A street child in Cameroon, Yannick was kidnapped by people traffickers in 2019 and sold as a slave in Libya.
He escaped and made it to Europe, where he found refuge in France and receives support from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).
Now recognised as an unaccompanied minor, he tells us his story.
He told me: ‘I'm going to get you out of this situation’
Street child in a Cameroonian village
“I come from Baloum, in the Menoua region of western Cameroon. My village is in the countryside, with trees and huts; it’s always cool there because it is surrounded by mountains. I lived in my mother's neighbourhood. "Sleep on the streets
"My father died when I was two years old but I didn't find that out until I was seven. My mother remarried and her husband physically abused me. From time to time I’d leave home and sleep on the streets. My grandmother would come and find me.
Slept on the streets
"On the streets, I was with young people like me: thrown out of their homes, treated badly or choosing to leave."
"When I left home for the first time, I was 11 years old. I spent a few months outdoors, then I came back. But nothing changed so I decided to leave for good."
"With my friends on the streets, I felt fine, I felt free. Everything I’d been through at home – all the violence – was in the past when I was on the streets."
"We slept in sheds, under market counters, in booths... "
"To eat, we begged in the market."
‘Madame, excuse me, we are hungry, we don't have enough to survive.’
"Some people let us give them a hand in exchange for a little money. "
Encouraged to go to church
"Market traders asked us to unload the goods or to guard their stall at night. During the day, we walked a lot, we went here and there, we had fun."
"Between the ages of 11 and 13, I alternated between the streets, my mother's house and my grandmother's house. After that, it was just the streets. Some people from my village tried to help. "
"I became attached to a man who considered me a little like his son. He was concerned about how I was doing and encouraged me to go to church."
"As the church was next to a college, every now and again we’d attend a class. Some people tried to offer advice on how to protect ourselves on the streets."
Church was next to a college
"But we had to avoid getting too attached to people. Living on the streets, many of my friends disappeared. We were vulnerable and some people took advantage of that.
How did I end up outside Cameroon? This man I’d become attached to would sometimes take me to his house for the weekend. He became like a relative to me. He had a shop in the market where he sold all kinds of things. He often offered me food."
"One day he said to me: ‘You're living on the streets, but I think you're a bit different from your friends, so I'm going to try to get you out of this situation.’”
“In 2020, 9,524 young people were recognised as unaccompanied minors (UAMs) by regional assessment services and placed with Aide Sociale à l'Enfance [Youth Social Welfare] for protection. Of these, 94.2% were boys, the majority aged from 15 to 17. The countries most represented were Guinea, Côte d'Ivoire and Mali.”
These figures only include young people who have been recognised as unaccompanied minors after assessment by the authorities.
Unaccompanied minors who are not recognised as such in the initial assessment, but who lodge an appeal against the decision with a children's judge, are excluded from these statistics, even though more than half receive official recognition by the end of the process.
It is these unaccompanied minors without official recognition who MSF aims to help.
“I had never been out of Cameroon. I knew nothing except Douala, Yaoundé and the west of the country. "
"He suggested that I go to Chad. I had heard about it at school. He told me there was a family there with whom I could live a normal life. "
"So I accepted. We left in March or April .
"I was happy to go to Chad, even though I didn't really know where we were going. We took the train and then the bus. When we arrived, the people were totally different so I could see that it was no longer my country. "
"The landscape was different too. Everything had changed. "
"He took me to a Cameroonian house. He told me that it was his family and that I would live there, live a normal life. I said yes.”
‘You become their merchandise’
The slaves dealers of Libya
Left on a journey
“One night, we left on a journey. It was night time. At some point, I no longer knew where we were."
"I was starting to be afraid. They told me that we were going to spend the night in another house."
"The next day, when I woke up, the people were different. I found out later that they were Libyans and that I had been sold as a slave in Libya."
"I was in a prison. It was a big room with a lot of people in it. It was like a chicken coop with nothing but small holes for light."
"Every morning we were taken in trucks to do forced labour. You have to do what you're told or you'll be killed."
"You become their property. In prison I was tortured a lot."
