His dream at Demba was football. Like many other migrants, the young Malian dreamed of going to Europe, signing for a club, becoming a great footballer, and providing for his family. On the networks, his friends from the village who had already left for the Old Continent were taunting him on Instagram. “You have to come,” they kept telling him. So in 2020, Demba left Mali at 13, all alone, without telling anyone. “If I had told my parents about it, they would have said no. »
Seated in the kitchen of the Lille apartment that he now shares with his Turkish roommate Emirkane, the young man recounts his journey in a few words: the odd jobs in Mauritania to pay for the canoe to the Canaries, the arrival in Spain then in Paris, and finally in Lille where, his minority being no doubt, he was placed in a social children’s home (Mecs). Like 50 other unaccompanied minors (UMAs), Demba is today cared for in a reception center managed by the Alefpa association.
Resumption of arrivals since 2021
If the phenomenon of migrating minors appeared in France at the end of the 1990s, it was from 2015 and the crisis in Syria that their number exploded, with a peak of 18,000 young people recognized as minors in 2018, before knowing a halt during the health crisis. Since the lifting of restrictions, their number has been constantly increasing.
The latest figures from the Ministry of Justice announce that 14,782 young migrants were recognized as minors in 2022, i.e. 30% more than in 2021, and the year 2023 promises to break records. “We are currently facing a massive arrival of unaccompanied minors, particularly from Italy,” says François Sauvadet, president of the Assembly of French Departments and the Côte-d’Or Departmental Council. “The departments, which are responsible for child protection, feel very alone in facing this challenge. »
The influence of social networks
Originating mainly from Guinea, Mali, Ivory Coast, Senegal but also more recently from Tunisia, unaccompanied minors are 93% boys, most often aged 15 to 17, and represent between 15 and 20 % of migratory flows. Depending on the country, their reasons for leaving vary: political or economic instability, lack of prospects or family violence.
On the networks, Europe appears like an Eldorado. “Social networks have individualized the decision to migrate,” analyzes Olivier Peyroux, sociologist specializing in the migration of minors. Seven or eight years ago, parents ordered their children to leave. Today, a young person sees his friends staging their supposed social success in Europe on Instagram or Snapchat. Globalization, these young people want to be part of it. Increasingly, these minors make the decision to leave on their own, then ask their family to finance the trip. »
During his journey from Mali, Demba took on odd jobs in Mauritania to pay for the trip by canoe to the Canaries, the arrival in Spain then in Paris. He now lives in Lille. / Mathieu Dréan
This has a cost: between €8,000 and €20,000 from Guinea. Those who can afford to leave therefore belong to the wealthiest social classes in their country of origin. Among the destination countries, France has the advantage of language, but also often of the diaspora. “The Malian diaspora, for example, is extremely well established there,” assures Olivier Peyroux. They are the ones who contribute to help the cousin come to Europe, find him accommodation, etc. »
Only chance to be regularized
The massive arrival of minors is partly explained, paradoxically, by the tightening of migration policy. “The more restrictive it is for adults, the more it pushes young people to migrate before they come of age,” assures Olivier Peyroux. Any isolated minor on French territory must in fact be taken care of by Child Welfare (ASE), whether French or foreign. In the latter case, upon reaching the age of majority, he will be able to apply for a residence permit.
“The more restrictive the migration policy is for adults, the more it pushes young people to migrate before they reach the age of majority”
Let’s take the case of a Guinean declaring himself a minor, and let’s call him Hassan. Upon arriving in France, Hassan presents himself at a police station. This directs him to an emergency accommodation solution while awaiting his minority assessment. During an interview with representatives of Child Welfare, they will have to determine whether or not Hassan is indeed a minor, given his declarations about his identity, his age, his family of origin. , his nationality and his state of isolation. The bone test, a controversial method for assessing the age of migrants but considered unreliable, is almost no longer used.
If Hassan is part of the small percentage to be assessed as a minor – thus avoiding joining the cohort of undocumented adult migrants – he is subject to a temporary placement order in a child protection structure, in the same way. as children placed in the territory.
And this is where the issue of migrant minors, whose care oscillates between child protection and migration policy, becomes tense. They are regularly accused of taking advantage of the French system and clogging up child protection systems. In an unprecedented development, the departmental council of the Territoire de Belfort announced in October that it was now refusing to take care of unaccompanied minors, announcing that it had reached “a breaking point”.
The arrivals of unaccompanied minors in child protection systems actually take place in a difficult context: an increase in precariousness in France – which is accompanied by an increase in family violence and the placement of children in systems. of the ASE – but also the recruitment crisis.
