Unicef sounds alarm over child poverty in French overseas departments

Children in French overseas territories lack the access to healthcare, housing and education that kids in mainland France can rely on, a new report by Unicef highlights. The UN children’s agency is calling on the French government to address what it calls “alarming inequalities” and protect basic rights across the country. 

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In its report “Growing up in the overseas territories“, Unicef flags up stark disparities between children in mainland France and its departments in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean and South America.

These territories are among the youngest in France, with a high percentage of their population under 18, and among the poorest. 

In the Indian Ocean department of Mayotte, eight out of ten children live in poverty, according to Unicef. In French Guiana on the coast of South America, it’s six out of ten. 

On the French mainland, meanwhile, poverty affects two of every ten children. 

Higher childhood mortality

Published to coincide with World Children’s Day, Unicef’s report also highlights how poverty impacts children’s ability to access fundamental rights, such as education and healthcare.

“Access to basic care in the overseas territories is not necessarily guaranteed,” Mathilde Detrez, Unicef advocacy officer and co-author of the report, told RFI.

“Indeed the childhood mortality rate is markedly higher in these territories than it is in mainland France. In Mayotte, for instance, it’s 8.9 per thousand children, while on the mainland it’s around 3.7 per thousand. So the gap is considerable.”

Detrez says the disparity can be partly explained by growing up in poverty, which is known to negatively affect mental and physical health well into adulthood.

But she points the finger at gaps in the healthcare system too: “It’s linked to the precarity in which a lot of the population live, but also a lack of services and a lack of medical staff.” 

Children out of school

Poverty is also one among many factors keeping children in overseas departments out of schools. 

In French Guiana, anywhere between 5,900 and 10,000 children are estimated to be out of education, while in Mayotte the figure is thought to be around 5,400 to 9,600. 

“The right to education is badly impacted, especially since in some territories distance makes things worse – like in French Guiana, where children are physically very far away from schools,” Adeline Hazan, the president of Unicef France, told French news agency AFP. 

Meanwhile in Mayotte, the ongoing drought and water shortages have contributed to emergency school closures. 

State schools also struggle to recruit and retain teachers, especially ones capable of teaching in both French and local languages spoken by many children in the overseas territories, Unicef points out. 

The result is markedly worse educational outcomes: in 2022, around 30 percent of children in the Caribbean department of Guadeloupe had difficulty reading, rising to nearly 52 percent in French Guiana and 56 percent in Mayotte.

That’s compared to 12 percent of boys in mainland France and 9 percent of girls.

A class at an elementary school in the city of Sada in the French Indian Ocean archipelago of Mayotte, on 26 March 2013. © AFP / RICHARD BOUHET

Detention of minors

Unicef stresses that the situation is even more precarious for children from an immigrant background.

In Mayotte, which has seen many people arrive clandestinely from the nearby Comoros islands in recent years, families without papers or an official address may find their children cut off from school or other public services.

Thousands of minors are even detained after entering French territory without permission, a practice that has been condemned by the European Court of Human Rights.

Of 3,211 children detained by France in 2011, 3,135 of them were held in Mayotte. 

Unicef’s Detrez says the policy contravenes the UN’s international Convention on the Rights of the Child.

“We’re calling quite simply for an end to the detention of children, which is traumatic and runs counter to the principle of dignity protected by the Convention,” she told RFI.

More broadly, Unicef says it wants to see policymakers in overseas territories and in Paris work together more effectively to prioritise children’s wellbeing.

“These inequalities within France are alarming,” said Hazan. “Those in charge must guarantee that all children throughout the country can access their rights.” Unicef sounds alarm over child poverty in French overseas departments

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