(Top photo: A refugee who was living underneath the aerial subway station "Jaures" in Paris. The people photographed are not quoted in this article, nor are they necessarily classed as "les mijeurs". Photo: NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images)
As he describes fleeing the genocidal conflict in Darfur only to end up on the cold streets of Paris, 16-year-old Omar emits nervous high-pitched giggles. David, 14, loses his cocky demeanour when asked about his own journey. "We didn't have a lot to eat," he mumbles. "I lost many kilograms crossing the Sahara."
Different children have very different reactions as they discuss the manifold traumas of the refugee trail. But like hundreds of other unaccompanied minors in Paris, Omar and David have since been united in a fresh, bureaucratic hell. They say they're minors ("mineurs") aged below 18, but the local government claims they're adults – "majeurs".
This demographic – known to French activists as les mijeurs – are denied the legal protection afforded to children; nor can they work or enter the adult asylum system without compromising their case. Trapped in legal limbo, the mijeurs end up on the street.
Britain bears some responsibility for their condition. According to the Refugee Rights Data Project, roughly 50 percent of child refugee rough sleepers in Paris were originally aiming for the UK: one in three were cleared out of the Calais or Dunkirk refugee camps. Many speak only English, or have relatives here.
WATCH: 'Lights in Dark Places' – Lily Cole visits a refugee camp on the Greek island of Samos.
To prove their age mijeurs are expected to provide photographic ID – a rarity in many countries – and exhaustive accounts of profoundly traumatic journeys. I meet one child who watched their 10-year-old brother drown in the Mediterranean; another saw a fellow traveller shot dead in Libya.
PTSD has been proven to cause memory loss and inconsistent testimony. Yet the unflinching Paris administration takes minor inconsistencies in dates and figures as proof that children are lying. "Your country is at war, your parents have died and you have to call to Afghanistan [for evidence]," says Hélène Seingier of refugee aid group TIMMY. "It's crazy."
"Everybody is angry to everybody there," 17-year-old Afghan refugee Rahman says, moments after being sent away from the Paris Red Cross centre where age assessments are carried out. "They don't answer, they just say 'get out'." The security guards who escorted him out lumber over and try to break up our conversation.
Mijeurs are also not provided with adequate legal support and advice. Outside the centre I meet Hamza, 16, a Pakistani who seems to think his two-week leave to remain for assessment is a guarantee he will be granted asylum. "There's no problem," he says in broken English. "I have a card." In fact, almost all Pakistani asylum-seekers are rejected.
Aggressive questioning is often compounded by dubious translation. Guy, 17, says a translator mixed up the dates of his crossing from Libya to Italy, in an error which may cause problems for his case. Controversial bone tests used to determine age are only accurate within 18 months either way, rendering them effectively useless. In such circumstances, it is unsurprising that over 80 percent of applications are initially rejected, according to a Red Cross whistleblower.
Once refused, mijeurs are booted onto the street. Cruelly, 50 percent of rejected child refugees who manage to file a formal legal appeal are eventually accepted. But in the months it takes to lodge an appeal they can access no aid and no shelter. A few are offered space on the floor of an apartment or squat, but most are forced to fight the legal battle of their lives without a roof over their heads – or drift off among the traffickers and pimps.
I meet 17-year-old Qaher at a scrappy north Paris camp devoid of tents or tarpaulins. He has been in the streets for three weeks waiting for an appeal date. Following a sleepless, hungry night below cardboard in the drizzle, he is now being moved on by armed police. "We live like animals," he says. "The cold and rain is normal for us. We don't have anything."
Rahman spent "three weeks under a bridge", while Guy endured a fortnight sleeping "in a construction site from 8 to 6AM, then in the street during the day". Other unaccompanied minors sleep in the Metro. One kid is locked in a corner shop each night by its kindly owner, to sleep curled up on the floor. Around 50 percent of refugee street kids have been kicked out of camps by police, 40 percent have been hit with tear gas and 25 percent have faced police violence.
Beyond food, shelter and phone credit to call home, one urgent need is repeated by Parisian activists: information. In a camp below a fly-over, where shelters are strung between discarded concrete breeze-blocks, newly-arrived Afghan 17-year-old Youssof is hunting for "the camp to get education and food". It transpires he means the Bubble, an adult processing centre where no under-18s are sheltered and where no education takes place.
Though space is tight, unaccompanied minors facing initial government review – as opposed to those filing legal appeals – are normally granted rooms in hostels across the city. Many new arrivals do not realise this, sleeping rough instead.
Activist Sonia, who organises temporary home placements for children who would otherwise be sleeping rough, notes the hostels are often little better than the streets: "They can't sleep, they have infection of the skin, no blankets… there's fleas, bedbugs, rashes all over their arms… sometimes they have to eat with alcoholics and the homeless." Rahman spent the previous night in a dormitory he says lacked proper toilet facilities, while constant relocations across the city and limited food and travel provision make it difficult for mijeurs in hostels to fight their cases.
The majority of mijeurs who sleep rough find it even harder to meet the demands of the legal system, summoning them to travel across a vast foreign city. Guy missed a crucial age assessment because he was sleeping rough without a mobile phone. He is now living with a volunteer host family while he awaits a second chance. "I feel really good staying here," says the 17-year-old, who left behind his mother in a Libyan jail. "But I never thought it would be so complicated."
These children have fled war, crossed deserts, lost family members in the Mediterranean, faced violent abuse from Eastern European police and languished for months in the Calais Jungle. Already hostile, by refusing to accept any more unaccompanied children under the Dubs amendment, Britain has turned its back entirely. And now France, too, shrugs its shoulders.
Just as the mijeurs struggle to articulate the horrors they have left behind, from Taliban terror threats in Afghanistan to human rights abuses in sub-Saharan Africa, so they are wary of discussing their uncertain futures. "I might have a good life in the future," says Guy, hesitantly. "But it's difficult for me right now."
The names of all refugees have been changed to protect their identities. You can donate to an organisation working with child rough sleepers here, and support volunteers hosting unaccompanied minors here.