Missing in France: The plight of Vietnamese children who are trafficked into Europe

The scene always looks the same. Vietnamese children land at Roissy airport (Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport, the second-busiest in Europe), accompanied by an adult who claims to be one of the parents. After making their way past the authorities, the adult takes the children’s papers away and leaves, often heading back on another flight. The adult has no interest in staying in France, and wants to avoid any trouble with authorities. The children? They are left at the airport’s waiting area or transit zone, for days on end without anyone noticing their presence, sometimes fainting out of hunger. When the children are finally handed over to the border police (PAF), they claim ‘political asylum’ — one of the few phrases they have been taught to say in French.

As protocol dictates, everyone who arrives at an airport, port or international station without a residence permit is confined in a “waiting zone”. If the judge authorises the children to enter the territory, they are theoretically placed under the care of an educator with child welfare services (L’aide sociale à l’enfance or ASE, it is the department responsible for protecting minors in danger). They are then supposed to be placed at an emergency home — either at a foster family or a hotel.

However, as Investigate Europe discovered in Roissy, ASE officials don’t always come looking for these released children to take them to safety. It is a faulty system which benefits traffickers.

“It is indeed up to us to pick them up at Roissy, but we don’t go there,” confirmed Dominique*, an employee of the ASE at Seine-Saint-Denis, who agreed speak with us on the condition of anonymity. “We are approached by the judge by email and/or called by the PAF, but as we no longer have a switchboard operator, there is no one to pick up.”

Investigate Europe was able to verify this claim by attempting to call this phantom switchboard for several days.

Police Nationale
The PAF is responsible for border patrolling in France

“We each have between 100 and 150 files of unaccompanied foreign minors [MNA in administrative jargon, editor’s note], explained Sophie*, Dominique’s colleague (Sophie also requested anonymity). “There are only 10 educators for 20 open positions. We have gone on strike twice this year. The situation is very critical… We don’t have time to go out to take the young people to their meeting at the prefecture, so going to Roissy is impossible.”

Vanishing on French soil

But then, who came to pick up the 150 children released from Roissy in the first quarter of 2019? And what about before that? “The PAF brings them here to our offices or directly to the hotel. The problem is that when they drop them off at the hotel, we are not necessarily aware that they are there,” answered Dominique and Sophie, visibly embarrassed. The border police are not empowered, “for insurance reasons”, to take the children any more than they have the right to keep them after the release time set by the judge.

Asked about this haphazard system, the Seine-Saint-Denis prefecture referred us to the police headquarters, which in turn referred us to the Ministry of the Interior, which then referred us to the Bobigny prosecutor’s office (Bobigny is the jurisdiction in which the airport is situated). This lack of care and attention when children leave the Roissy waiting area can have dramatic consequences for the safety of unaccompanied minors. Especially for Vietnamese children, who seem to systematically disappear a few hours or a few days after their arrival on French soil.

“For at least two years now, Vietnamese minors arriving from the Roissy area have disappeared once placed at a hostel or hotel, all without exception,” testified Dominique from ASE 93.

Her colleague Sophie added, “Several months ago, I followed a 17-year-old to an emergency home to make sure that she wouldn’t disappear. But she disappeared the next day.””We have made dozens of runaway complaints to the Bobigny police station,” said Dominique. “But that hasn’t changed anything. We don’t have any way to protect them. It’s the same every time.”

Systematic disappearances that have not been taken seriously by the police? When questioned about this, the police headquarters — on which the Bobigny police station depends — replied that “no report relating to these facts has been brought to our attention”.

Henri Perrot/Ville Bobigny
Bobigny is the prefecture in which the Roissy airport is located

In reality though, even Europol is aware of these disappearances of Vietnamese children who are abandoned not only in France, but also at several other EU airports. “We have intervened in support of several investigations into the trafficking of Vietnamese children sold for the purpose of forced labor, prostitution, criminality or begging,” wrote the European criminal police agency in its latest report on the trafficking of minors in the EU. “The majority of the victims have been identified in France, the Netherlands and England.”

Europol also explained that the survivors of this trafficking, who are kidnapped or bought in Vietnam, are briefed by the traffickers on the procedure to be followed once they arrive in France (this includes the statements that they have to make to the PAF to apply for asylum, who they have to contact once in the country, the meeting point after having run away from homes and hotels.). Experts also reveal that children work to repay their travel debt (around several tens of thousands of euros): they are enslaved on cannabis farms, nail bars, or work for prostitution rings.

Not just a French problem

Europol is not the only one to have spoken on this subject. Even if nothing has emerged in France on the the ramifications of what looks like a veritable pan-European trafficking network, recent journalistic investigations have pointed to dozens of disappearances from within EU social structures. This includes at least 60 disappearances from shelters in the Netherlands, 32 from homes in Brandenburg in Germany, 44 in Belgium since 2017, and even more in the United Kingdom. These articles, written for the most part by the journalist collective Lost in Europe, suggest that the action of the various European police forces — often aware of the disappearances of migrant children for several years — is insufficient.

And in France?

Interviewed just before the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown, the public prosecutor of Bobigny confirmed to Investigate Europe that Vietnamese minors “arriving to Roissy systematically fled from their placement in the first 48 hours after leaving the waiting zone, probably being picked up by trafficking networks and contacted by telephone as soon as they leave the waiting zone.” Several investigations are in progress or completed, claims Fabienne Klein-Donati. A trial is expected “soon” (followng an investigation in 2018 that led to two waves of arrests); two additional cases were entrusted — in 2018 and 2019 — to judges; and “two preliminary inquiries have been underway since July 2019”.

According to our information, the first suspicions emerged a while back. One Dutch journalist at Argos, who investigated these “disappearances” at a European level, informed us of an indictment pronounced in January 2019 during a trial. Held in the Netherlands, the trial was related to two cases linked to the Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle airport. In late 2016, eight children released from the waiting area of ​​the French airport were taken by traffickers. One car was registered in the Netherlands, and headed towards the the Franco-Belgian border. Others were taken to a hideout in Villiers-le-Bel, before leaving for the same place.

We also learned that “the French police have detected a flow of Vietnamese migrants abusing the Roissy airport since September 2016”. This is even before Sophie and Dominique, the two employees of ASE 93, noticed that they were missing. What measures have the French authorities taken over the past four years to bring these children to safety?

“The prosecution has worked out a solution with ASE 93 and the national unit for the distribution of unaccompanied minors,” said the Bobigny prosecutor. When they leave the waiting area, the prosecution contacts the cell to have an orientation away from Île-de-France.

Rising numbers

We asked exactly how many children would have been “exfiltrated” in this way. “I don’t have any figures,” answered Fabienne Klein-Donati. “It is a case-by-case treatment. “

And the magistrate added: “The fact that unaccompanied minors run away (whatever their nationality) from their placement is a reality regardless of the place and nature of the placement (home, foster family).” Given the lack of places, some of the minors are placed in hotels and therefore running away is even easier. According to her, “the main question” would be this: “Why do we leave the department of Seine-Saint-Denis alone in taking care of unaccompanied minors who arrive in large numbers and who experience major problems?”

Between 2015 and 2017, at the height of the refugee crisis, the number of unaccompanied children has increased by 147% in Seine-Saint-Denis. As of December 31, 2019, 1,263 foreign children were in the care of ASE. But at the beginning of 2020, according to our information, Vietnamese children continued to disappear after their arrival in Roissy.

This article was original published by our partner media outlet, Mediapart. Translation from French and editing by Sindhuri Nandhakumar.

Read more about our investigation into Europe’s minor migrants here.