In recent months, young migrants have been arrested in Nice after meetings at the children's welfare office and then ordered to leave the territory. The Alpes-Maritimes department justifies these arrests as an "agreement" made with the police and the prefecture. Lawyers and migrant aid associations describe it as a "scandal".
"It's a real catastrophe," says Laure Pons, a lawyer in Nice, responding to the situation.
"Here's recent example of a young person who arrived as a minor on French territory, in Nice. He was summoned to have his case assessed by the ASE [Aide sociale à l'Enfance, the departmental service in charge of evaluating the minority of young foreigners, editor's note]. He presented himself and they evaluated his situation. At the end of this, the ASE said it did not recognize his minority and declared him to be an adult," the lawyer recounts.
"The young person was then summoned back to the ASE offices so they could explain the repercussions of their decision, one that can be contested, I would add. When he left this meeting half an hour later, the young man was arrested and handcuffed in front of the ASE offices by the Border Police who were standing there waiting for him."
The young man, a Guinean, was taken straight to the police station, and then given an order to leave French territory (OQTF). InfoMigrants was able to view an excerpt from his arrest report. It says that the police were informed of his case by "the Department of Children [...] unaccompanied minors section," (see below).
For Pons, this process of arresting young people just after their case is rejected is nothing less than a "denunciation".
"These young people have rights," she says. "The denial of minority status by the ASE should not mean the end of their journey. A young person can appeal the decision to a judge specifically designated for children. How can fundamental rights be flouted in this way?" The lawyer, who recently defended another similar case, is still indignant. "These young people are vulnerable and must be protected [...] not handcuffed outside the exit of a social service office."
Officially, a young person who is denied minority status by the department in which he or she is located can appeal the decision and take the matter to the juvenile judge. Pending the proceedings, the young person is supposed to be given protection and shelter.
'We have an agreement with [...] the border police'
Questioned by AFP, the Alpes-Maritimes department -- which groups together all the child welfare services -- did not attempt to deny having contacted the police to make these arrests and even spoke of an "agreement" between them.
"We have an agreement with the departmental direction of the border police (PAF) that we call them to come and get these young people who have been deemed to be adults. Most of them flee before having this interview, and very few are handed over to the PAF," said the children's welfare office, confirming that eight young people assessed as adults were handed over to the PAF between October 2020 and March 2021.
"In view of the pressure of high numbers, we cannot afford to also accept adults who deviate from the child protection arrangements," the department's services further justified themselves.
'A protocol [that allows] the services of the department to send the identity documents of [migrants] to the PAF'
Contacted by InfoMigrants, the prefecture speaks of a "protocol". It also does not deny the arrests. "A protocol signed in December 2019 between the state, the departmental council and the public prosecutors of Nice and Grasse provides for the possibility for the services of the department to send identity documents held by those concerned to the border police (PAF). The PAF services then verify the authenticity of the documents. In cases of fraud, under the authority of the Public Prosecutor, a judicial procedure is established."
The person whose majority has been established, "without a residence permit is then placed under administrative detention." There is no explanation provided, however, on the right for these young foreigners to appeal.
'Young people no longer go to the ASE'
The Nice-based association Tous Citoyens! and the French lawyers' union have taken offense at the existence of such an agreement. "We find it extremely shocking that a social service should help with reports leading to arrests by the police of young exiles who do not pose a threat to public order," the two organizations criticized in a statement. The collective that helps them has been informed of "about ten cases in six months".
"What happens is that young people are now being advised not to go to the ASE when they receive a notification of refusal of minority," said Michel Sinnoet, member of Tous Citoyens! "Most of them already know. The information circulates well. They know that young people are being arrested."
Over the past four years, several thousand young foreigners have arrived in the Alpes-Maritimes area via the Italian border and presented themselves as unaccompanied minors under child protection (791 in 2017, 2,238 in 2018, 1,871 in 2019 and 2,683 in 2020). The constant increase in the number of arrivals of young people requires the department to constantly adapt its reception facilities.