Why child migrants are playing grown up in Italy

A leafy street in Rome is transformed into a hive of activity every lunchtime as Eritrean migrants queue up to collect a plate of food outside the Baobab cultural centre run by the local diaspora community.

The youthfulness of the faces is striking. Many fled Eritrea to avoid being conscripted into indefinite military service, but none will admit to being under 18 for fear the authorities will place them in a centre for unaccompanied migrant children, dashing their hopes of reaching northern Europe.

The EU’s Dublin Regulation means that once fingerprinted in Italy, they would have to remain in the country while their asylum claims are being processed or risk being returned there. Countries in northern Europe, however, may hold better job potential, better asylum odds or even the chance of being reunited with family members.

See: Playing the EU asylum lottery

One young man outside the centre, who claims to be 18 but looks much younger, says he hopes to reach the UK to continue his education despite having no relatives there. 

His journey so far has already taken a year. It began when he crossed the border from Eritrea into Ethiopia, before travelling onwards to Sudan. Crammed into a Land Cruiser with 25 others to cross the Sahara desert, they ran out of water before reaching a camp run by people smugglers in Libya. 

“There were a lot of people. There were sick people, people with scabies, with psychological problems, those who cried all day,” he says shyly, declining to give his name. 

Growing problem

It is difficult to know the true number of children arriving in Italy without a parent or guardian because so many avoid seeking help and lie about their age, but the official figures are disturbing enough.

Between the start of this year and 20 July, 7,439 unaccompanied children were registered out of a total of 80,706 migrants who reached Italian shores, according to Save the Children. In 2014, 13,030 unaccompanied minors arrived in Italy, nearly three times the number who arrived a year earlier.

While Eritreans make up the largest group of children travelling alone, the others come from a host of nations, including Afghanistan and Gambia. Ewa Moncure, a spokesperson for the EU’s border agency Frontex says Egyptian minors also frequently travel to Italy alone.

“Egyptians know that because there’s a bilateral [readmission] agreement between Egypt and Italy, only those under 18 will not be returned to Egypt,” she says. As a result, many families send their eldest sons in the hope they will earn enough to support their relatives back home.

The Italian authorities are responsible for looking after unaccompanied migrant children and most are taken directly from the ports where their boats arrive to dedicated government centres. Ahmad Al Roussan, a cultural mediator with medical charity MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières), says there are shortfalls in the care available at the centres, including a lack of interpreters.

Mental health gap

“They should absolutely do more. We are now working in mental health and there is a very big gap,” he says. “There is also no cultural mediation. They [the children] don’t have the ability to communicate or ask for their needs to be met.”

Although language lessons are available at the centres, an administrative backlog means children often wait months before they can start full-time education.

Many of the children saw their friends or other people in the group die during the journey...They don't have the experience to deal with this.

The children have often experienced trauma on their journey to Italy and arrive disoriented, says Al Roussan. “We have met a lot of young girls who have experienced sexual violence during the route to Libya. Many [of the children] saw their friends or other people in the group die during the journey, in the desert or in the sea. They don’t have the experience to deal with this.

“A lot of them don’t know where Rome is geographically; [they] don’t know where they are,” he adds. 

A considerable number of children walk out of the government-run centres as soon as they get the chance. Italy’s interior ministry was unable to say how many unaccompanied children had gone missing so far this year, but 3,707 disappeared from government shelters during 2014.

Runaways at risk

Many successfully travel onwards to countries such as Germany and Sweden, but some become trapped in situations of forced labour or sexual exploitation. Gemma Parkin, a spokeswoman for Save the Children, says that Nigerian girls are particularly vulnerable to being trafficked into prostitution.

“They talk about someone in the village where they’re from knowing a way for them to be able to go to school, or offering them work in Europe,” she tells IRIN. “Then, when they arrive, things are not as they would seem. They are at risk of ending up in sex work.”

Traffickers offer to pay for the passage of some girls, but it is only a scam to make them indebted so they can then force them into prostitution. Save the Children is trying to identify such girls and ensure they are treated as a priority, but Parkin says there is only a small window of opportunity.

"Our team of child protection experts will try and build a relationship of trust," she explains. "We won't immediately try and get all the details about the traffickers, because we need them to trust us more than them [the traffickers]." The aim is to teach the girls about their legal rights and discourage them from leaving the centres after being contacted by their traffickers.

While there are concerns over the fate of girls who arrive in Italy by boat, boys make up the vast majority of unaccompanied children travelling to Europe. More than 25 percent of asylum applications in the EU last year came from children, both those travelling alone and with adults – 86 percent of those children were boys.

Parkin says the failure of the international community to come up with solutions to protracted refugee crises has pushed children as young as nine to travel to Italy alone.

“Children have spent years in refugee camps,” she says. “They’ve lost hope in being resettled. So more children are making their way to Europe because they don’t see legal routes.”

Resting in the shade outside the cultural centre, days after arriving in Italy and more than a year after leaving Eritrea, one young man warns others against following in his footsteps. 

“Not leaving Eritrea is difficult, but at the same time I’d talk about the difficulty of the journey,” he says. “I didn’t know when I left that the journey could be so difficult.”