John Laurenson, BBC News, Feb. 8
French officials say they are struggling to cope with a new form of illegal immigration — an influx of children.
Government figures say close to 3,000 unaccompanied child immigrants arrived in France last year.
You would not guess from Patrick’s smile and his easy, relaxed manner that he is one of them.
But this 15-year-old Nigerian arrived in Caen just one month ago.
Patrick says his aunt got him out of Nigeria to escape violence from his stepmother.
“My auntie helped me out to Benin Republic. She gave me my birth certificate, bought me a jacket and put me on a ship. She told me I was a lucky boy and I’d find my destiny.”
So far things are not working out too badly. As he is under 18, Patrick cannot be deported.
Moreover, the local authorities are legally bound to provide him with a place to live and a living allowance.
The hostel he shares with two other boys and a social worker looks like many other houses in this Normandy town. So does his room, with its poster of the American rapper Eminem on the wall.
At the local lycée (secondary school), there are special French classes for immigrant children.
Teachers hope that some will be able to sit their final exams alongside the French schoolchildren. But Patrick knows he has got his work cut out.
His French is currently at the bonjour , merci stage — not good enough to attend classes at the lycée.
At 0830 sharp each morning he goes off to a day centre instead. It was raining when we visited, so a planned horse-riding treat had been cancelled.
Instead, Patrick spent the morning working on his French with the computer’s language-learning software.
Sabrina Fauchard-Lamarre works at Caen’s ‘Adda 14’ refugee reception centre, where people from Mongolia and Sierra Leone, Ukraine and the Democratic Republic of Congo come to make asylum claims and meet up with the social services.
She says she is dealing with 40% more unaccompanied children than a year ago. Many of the African children she sees have lived through hell — parents slaughtered in front of their eyes, physical and sexual abuse.
Many also come because they have heard that they will be well-treated.
“They arrive in Caen, they’re welcomed and put in hotels. Everything goes nicely, so they phone their families and maybe people-smugglers back home and tell them the news. Word gets round and more children are sent or leave of their own accord,” she says.
“Many are brought over by adults before being left to fend for themselves. Most are teenagers, though there was a recent case of a boy as young as three.”
Smaller towns like Caen are attractive because it only takes a month to register as an asylum seeker, whereas it is at least half a year in Paris. But the local authorities say they are overwhelmed.
“Last year we received more than a hundred children,” says Senator Jean-Léonce Dupont, in charge of social affairs for the Calvados region.
He says the 1.7m euros (£1.2m) his local council is spending per year on child immigrants means budgets are being squeezed for the elderly, the handicapped and French young people in need.
Local leaders like Senator Dupont believe national, not local, government should be paying for France’s immigration policy and are hoping that an upcoming policy review will deal with the child migrant problem.
After being summoned at the end of last year by President Jacques Chirac to do something about illegal immigration, the government says it will unveil an “action plan” later this month.