Subject to Whim

Unaccompanied migrant children who travel from Italy to France’s Hautes-Alpes Department may, in violation of French law and child rights protection norms, be summarily returned to Italy by French authorities. To avoid apprehension and summary return by border police, many children cross the border at night, hiking high into the mountains far off established trails. Even in the height of the summer, in July and August, it is cold in the mountains, and it is easy to get lost in the dark. Children described walking seven to ten hours to reach Briançon, less than 15 km via the most direct route by road. Many were exhausted by the time they reached Briançon, and some had suffered injuries from falls on rocky slopes or while crossing frigid mountain streams. In the winter months, the crossing can be perilous: many of the children interviewed by Human Rights Watch in January and February were recovering from frostbite, and some required hospitalization. Once they enter France, many are refused formal recognition as children after flawed age assessments. In cases reviewed by Human Rights Watch, many children received negative age assessments because, in the judgement of the examiner, they failed to provide clear accounts of their journeys—in reality, meaning that they made minor mistakes with dates, confused the names of places they travelled through, or did not want to discuss particularly difficult experiences with an adult they had just met. Work in home countries or while in transit to Europe may be taken as an indication that the child is older than claimed, even though many children work at very young ages around the world. Life goals that examiners deem unrealistic, such as overly optimistic assessments of career prospects, may also be factors in negative age assessments.