Chance to escape
One day, we were taken to work in Tripoli. This was our chance to escape, and we took it, but some of the young people were killed by the Libyans.
We fled without knowing where we were going. We walked until the next day. In the group there was a boy I got on well with. He became my companion.
We survived by begging. One day he told me he knew how to get us out. He told me we had to go to a certain town. When we arrived there, one evening we managed to insert ourselves into a group of people the Libyans had put in a ‘Zodiac’ [an inflatable boat] to come to Europe, to Italy.
I don't know how I got to Italy as I lost consciousness on the way. I woke up in the boat that rescues migrants at sea.”
After being rescued at sea by a search and rescue team, Yannick arrived in Sicily.
Migration route to Europe
Libya is a historic crossing point for migration routes to Europe.
In recent years, migrants and refugees in Libya have been exposed to unprecedented levels of violence: frequently they are exploited, abused, beaten, tortured and imprisoned in inhumane conditions without access to medical care.
Some attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe, risking their lives in the process.
In 2021, an estimated 1,508 people died or went missing while attempting to cross the central Mediterranean Sea.
Since 2014, 23,108 people have died or gone missing on that same route.
After being rescued at sea by a search and rescue team, Yannick arrived in Sicily.
‘The first thing we wanted to do was see the Eiffel Tower’
Journey through Europe
“In Sicily, I saw the Red Cross logo for the first time. When we got off the boat, they put us in buses to take us to large rooms."
"We were given new clothes. We were able to wash, dress, have a meal and sleep in a bed. They ask you to write your name, age and country on a piece of paper. I stayed there for a week. "
"After a week, they put me in a group with the other minors. They said they had to send us to a city called Rome. "
"We were locked up, we couldn’t go out. We ate, we washed, we slept. Nothing else. And it was like that every day. "
"We didn't feel good there, so one day I and some other young people decided to leave. To go and live on the streets. "
"In Italy, I didn't understand the language. I didn't feel comfortable."
"So we decided to go to France. French-speaking Africans gave us directions: leave Rome, go to Milan, then Ventimiglia, then take the train to France. We fare-dodged all the way."
"On the train, the police arrested us. They sent us back to Italy. We walked all day to get back to Ventimiglia. "
"Other migrants told us that we could go through the mountains to Nice. So we walked. We slid down ravines, we were covered in mud and dirt. When we arrived in Nice, everyone stared at us. "
"We walked to the main road and hid. It was about five the morning. We waited for the first bus to pass. We wanted to keep moving, to wherever it was."
"We got to the end of the line and found ourselves in Marseille. Someone said we should go to Paris, so we took the train. When the conductor came round, we hid. "
"We arrived in Paris around five in the afternoon. We didn't know where to go. It was August or September . The first thing we wanted to do was to see the Eiffel Tower. But we never got there that day. Instead we got lost...”
‘I was afraid I’d fall asleep and the next day I wouldn’t wake up’
Wandering around Paris
“The next morning, we looked for shelter."
"A man advised us to go to the police. So that's what we did. They started asking us lots of questions. It scared us."
"They took us to the Red Cross. The people from the Red Cross asked about my background. I told them everything: the abuse, the torture, and then my life in Italy. "
"I told my whole story. They asked me if I needed a psychologist. ‘What's a psychologist?’ I asked.”
Chaotic and traumatic journeys
Unaccompanied minors arrive in France after long, chaotic and often traumatic journeys.
On top of the untenable situation that led them to abandon their life back home, they often encounter violence on the journey.
On arrival in France, they face uncertainty and potential destitution, including a precarious legal status, unstable housing and too little to eat.
Advised to go to court
"I was advised to go to the court in Paris, but I didn't know how. Then I lost the others in my group... "
"At the hotel where I was staying, we couldn't stay in all day. We were allowed back in at 7 pm, just to eat, shower and sleep."
"I was waiting for the results of the assessment. I don't know who decides, but they didn't recognise me as a minor. All I got was another paper to go to court. "
"At the exit [of the court], people stopped me. That day was the first time I went to Médecins Sans Frontières’ place in Pantin."
