups. They suffered massive anxieties and suicidal thoughts and found themselves isolated and paralyzed."
The closure of shower- and other hygiene facilities also added to their problems, it said, noting that these youths "had to, and still have to, carry out their natural needs in public spaces, or in disconcertingly dirty public toilets."
Severe toll on mental health
For the minors that were put up in emergency accommodation financed by MSF during the period, 43% of those interviewed said they had suffered from sleep disorders, of which a majority cited insomnia as their main problem, and 20 percent hypersomnia – a disorder in which the sufferer sleeps excessively. Half of the youths suffering from sleep disorders also said they had suffered from nightmares.
The fact that the lockdown resulted in all French court hearings being delayed also contributed to a reported increase in anxiety, with 75% of the youths saying they were increasingly worried about their legal proceedings.
The boredom of the isolation also led to some of the youths reliving painful life traumas, including the dangerous and often violent route to exile and witnessing the loss of loved ones, etc. 30% of those interviewed said their symptoms of stress, depression or other psychological traumas had either reappeared or increased during the period.
Boubacar*, one of the minors interviewed in the report, said that "it’s black inside of my head during the lockdown. I spend all my time thinking. Now there's a little light."
MSF and Comede concluded that the youths' extremely negative experience of the lockdown was due to France's "dehumanising reception policies," and called on authorities to set up accommodation also for minors awaiting official recognition of their status "without further delay."
*The name has been changed to protect the person’s identity.