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French police cut soles off migrant children's shoes, claims Oxfam

French border police have been accused of detaining migrant children as young as 12 in cells without food or water, cutting the soles off their shoes and stealing sim cards from their mobile phones, before illegally sending them back to Italy.

A report released on Friday by the charity Oxfam also cites the case of a “very young” Eritrean girl, who was forced to walk back to the Italian border town of Ventimiglia along a road with no pavement while carrying her 40-day-old baby.

The allegations, which come from testimony gathered by Oxfam workers and partner organisations, come two months after French border police were accused of falsifying the birth dates of unaccompanied migrant children in an attempt to pass them off as adults and send them back to Italy.

“We don’t have evidence of violent physical abuse, but many [children] have recounted being pushed and shoved or shouted at in a language they don’t understand,” Giulia Capitani, the report’s author, told the Guardian.

“And in other ways the border police intimidate them – for example, cutting the soles off their shoes is a way of saying, ‘Don’t try to come back’.”

Daniela Zitarosa, from the Italian humanitarian agency Intersos, said: “Police [officers] yell at them, laugh at them and tell them, ‘You will never cross here’.

“Some children have their mobile phone seized and sim card removed. They lose their data and phonebook. They cannot even call their parents afterwards.”

Italy accused France of hypocrisy this week for failing to share the burden of the ongoing migrant crisis. The spat developed when the French president, Emmanuel Macron, criticised what he called Italy’s “cynicism and irresponsibility” in turning away a migrant rescue ship with 629 people on board.

Matteo Salvini, Italy’s new anti-migrant interior minister, who blocked the Aquarius rescue vessel from docking in Sicily, accused France of turning its back on 10,524 migrants at the border between January and May this year.

Capitani said unaccompanied minors had for some time been sent back to Italy by French police, although it was only in March that they allegedly began falsifying birth dates on “refusal of entry” documents – one month after a court in Nice ruled that border authorities had illegally detained and returned children to Italy in 20 cases.

Under the Dublin regulation, child migrants in France cannot be sent back to Italy if they request asylum. EU law stipulates that unaccompanied minors must be protected, and that those seeking asylum in one member state have the right to be transferred to another where they have family members.

Charities operating at the border have also taken aim at Italy for failing to implement adequate procedures for family reunification, leaving many children stranded and with no choice but to attempt the journey by themselves. The Oxfam report said Italy’s overstretched and bureaucratic system leaves migrants living under the radar in dangerous conditions.

Capitani said Italian border police had recently started to accompany minors rejected by France back to the neighbouring country.

France tightened rules at its border after 84 people were killed in a terror attack in Nice in July 2016.

Ventimiglia has become a bottleneck for people attempting to cross from Italy into France. Oxfam said that at least 16,500 migrants, a quarter of them children, passed through the town in the nine months to April.

Most attempt to cross the border by train or via a dangerous mountain path known as the “passage of death”. Charities estimate that at least 12 people died last year while trying to cross into France, either along the mountain route or by being hit by vehicles along a motorway. A 17-year-old from Sudan drowned in June 2017 while trying to retrieve a shoe washed away by a strong current in Ventimiglia’s Roia river.

According to Oxfam, 17,337 children arrived in Italy in 2017, 15,779 (91%) of whom were unaccompanied.

French authorities have been contacted for comment.

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