Children as young as 12 and other vulnerable refugees and migrants have been physically and verbally abused by French border guards, international human rights organisation Oxfam said on Friday.
Citing witness statements, Oxfam accused French police of repeatedly withholding food, water and blankets from underage refugees who crossed the border into France from the Italian town of Ventimiglia, where some 16,500 refugees currently live.
“French police officers are not upholding international standards,” Oxfam’s Chiara Romagno said in a statement. “They taunt children and mistreat them. Some children have had the soles of their shoes cut off before being sent back to Italy,” she added.
The report said children complained about being “physically and verbally abused, and detained overnight in cells without food, water or blankets and with no access to an official guardian,” all contrary to French and EU law.
“In one case, a very young Eritrean girl was forced to walk back across the border along a road with no pavement carrying her 40-day-old baby,” the report said.
According to European law, unaccompanied children requesting asylum cannot be sent back to where they came from.
Most of the refugees were fleeing persecution and war in countries such as Sudan, Eritrea, Syria and Afghanistan.
“The French authorities do not recognise any of them as asylum seekers and push them back to Italy immediately after crossing, even though they are required by law to assess the situation of each child,” the report, which is based on dozens of testimonies, says.
“Moreover, there are no interpreters or lawyers present at the border.”
According to French law, children who are not considered asylum seekers in France should have a legal guardian assigned to them and be given at least 24 hours before being sent back.
Based on the testimonies, Oxfam said French police do not follow these laws.
The report also accused the police of sometimes filling in documents for the refugee children.
“In the field ‘vos droits’ (‘your rights’) they often write ‘I want to leave as soon as possible’, as if being immediately pushed back is the child’s choice – which in almost all cases, it isn’t,” the report found.
“Policemen yell at them, laugh at them, push them and tell them ‘you will never cross here’. Some children have their mobile phones seized and the SIM card removed,” it also said.
“They cannot even call their parents.”
The report said Roja Camp, the official camp set up outside Ventimiglia, was vastly overstretched and that the “heavy police presence at the entrance and compulsory fingerprinting deter many from staying” there.
Most refugees and migrants preferred to live rough, sleeping under a motorway outside town with no sanitation facilities or clean water.
“In Ventimiglia, there are no arrangements to take care of the returned children. Once off the train, they are left to fend for themselves,” the report said.
Oxfam said France should immediately stop and punish the “illegal practices of the French police at the French-Italian border”, ensure the right to seek asylum for all foreign children in French territory and take care of them according to the provisions of national, European and other international laws.
An EU scheme to distribute migrants and refugees equitably among the bloc’s members has failed miserably, with central European members flatly refusing the quotas and others, including France, falling far short of their allocated target.
Italy has received more than 700,000 migrants and refugees since 2013.
Many West Africans try to continue on to France, where they speak the language and often have relatives, only to find the border shut to them.
Thousands of those who manage to cross the Alps into France have been detained and sent back to Italy.