French guards abused and forcibly returned migrants: Oxfam

Children as young as 12 and other vulnerable migrants have physically abused, detained and forcibly returned to Italy by French border guards in breach of international norms, Oxfam said on Friday.

French guards abused and forcibly returned migrants: Oxfam
Migrants wait by trains bound for France at Ventimiglia train station. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

The “Nowhere but Out” report comes amid tensions between France and Italy over French President Emmanuel Macron's criticism of Rome over its rejection of a migrant ship carrying 629 people rescued from the Mediterranean.

Oxfam said some 16,500 refugees and migrants — a quarter of them unaccompanied children — passed through Ventimiglia, a small town about seven kilometres (four miles) from the French border, in the nine months to April.

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.

Oxfam staff and partners said there were cases where border guards cut the soles of the shoes of child migrants or stole their phone SIM cards.

“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,” it said.

Most of the migrants were fleeing persecution and war in countries such as Sudan, Eritrea, Syria and Afghanistan.

Many of them are trying to reach other countries like France, Britain, Sweden and Germany where they hope to join relatives or friends.

“Since France tightened border controls in 2015, thousands of people have been stranded in Ventimiglia without sufficient assistance or access to basic services,” Oxfam said.

“Hundreds of refugees and other migrants sleep rough under a flyover, with no access to drinkable water, shelter or heating.”

'Pushed us off the train'

“French police officers are not upholding international standards. They taunt children and mistreat them…. Some children have had the soles of their shoes cut off before being sent back to Italy,” said Chiara Romagno, Oxfam's OpenEurope project leader in Ventimiglia.

“The resolution of people to reach their loved ones in other countries, and the lack of sufficient safe and regular pathways to do so leaves them no choice but to try until they succeed,” Romagno said.

Michael, a 15-year-old from Sudan's troubled Darfur region, said he and a friend tried to enter France but the “police pushed us off the train.

“Then they pushed us in a van in the railway station car park. We were given a document (refus d'entree, refusal of entry) in the van and we were put on another train going back to Italy, without any explanation.”

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 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 adequately sanction 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 equitably around the bloc 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 sneak across the Alps have been detained and sent back to Italy. 

By Abhik Chanda


How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.