A French official traveled to the French-Italian border Monday to "sound the alarm" over the issue of overcrowding in the region's underage migrant shelters.
Eric Ciotti, the head of the general council for the Alpes-Maritimes department in the southwest of France, called for systematic bone age assessment to determine whether the migrants being sheltered are in fact minors. He suspects some migrants of "playing the system" by pretending to beunaccompanied minorsin order to dodge deportation.
Underage migrants in France who are unaccompanied have access to accommodation, schooling, and financial aid, and have a better chance of receiving asylum. They do not face detention, like adults.
According to the migrant advocacy group France Terre d'Asile, some 8,000 unaccompanied foreign minors are currently living in France.
Ciotti made his declaration at the French town of Menton, located along the border with Italy, where French border policesay they intercept an average of 70 migrants a day. Seven miles to the east of Menton lies the Italian town of Ventimiglia, where a few weeks ago hundreds of migrants clashed with the police.
French authorities say they have intercepted 168 unaccompanied minors along the French-Italian border this past June alone, compared to 174 in the whole of 2014.
As a result of this uptick, local shelters are operating over capacity, said Ciotti. The region's reception center for minors currently houses190 young migrants— 20 more than it is designed to accommodate. Local authorities were forced to take over a high school in Menton on Sunday in order to temporarily house 15 migrant minors.
When contacted by VICE News Tuesday, the center declined to comment on these figures, saying only that the situation was "a sensitive subject."
Doctors can determine the age of a person through a simple x-ray of the hand and wrist, in what is known as a "bone age" study.Quick and inexpensive, the method is legal in France but has been widely criticized by migrant advocates and doctors alike, who say the test is intrusive and unreliable.
In February 2015, a radiologist working in a hospital the southern city of Marseille noted that a personal study conducted on more than 2,500 cases found that the test had a margin of error of "more or less two years."
In January, Boua Traoré — an orphan refugee from Mali who claimed that he was 15 — was expelled from his school in Nancy after a bone age test determined that he was in fact 19.
Laurent Delbos, an officer with the migrant advocacy group Forum Réfugiés based in Nice, told VICE News that while he understood Ciotti's predicament, he believes there are preferable ways of establishing a migrant's age, like ""asking young migrants questions about their background and checking their identity papers." Bone age assessment, he said, should only be used "as a last resort."
"We're not seeing a pattern of adults pretending to be minors," said Delbos, whose organization does outreach work with the region's underage migrant population.
Serge Lipski, a radiologist who works for the medical non-profit organization Médecins du Monde (Doctors of the World), says that many doctors feel uncomfortable being asked to carry out France's migration policy.
"I didn't become a doctor to administer this type of sanction," he remarked. "Submitting a child to radiation is not innocuous."
In January 2015, Réseau Education Sans Frontières (RESF) — a network of organizations dedicated to supporting the continued education of young migrants enrolled in French schools — urged the government to ban the practice of bone age assessment. RESF counts France's National Academy of Medicine and the French National Human Rights Commission among its supporters.
Lawmakers in France are currently examining a new child protection bill that seeks to ban "genital examinations," which are sometimes used to determine age according to signs of puberty, and to "limit" bone testing.
Some countries, including the UK, have banned bone age tests.
Watch the VICE documentary Unaccompanied Minors:
Follow Pierre-Louis Caron on Twitter: @pierrelouis_c