“The work of social workers is not valued,” says Egidia Pichon-Leng, child protection project manager for the Auteuil Foundation. “Fewer and fewer qualified people agree to do this job. » To overcome recruitment difficulties, structures are increasingly calling on temporary social workers, with little or no qualification. “In ten days of temporary work, you earn the salary of an educator!” explains Alexis Rivière, an educator specializing in the structure where Demba lives, but moving from one educator to another creates disruptions in the careers of the students. youth. »
Around 70 unaccompanied minors entrusted to the Nord department are accompanied by 9 educators from the Alefpa association, which accommodates them in different apartments in the Lille metropolis. / Mathieu Dréan
Rather than blaming these unaccompanied minors, many advocate looking at the problem the other way around. “We are witnessing a frenzy of political declarations using catastrophic vocabulary,” denounces Michel Caron, former president of Alefpa and author of a report on the children of exile. “But the figures are 14,782 unaccompanied minors entrusted to the ASE in 2022, out of 377,000 children placed in total. » “Accusing 15,000 children of the failure of a system is a bit easy,” adds Violaine Husson, responsible for gender and protection issues at Cimade.
Lille lawyer, specializing in immigration law, Émilie Dewaele accuses. “If all the reception centers are saturated, it is because the departments do not want to release additional funds! » But on the other side of the barrier, they are protesting. “In Côte-d’Or, we allocate 64 million euros to child protection, including 7.5 for unaccompanied minors,” announces François Sauvadet. This is 10 million more than in 2022, and we anticipate 8 million more in 2024.”
To meet budgets, the departments have developed a new strategy, “specific MNA systems”: the latter are separated from children in the area and placed between them, in structures with lower operating costs, with the aim of relieving congestion in the systems. For a structure welcoming young people from the region in the North, the day price, financing the supervision of young people, night supervision, but also school, food and activities, is €150. For MNA devices, it is €63.
Demba now lives with his Turkish roommate Emirkane in an apartment in Lille managed by the Alefpa association. / Mathieu Dréan
Accommodation of young foreigners alone in hotels is gradually developing, with a visit from an educator from time to time. “Imagine these teenagers, left to their own devices in often shabby hotel rooms, 30 km from their high school, without being able to cook,” laments Violaine Husson of Cimade.Among the young people from the ASE staying in the hotel – a practice in theory banned since 2022 – 90% would be unaccompanied minors.
A windfall for traffic networks
“And that’s when young people have accommodation,” denounces Émilie Dewaele. Increasingly, it can take days or even weeks before a migrant declared a minor finds accommodation. » Not to mention that certain departments, which nevertheless have a legal obligation to do so, no longer shelter them while awaiting their minority assessment. These recurring situations have led France to be condemned on several occasions by the European Court of Human Rights for degrading treatment.
Already made vulnerable by the trauma experienced during their migratory journey, they sometimes find themselves on the streets or in squats, prey to networks, fueling the discourse according to which they are delinquents. “Some kids deal for 10, 20 euros to eat, others do stupid things to go to prison, where they will be protected,” testifies the lawyer. A young man said to me “and if I get out of prison, where will I go?”. I didn’t have the answer. »
Also a specialist in human trafficking, Olivier Peyroux has observed for several years a change in strategy of trafficking networks, which are rushing into the loopholes in the system for caring for unaccompanied minors. “Before, these networks recruited in the countries of departure. Today, they no longer need to go looking for them! Unaccompanied minors are an easy workforce to recruit, particularly as lookouts in drug trafficking. »
Young people who want to work
However, when they are taken into care by child protection, minors from migrant backgrounds often integrate easily. “When we started welcoming unaccompanied minors, we understood that their needs were not the same as those of other children in care,” recalls Marc Chabant, director of development at the Action Enfance foundation.
“Unaccompanied minors are more part of the solution than the problem. »
“We, who were used to dealing with problems of dropping out of school and behavioral difficulties, saw the arrival of these young people who get up at dawn, who have a project, who want to work. » “When we discuss with traders and artisans, unaccompanied minors are more part of the solution than the problem,” adds Olivier Peyroux. If the Guineans were not there, given the recruitment difficulties, many bakeries would close! »
Demba started his professional baccalaureate as a building painter. He doesn’t like it very much, but when he comes of age, to be able to qualify for a residence permit, he will have to demonstrate professional training, so as not to be an “economic burden” for society. In the meantime, he is keeping his football dreams alive: the Marcq-en-Barœul club offered him a first contract.