In France a biometric system is increasingly being used to register young migrants who want to be recognized as unaccompanied minors. Aid groups worry this will result in more young minors being sent directly to detention centers and inaccurate assessments.
Any young migrant who arrives in France and declares himself to be an unaccompanied minor must go through an evaluation procedure in the department where he or she arrives. This procedure aims to determine their age and whether or not they are alone. If it is confirmed that the young person is a minor, he or she will be taken into care by the Social Assistance for Children (ASE) and will be protected under the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by France.
But since January 30, 2019 this evaluation system risks being turned upside down. From now on, young people may have to appear at the prefecture before being evaluated by a social worker. That's because, after the January decree, which stems from the "asylum and immigration" law brought in in September 2018, authorities are increasingly using a biometric system, called AEM (support for the evaluation of minority).
This system takes a young person's fingerprints and photographs and verifies their identity documents. Authorities then cross-reference that biometric information with two other databases on foreigners. If the cross-referenced data indicates that the young person has reached the age of majority, the prefecture can issue a deportation order and can detain the migrant.
In other words, the fate of a minor in some cases no longer depends on the decision of the local ASE but on the prefecture, and therefore on the national government.
According to figures from the DGEF (General Directorate for Foreigners in France), which is part of the Ministry of the Interior, 73 departments used the AEM system in September 2020. What's more, there were already 11,000 young people registered in the national file.
Will this become a requirement across the country?
Migrant relief organizations worry that consulting the AEM system will soon become automatic.
A new bill on the protection of children presented by Secretary of State Adrien Taquet on June 16 aims to make the use of the AEM system mandatory throughout the country. This requirement can also be found in the "4D" bill (deconcentration, decentralization, differentiation, decomplexification), which stipulates that each application must be systematically registered in the AEM system.
These two measures still have to be reviewed by the National Assembly and the Senate for them to become law but whilst that process is under way, there has been a gradual deployment of the AEM system since it began in 2019.
'Blackmail' by the government
Initially, the use of biometric data was to remain optional. During 2019 and 2020, more and more departments experimented with it. Then came the decree of June 23, 2020, which introduced a financial penalty for departments that did not use the AEM system.
The government's contribution to the sheltering and evaluation of young people, which is handled by the departments, is thus reduced in places where the AEM is not used.
Two French administrative departments in the Val-de-Marne and the Seine-Saint-Denis filed a complaint with the council of state. They said that this system amounted to "financial blackmail."
Frédéric Molossi, the vice-president of the Seine-Saint-Denis departmental council in charge of children and the family stated: "We consider this to be a form of filing that weakens access to child protection."
Consequences criticized by NGOs
With this biometric system, the government claims to want to fight against the "nomadism" of young people, who sometimes try their luck in several departments.
But the system has been highly contested from the outset. Initially, 19 non-profit organizations made complaints to the Council of State about it. They criticized the infringement of "the protection of the best interests of the child and the right to privacy."
The constitutionality of the system was also called into question and referred to France's Constitutional Council. However, that Council definitively approved the AEM system in July 2019.
Undeterred, NGOs also pointed out that there is a risk of error, and therefore of non-protection, of detention and even of deportation of unaccompanied minors. They say the system does not take into account the realities of migratory routes: many minors, for example, have to use a false adult passport to cross borders, and are therefore registered as adults in other databases.
Headed to detention?
If a young person is registered somewhere as an adult, he or she is immediately declared to be of age after consultation of the AEM database. This happens despite the "bundle of clues" that should be the basis of any assessment of minor status, as the Council of State reiterated in a decision on February 5, 2020. "We have begun to see unaccompanied minors in detention after their visit to the prefecture, even before any social assessment [has been made]," said Violaine Husson, head of gender and protection issues at the NGO which works with migrants, Cimade.
The fear that the prefect will remove a young person before any appeal to the children's judge has been echoed in several regions. The judicial authority regularly overturns age assessments made by the department -- in as many as 50% of cases in Paris, for example, according to a 2018 report.
As early as January 2020, a report produced by InfoMie, a French database for young isolated foreign minors, detailed the consequences of biometric registration, drawing on feedback from social workers, authorities and associations.
In some departments, the right to temporary shelter (while the evaluation is being carried out) has become conditional on going to the prefecture, something many young people are reluctant to do. In the Bas-Rhin (Lower Rhine), one of the pilot departments for the deployment of the AEM, for example, "young people, frightened, some of them assisted by charities, preferred to flee", the report states. Some of these migrants then fall off the radar of the social workers and volunteers who could support them. Anecdotally, they often find themselves forced to try their luck in different localities, despite their vulnerability.