When Steve arrived in Paris in the summer of 2015, he was 16 and full of hope. He’d spent three years on the road after leaving his native Cameroon and was eager to start a new life in France. But when he tried to apply for asylum as an unaccompanied minor, he realized that proving he was under 18 would be yet another hurdle on the journey.
“At first, all I had was my birth certificate,” he says. “I couldn’t get anything out of it. They told me if I didn’t have a document with photo ID to confirm my birthplace and my age, they couldn’t do anything.”
According to French law and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the government is responsible for teenagers like Steve while they apply for child welfare services. (We’re not using his name to protect his identity.) But advocates say that in Paris, four out of five of these kids are rejected when they apply at the DEMIE, a Red Cross office overseen by Paris City Hall. City Hall and the Red Cross dispute that estimate and say all applicants are evaluated unconditionally.
It’s a difficult situation, says Corinne Torre, of Doctors Without Borders.
“Let’s be honest,” she says. “There are many young adults [over 18] who try to pass as minors. But the problem is that the current intake system is overwhelmed. So, many workers end up rushing the evaluation and denying youth their minors’ status in the process.”
Last year, the number of youths recognized as unaccompanied minors in France jumped to 16,000, double what it was in 2016. Many of them try their luck in Paris, but the child welfare system there is overwhelmed, and teenagers are often left to fend for themselves.
In response, Doctors without Borders opened a day center just outside Paris last December to help out kids with paperwork and basic needs.
Steve turned to the Cameroonian embassy for help sorting out his documents. Staff there were able to call his family and confirm his identity. They authenticated his birth certificate and even provided him with a consular ID card. Then Steve brought all the documents back to a judge, only to be told those papers needed to be examined more closely.
“All this was for them to buy more time,” he said. “I had to wait four months for this verification. Four months!”
Four months would bring Steve closer to the critical age of 18, after which an asylum request as an adult would become a whole different ball game. It would mean four months of living on the streets and occasionally sharing rooms with other migrant kids in bedbug-infested hotels. Steve even got scabies.
For most of the past year, though, he’s lived at the home of a Parisian woman who opens her door to teenagers like him. Manuela, who prefers not to use her last name, is outraged by the way these young people are treated.
“When you read the rejection letters, they say, ‘We’re not sure you’re in France unaccompanied,’ or, ‘Your story is too confusing,’ or, ‘Your dates of travel are unclear,’” she says.
“Those young people have had insane journeys through a bunch of crazy countries,” she adds. “Some took six months to cross Africa, others were tortured in Libya. They crossed the Mediterranean in small boats; they can’t be expected to remember exact dates. And when they get here, they’re lost, and they’re told they’re being vague. It’s totally absurd.”
Manuela’s apartment is in a central Parisian neighborhood. It’s not big, but it’s bright, colorful and cozy. Steve sleeps on the living room couch and sometimes plays video games to blow off steam. He keeps his voluminous paperwork in thick binders. He brings out a legal document addressed to him, but bearing someone else’s name half-way down.
“They cut and paste the letters and mix up people’s names,” he says. “It’s insane.”
When Steve showed up in front of the judge again, four months after his last meeting, he was once again faced with a Kafkaesque request.
“They said since the consular card was based on a dubious birth certificate, then my consular ID card was also suspicious,” he says.
“I said, ‘What are you talking about? It’s been authenticated by the embassy. What more do you want?’ They said, ‘We’re just not sure, so you’ll have to go for a bone assessment.’”
Aid groups and volunteers say that to determine age, French courts regularly require a bone assessment, consisting of an X-ray of the left wrist and hand. It’s an old and controversial medical test, and a 2016 French law states that it should only be used if no written documents are available. It also cannot constitute the sole proof of age.
Serge Lipski, a retired radiologist who volunteers for the aid group Doctors of the World, says the test, which was developed in the United States in the 1930s, is arbitrary and unethical.
“This is something quite medical,” he said. “It was made for children with chronic diseases to know if they are going to grow or not, and that’s it.”
Bone assessments were never meant to determine a person’s age, Lipski says, and even if you tried, it has a margin of error of 18 months. The test was dropped in the United Kingdom, and Doctors of The World and other organizations have called for its ban in France.
By the time the X-ray was scheduled and the results in, Steve was just a week and a half shy of his eighteenth birthday.
Steve shakes his head in disbelief as he remembers that moment. He chuckles.
“It showed that I was between 17 and 18 years old,” he says.
“So the judge says, ‘You’re almost 18. You’re not a minor.' I said, ‘Why did you take all that time to tell me that? Of course it says that I am almost 18, my birthday is next week.’ And she said, 'So there’s nothing else we can do for you. You’re going to have to manage by yourself.’”
“I couldn’t do anything,” Steve says. “I fought hard. I did everything I could. But it didn’t work.”
Steve now joins the ranks of France’s undocumented immigrants. With help from Manuela and others, he managed to enroll in high school where he’s now in 11th grade. He considers himself lucky, despite the hurdles.
“I can adapt,” he says. “That’s why I left my country. To study. And I succeeded.”