Children as young as 12 are being abused, detained and illegally returned to Italy by French border guards, according to a new report by Oxfam.
The charity has even documented cases where authorities have cut the soles from the shoes of those seeking refuge and stolen their SIM cards.
The report, Nowhere but Out, describes how French police routinely stop unaccompanied children and put them on trains back to Italy after altering their paperwork to make them appear older, or to make it appear that they want to be sent back.
It also details how Italy’s overstretched and bureaucratic reception system is leaving vulnerable refugees and other migrants living under the radar in dangerous conditions.
Children also report 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.
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.
At least 16,500 migrants – a quarter of which are children – passed through the Italian border town of Ventimiglia in the nine months to April 2018, although the rate is likely to rise in the summer months.
The majority are fleeing persecution and war in countries such as Sudan, Eritrea, Syria and Afghanistan. Many of them are trying to reach other countries like France, the UK, Sweden and Germany where they hope to join relatives or friends.
Many unaccompanied children report feeling abandoned in reception centres with no opportunity to attend school or training, and no information about how to claim asylum or reunite with family members in other European countries.
After months, or even years, of waiting many decide to take a chance and continue their journey alone while others are pushed out of centres as soon as they turn 18.
The only reception facility near Ventimiglia, Roja Camp, provides basic accommodation for up to 444 people. But a lack of clear information, the heavy police presence at the entrance and compulsory fingerprinting deter many from staying there.
As a result, many people sleep under a motorway just outside the town where there is no clean water or toilets; where their tents or cardboard shacks are frequently destroyed on the orders of the local authorities; and where it is not safe.
Oxfam staff working in the area frequently come across families, pregnant women and unaccompanied children living in these conditions. Among them are survivors of rape and torture in Libya, which they passed through en route to Italy.
Elisa Bacciotti, campaigns director at Oxfam Italy, said: “Children, women and men fleeing persecution and war should not suffer further abuse and neglect at the hands of the authorities in France and Italy. In too many cases, a lack of basic services and information in Italy’s reception system is forcing people into precarious and dangerous situations. People with a simple desire to claim asylum in a country where their family members live are being thwarted at every turn.”
She added: “Europe must fix its asylum system, and share the responsibility for hosting asylum seekers. Governments and border officials should protect the special needs and rights of children instead of illegally pushing them back to other countries. Children should never be kept in jail cells or subjected to cruel abuse.”