Unaccompanied Minors are at Great Risk – COVID-19 is Only the Beginning for those Most Vulnerable
Updated: Apr 3
Recently, an education professional in the United States tweeted about the fact that kids everywhere will be spending the upcoming weeks eating too many cookies and watching too much TV because we have not put any at-home educational measures into place to keep them busy during this period of social distancing, which is the essential way to stop the spread of COVID-19, or coronavirus. The comments that followed were all about how parents and educators could try to do some educational or creative activities with kids, suggestions for online learning, etc. No one seemed to wonder what children and young people who do not have parents to eat cookies with will be doing. In France the situation is considerably better for children who have parents who are present and fluent in French, thanks to the French Ministry of Education’s online resources, which were made available immediately following confinement announcements. However, for those children and young people who do not fall into this category, measures have not been taken to ensure their educational stimulation during the prolonged confinement period.
For unaccompanied minors, staying comfortably safe at home is a luxury. Most of them can’t afford this luxury and many do not even have a choice. Their lives are incredibly complicated and difficult under normal circumstances. Now, as everyone is rushing to purchase toilet paper and canned goods so they can self-isolate for weeks or even months if needed, this vulnerable population is struggling to understand what is going on, and the volunteers who help them, such as the ADJIE collective and the non-profit, Soul Food, are trying to find a way to safely organize help and support.
Support must come from volunteers because the French state has already let these young people down. Repeatedly it has been found that French authorities’ methods of assessing age does not hold up to international standards (HRW 2019a; MSF 2019). Even for those who are recognized as minors in France and taken in by the French child services, the conditions they live in are often abysmal (for example many are forced to live in squats and dilapidated hotels, where violence is a recurring theme) and they receive worse treatment than French youth (HRW 2018; HRW 2019b; Refugee Rights Europe 2017). The implications of these discrepancies are extremely negative under normal circumstances, but during the current coronavirus emergency, these consequences put unaccompanied minors and those who try to help them, in serious danger.
With recent developments in France, where all schools and non-essential businesses have been ordered by the French government to close until further notice, in an effort to avoid the devastating situation currently unfolding in Italy, these already vulnerable young people have been forced into an even more precarious situation. What makes it worse is that the government has given no indication as to how our society’s most vulnerable populations, who were surviving thanks to the kindness of volunteers and places like the Refettorio Paris, will be able to continue to survive during this period of isolation.
“We don’t have time to miss school.”
The situation is also magnified by the fact that no one knows what the protocol will be once things go back to normal. This is an issue because time is already not on an unaccompanied minor’s side. For those who are in school, most were forced to wait months and sometimes years before being allowed to start. Under normal circumstances, these young people are not provided with enough education. It’s a race against the clock, and as soon as they turn 18, they face even more obstacles that only education and a job offer can help them overcome. As stated by one young migrant, just after it was announced that all schools would be closed until further notice, “we don’t have time to miss school.” Most do not have access to technology to follow courses from home, and no official resources have been put into place for unaccompanied minors to do so during this period of confinement.
Then there are the very basics like food, toilet paper and medicine. Since people have already been panic-buying in Paris, the shelves carrying pasta and rice are empty. What are people who cannot afford to go to their local specialized organic store supposed to eat? Some restaurants have announced that they will stay open for takeout only, but for people who cannot afford the luxury of eating in a restaurant, how does that help them? Volunteers and non-profit organizations helping people in precarious situations are fighting to maintain food distributions. However, following French government instructions, since March 17, 2020 the Ministry of the Interior has started requiring the use of a compulsory “travel certificate” each time someone leaves his/her home. This formality is an additional obstacle for these young people, who do not have access to computers and printers, and do not always fully master the French language.
In these early days of self-isolation in France, it seems as though getting tested for COVID-19 is reserved for certain populations, as is proper information and resources, depending on where you go. At least two young Soul Food members who were sick went to a hospital where, even though they had relevant symptoms, they were told that they did not need to be tested for coronavirus. It is important to note that this population is already susceptible to illness as a result of malnutrition. Instead, after his medical visit, one of the two was sent home with a recommendation to wear a mask for 8 days and to take his temperature regularly, twice a day. He was not provided with masks (which cannot be found in any stores in Paris currently) or told how to take his temperature. Luckily for him, he is in regular contact with Soul Food, so he was given supplemental information from the organization, which calls him to check on his situation regularly.
So, what can be done? The French government should unequivocally accept the minority status of all unaccompanied minors during this period. At the very least, systematic emergency shelter should be provided for each homeless unaccompanied minor. They should all be provided with comprehensive information on how to keep themselves and others safe, as well as safe access to healthy food, and educational resources. A psychosocial hotline should also be made accessible for those already suffering from trauma, so they have competent professionals to call, should they need help getting through this period of increased isolation. Free phone cards should also be provided by the government since most of these young migrants do not have monthly phone plans. This will help ensure that more people stay safely at home throughout the confinement period, and it will allow them to stay in touch with others.
Unaccompanied minors are already marginalized. Going to school, seeing friends and participating in activities with organizations like Soul Food, are often the only breaks they have in their lives, which are full of danger, stress, trauma, and sadness on a regular basis. We will all have to learn how to adapt during this period of unprecedented isolation, but those populations who already have fragile mental health, must have resources to help them get through this time.
Perhaps the most important thing the government can do is officially label this as a “black out period.” This would mean that all administrative issues that need to be handled now, such as age assessments, court hearings that are required to determine if young migrants are entitled to shelter, and obligatory internships and apprenticeships, but can’t for safety reasons, will officially be on hold until the serious health threat is over. This should be done without any negative consequences for migrant youth. A similar measure has already been taken for migrants with certain visas and some asylum seekers, but should also be extended to all migrants who are in the middle of administrative processes that will inevitably be on hold until further notice. Knowing that these young people will not have lost this time will help keep them and the volunteers who help them, safely at home. Exceptional measures are required to get through exceptional circumstances.
These recommendations can also be seen as actions for the greater good. Without these resources in place, volunteers who feel responsible for these children and young people, will risk leaving the safety of their homes to help those in need. If governments do not step up, individuals will. If the French government does not provide these services, and make an exception and give all unaccompanied minors back this time that they are losing, it is possible that in July or August, while the rest of us are outside celebrating our good health and return to normalcy, the streets of Paris will be overflowing with young, newly homeless migrants, confused by the celebrations they pass as they look for a place to setup their tents and wait out another period of isolation.