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'Lost children' seeking refuge in France find cool reception Add to ...

He remembers taking a bus and travelling for 10 days. "Then I caught a plane. I didn't know where I was going. Now I am in France and I want to stay here because there is peace here."

Clutching his teddy bear, 16-year-old Ousmane stretches out on his bed in a refugee hostel at Créteil in the Paris suburbs. He prefers not to talk in detail about his escape from Sierra Leone, where his parents were killed last year.

Ousmane is one of more than 300 official "lost children" who turn up alone and clandestinely every year in France seeking refugee asylum, according to a refugee aid group, France Terre d'Asile.

According to statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, France is No. 3 of the top five countries favoured by asylum-seekers in Europe (the others are Germany, Britain, Italy and Finland). In 1999, 16,000 refugees turned up in France seeking asylum.

Because of its relatively open refugee policy, and its relatively porous borders, the country receives a particularly high number of unaccompanied children. More than 80 per cent are boys aged about 16, but some of the illegal migrants are as young as 6, according to the French National Office for the Protection of Refugees.

The children come mostly from northern Africa, but also Eastern Europe and Asia, fleeing wars, abuse, poverty and the threat of death. Often they are pushed onto planes by parents or friends; sometimes they are accompanied by professional smugglers, only to be abandoned during a stopover.

Some children smuggle themselves onto a plane or boat, its destination unknown. Many speak no French and have no money.

Under international law, France is supposed to take care of these children, just as the state cares for any child whose family no longer provides for him or her.

But while the country certainly does not refuse them, the reception is far from welcoming, according to Pierre Henry, president of France Terre Asile.

"Arriving on French territory under conditions of extreme distress and uncertainty, they are confronted with considerable difficulties. . . . The road to the recognition of their status as a refugee is riddled with pitfalls," he said.

Social assistance for children in France is managed on a regional level, but local governments refuse responsibility for such refugees, saying they are a federal responsibility. As a result of the legal limbo, the children often have to wait up to two years to be properly documented and to have their refugee claim settled.

"No one wants to pay for them -- the minor becomes a ball in a game of legal-administrative Ping-Pong," said Youth Court Judge Alan Vogelweith.

Young refugee claimants are usually housed in hostels or hotels, such as the one run by France Terre d'Asile in Créteil. This is not meant to be a long-term residence, but often turns out to be.

Modeste, a 16-year-old from Zaire, arrived in France in a ship's hold. His entire family was killed by the Hutu militia while he was out fishing one day.

After arriving in Paris, he slept in train stations and shelters before being housed in a hostel. While his identity papers showed him to be a minor, a medical examiner judged him to be older than 18, meaning he is not eligible for the more comprehensive care given to younger children. Yet despite the ruling that he is an adult, Modeste is not allowed to work until his refugee claim is settled. So he must simply bide his time and wait.

"Even if it's hard on the streets, at least one is not alone," said Modeste, who is sometimes fed up with the loneliness of his life in a hostel and the long wait for his asylum hearing. Against such obstacles, many children quit the waiting game, falling into life on the streets, crime and prostitution to survive.

"In four years, 600 children poured through here -- but only three requested political asylum," said Dominique Lodwick, head of a group in Marseilles that cares for children who arrive in that port city mainly from Algeria and Morocco.

But for young Ousmane, the welcome in France, while not perfect, is still a long way from a nightmarish past. And when those nightmares return at night, in the form of insomnia, he has his teddy bear and his hopes for the future to cling to. "After what I lived through, I can pass all the obstacles."

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