French police accused of falsifying migrants’ documents so they can send them back to Italy
Italian humanitarian organisations have accused French police of falsifying the ages of teenage migrants so they can send them back across the border between the two countries.
Seven charities, including Oxfam Italy and the Catholic organisation Caritas, claim that in recent weeks French officers deliberately altered birth dates on documents to make it appear that the young migrants were older than 18.
The alleged tactic circumvents international rules that say that under-18 year olds must be given protection and allowed to cross borders to reunite with family members.
The rule for adults, by contrast, is that they must apply for asylum and remain in the first EU country they reach – which in the vast majority of cases means Italy, Spain or Greece.
The falsification of documents allegedly took place near the Italian town of Ventimiglia, on the border between the French and Italian Rivieras, where tens of thousands of migrants and refugees, many of them unaccompanied minors, have tried to cross in recent years.
“The French police falsify the documents of minors who try to cross from Italy into France,” said Daniela Zitarosa, from the charity Intersos.
“We have the proof – many dates of birth were modified in official documents. Unfortunately this has become routine.
“French officials take no account of what the minors tell them and write fake birth dates on refusal-of-entry documents, sending them back as if they were adults.”
In one alleged case, an Eritrean teenager, whose identity document showed he was born on October 1, 2001, making him 17, had his papers changed by the police so that his birth date was recorded as January 1, 2000, making him 18.
The charities claimed that the French authorities started falsifying migrants’ papers after January 22, when a court in Nice issued an order confirming that it was against international law to send minors back to Italy.
“Since then, the French police have adopted the practice of systematically identifying minors stopped at the frontier as adults,” the organisations said.
They sent letters of protest to the Italian interior and foreign ministers as well as the European Commission.
The charities called on the Italian government to “take all the measures necessary so that the French authorities cease the unlawful rejection of unaccompanied minors.”
In February, a court in Nice ruled that a police decision to return 20 unaccompanied minors to Italy was illegal.
Georges-François Leclerc, the state prefect of the Alpes-Maritimes department, had argued that it was legal to return the minors from Darfur, Egypt and Eritrea, on the grounds that they "only have the right to any particular assistance if they are in distress or already in France, but they were detected at a border post."
Following the ruling, Mireille Damiano, a lawyer for migrant aid groups who filed the initial complaint, said: "It has been recognised that what they said was true, that putting minors back over the border was unlawful. "Yet instructions could have been given so that the minors were treated with respect to the law."
The accusations are likely to antagonise already fraught relations between Rome and Paris over migrants and refugees.
Last month there was anger in Italy after French customs officers entered a migrant clinic about half a mile into Italian territory and forced a Nigerian man to undergo a urine test on suspicion of carrying drugs.
The test produced a negative result.
Rainbow for Africa, the NGO that runs the clinic, said the French border agents “intimidated” its medics and staff when they entered the clinic in Bardonecchia, a village and ski resort high in the Alps.
It is on a route used by some migrants who try to cross into France via high Alpine passes, despite the dangers of frostbite and exposure.
The French government insisted its officers had followed procedure and were granted permission to enter the clinic.
But the incident resulted in the French ambassador to Rome being called into the Italian foreign ministry to give an explanation.
More than 600,000 migrants and refugees have reached Italy from the coast of North Africa in the last four years, with migration becoming a key issue in last month’s general election.
Many have found themselves stranded as neighbouring countries such as France, Austria and Switzerland have tightened border controls.
The number of migrants reaching Italy in boats and rubber dinghies from Libya has dropped dramatically since last summer, when Rome did a controversial deal with the Libyans to stop vessels setting out.
EU-funded training of the Libyan coast guard has also stemmed the flow, although humanitarian organisations accuse the coast guard of heavy-handed behaviour and say migrants face beatings, torture and rape when they are sent back to detention centres in Libya.
So far this year, nearly 7,000 asylum seekers have reached Italy and 5,700 made it to Greece.
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