PARIS – When Patrick* arrived in Paris last January after an arduous journey from his native Cameroon – by way of Nigeria, Niger, Algeria, Morocco and Spain – he spent several weeks sleeping in the Metro and under highway overpasses. He was 15 years old.
“I was so cold and so dirty,” he said. “I had dreamed of France since I was a little kid, but I had no idea that people slept on the streets here.”
When he reached Paris, he went to a center where the Red Cross carries out age assessments to determine if migrants are under 18 years old. Patrick, an orphan, was told his copy of his birth certificate was not sufficient proof of age. There are no official statistics available, but local NGOs say the initial rejection rate at age-assessment centers is around 80 percent.
While proven unaccompanied minors are protected and sheltered by local government, adult migrants are the responsibility of the French state. There are only a few state-run shelters in Paris, and they are reluctant to accept anyone who appears to be under 18. Trapped in that Catch-22, Patrick began sleeping on the streets.
When a volunteer group found him a place to stay in the home of a Parisian couple, the first thing he did was take a hot shower. “That’s when I started feeling hope again,” Patrick said.
Another Parisian named Charlotte,* who regularly allows young migrants to stay in her spare room, also sheltered Patrick for a while. “I quickly saw him morph from someone in a state of shock into just a normal teenager,” she said.
Patrick’s hosts are among dozens of Parisians who provide young migrants with food, clean clothes and a place to sleep. They come from all walks of life, and don’t necessarily have much room to spare. Genevieve Coudre, a schoolteacher, has fit up to a dozen in her living room and her spare room.
They all have one thing in common: Through volunteer groups or chance encounters, they have come face to face with homeless young migrants and – in the words of Dominique,* who hosts two of them – realized “it was impossible to do nothing.”
“Even if it feels like we’re doing work that should be done by the authorities,” she said.
A Legal Lottery
The official count of foreign unaccompanied minors in France doubled from about 4,000 in 2012 to 8,000 in 2016, and has surpassed 16,000 this year, according to Dominique Versini, Paris deputy mayor in charge of child protection. Many come from French-speaking African nations, others from countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, Eritrea, Nigeria and Liberia.
Under French law, unaccompanied minors are granted protection until they turn 18. But proving they are minors can be daunting; many lack photo identification.
In Paris, local authorities provide housing in cheap hotels for up to five days during the initial assessment. If they are rejected, housing support ends.
Rejections can be appealed, but the process can take months, said Catherine Delanoe-Daoud, a Parisian lawyer who has assisted dozens of youngsters. A judge can order temporary housing during the appeals process, but not all do.
“It’s a real lottery depending on which judge they get,” she said. “Some judges will want to meet the young person, while others don’t bother. Some judges ask only for documents, while others order bone testing, too.”
Patrick spent nearly seven months with his hosts as he awaited the results of his appeal. The judge ordered a bone test, a controversial procedure that can be off by up to two years, according to some studies. The test determined that Patrick was not a minor.
But his brother in Cameroon was able to obtain his original birth certificate, and the document finally convinced the judge that Patrick was indeed a minor. Now living in a hostel, he hopes to enroll in school.
About 15 percent of the young migrants who appealed last year were ultimately recognized as minors, according to Versini. She said the city is making an effort to better evaluate their age from the outset.
For those who are considered adults while their appeal is being heard, she said state-level agencies must do a better job of providing shelter. “There is a pressing need to open more housing … which we regularly reiterate to the state,” she said.
The Small Army of Paris Volunteers
Every day, dozens of young migrants gather outside the Red Cross assessment center, located on a quiet street in the 11th district. A handful of volunteers arrive with food and, some days, the address of a home where those who are homeless can sleep that night.
On a recent morning, those gathered outside the center included a sunken-cheeked young man from Nigeria who befriended a young Afghan. Both had just arrived in Paris. The Nigerian said his family was killed by Boko Haram. “For me, it was the Taliban,” the Afghan said. Neither had any documents.
Agathe Nadimi, an independent volunteer, handed out bread and fielded questions from the youth, many of whom showed her their carefully folded rejection letters. Nadimi, a university lecturer, has helped unaccompanied minors for the past two years.
“I’ve got a list of more than 50 kids looking for housing,” she said, flipping through pages of phone numbers scrawled in a notebook. She regularly posts appeals for housing on a half-dozen private Facebook groups for Parisians.
“This list keeps me up at night,” said Nadimi, who has a teenage son. “And these are just the kids that I’ve met. There are many more out there.”
“I can’t promise you anything,” she told a youth from Ivory Coast. “But let me see what I can do.” After half an hour on her phone, she returned with good news. “A friend of mine said he can host you for the next few weeks,” she said. His face lit up.
By the time she left, Nadimi and the other volunteers had found housing for all but one of the migrants who asked for help. A young Guinean started to walk away, head down, muttering angrily to himself. Seeing this, Coudre, the schoolteacher, who already had 10 migrants in her two-bedroom apartment, became worried.
“That boy is going to become bitter if he stays outside. I better take him in,” she said, and hurried to catch up with him before he turned the corner.
* Names have been changed to protect the privacy of a minor and at the request of some hosts because of the sensitive nature of their actions.