"When I arrived, a man called Ali called me into his office. He explained that they would continue the process and open a file to appeal to the children’s judge. ‘It will take some time,’ he warned me."
"Next we were taken to get tents from Utopia 56" [French organization providing help to migrants].
"And then we went to the hill [location of the IDP camp]. "
"When we arrived, we saw a lot of people were sleeping there. We set our tents up in a corner. I went back to MSF for my appointments with the social worker and the psychologist.”
MSF INFO: Pantin project
In 2017, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) opened a daytime reception and orientation centre in Pantin, in Seine Saint-Denis, with the aim of providing medical, psychological, legal and social support to unaccompanied minors who have not been recognised as such in an initial assessment by authorities in Ile-de-France.
The centre fills a yawning gap left by public authorities.
Since 2017, MSF has supported more than 2,788 young people, providing 10,345 medical consultations, 6,746 mental health consultations, 1,518 referrals to a children’s judge and 4,868 social consultations to help with basic needs including food, clothing, French classes and healthcare.
During this period, MSF social workers have also helped 295 young people find a place to live.
(figures as of August 2021)
“I stayed in that tent at Porte d'Aubervilliers for about two months. It was very cold. We had no heating. I was afraid I’d fall asleep and the next day I wouldn’t wake up.
On 19 December , I had an appointment with MSF in Pantin and was told they had found a shelter for me. I no longer had to sleep in a tent. I had a place in Passerelle, a hotel run by MSF.
The two houses at Passerelle have 20 beds. The shelter is managed by MSF with support from Utopia 56. In 2021, 53 young people were housed at Passerelle.
“I was going to stay there for three months and then go to a host family."
"I started further education. We took French classes once a week and were offered activities and training. That's when I started to think about the future. "
"I’d never done any training before – I thought it would be nice. I’d like to study logistics and then work for humanitarian organisations, to help people who are going through what I went through. "
"I often think about the people I met on my journey and the way they always told me: ‘It's going to be okay, it's going to be okay.’”
MSF INFO: Passerelle project
In August 2018, MSF opened a shelter in the Paris region, known as ‘Passerelle’, for young people who need emergency accommodation for health reasons due to significant physical or psychological conditions.
The young people staying at Passerelle continue receiving support at MSF’s reception and orientation centre in Pantin, while receiving support from dedicated social workers.
They receive this assistance until their situation stabilises, after which they leave to live with supportive citizens via the 'Accueillons' programme.
‘When I tell this story, I feel liberated’
Recognised as a minor
“I was recognised as a minor in March , during the first lockdown. I was going to be taken into care [of the Aide Sociale à l'Enfance or Youth Social Welfare]. This also meant that I wouldn’t go to live with a foster family. "
"I received the placement order from the judge at the end of March . The next day, I was directed to the SEMNA [educational sector for unaccompanied minors]. "
"They put me up in a hotel in Pigalle until I could be placed elsewhere. They asked me where I would prefer to live: an apartment with other young people or a hostel. "
"I’d have preferred to stay with a foster family, but that was no longer possible. So I chose to live in an apartment."
"My advisor at SEMNA sent my profile to the Red Cross. A few days later, they accepted me. I moved in two days before the end of lockdown. "
"When I tell this story, I feel liberated. Because when I'm alone, I think about it a lot, even though I prefer to be alone. "
"The little moments that make me feel good are when I am alone at home. "
"And when I go to see my psychiatrist. I feel good afterwards. When I go back to Aubervilliers too. It wasn't an easy life, but I like going there and passing the time. "
"It makes me feel good. And bad too. I see people – not the same people as when I was there. I go there, I sit down. If someone comes, they sit next to me and we start talking."
" We talk, we try to find out who the other is. We share what we are going through.
"It's important to share my story, to explain what I've been through. All I want is to have a normal life, a job. To be able to do something. To have a family one day. To live like everyone else.”
Today Yannick has enrolled on a course in logistics, after completing a few-month training course as a house painter. He also volunteers for a French association, where he helps prepare and distribute meals at a restaurant run by the charity.