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"Who does this world belong to?" - unaccompanied immigrant children in Italy

Unaccompanied immigrant children in Italy have left their countries hoping to find a job and better opportunities, but their aspirations quickly fade away. Often, they risk being exploited to work in the black labour market or are recruited by criminal gangs – with nobody standing up to protect them.

Lorena Cotza
13 October 2012
North African migrants landing on Lampedusa. Demotix/Marina Galici. All rights reserved.

North African migrants landing on Lampedusa. Demotix/Marina Galici. All rights reserved.

When Ahmed sailed away from Misrata’s dock, he didn’t look back. There was nobody to say goodbye to. His mother was in Ghana, his sister in Nigeria, his older brother in Germany. His father had disappeared long before. Ahmed was the youngest sibling in his family and he had just turned 15 when he had to leave his home to go and look for a job. As soon as he finished his studies in Ghana, off he went. He crossed Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Niger, Mali, and Algeria before reaching Libya. Gaddafi’s Libya. Ahmed recalls those times with a smile.

“It’s true that there was no freedom, but there were jobs,” he says. “I found a job in a construction site in a town near Tripoli and I was working there every day. It was great. Then, the war began…” His smile fades away. “In May I could not stay there anymore. I used all the money I had been saving to pay the trip to flee Libya. It took us five days at sea before landing in Lampedusa. There were hundreds of migrants in the island, and the reception centres were so overcrowded that we had to sleep outside, in the street. After two weeks, I was on a boat again.”

Ahmed wanted to go to Berlin and join his brother, but he was moved to a reception centre for minors in a small and rural town in Sicily. He arrived there right in time for the beginning of the harvest season. “I would have liked to have had a job where I was required to use my brain and not only my arms, but the only possibility was working in the fields,” says Ahmed. “We were working from 6am to 4pm, for 30 euros per day. After working all day long I was too tired to do anything else, so I was just lying in bed until the day after. Then in the winter we stopped. Here in Italy you work for one day or two, and then you don’t have any job for weeks. It’s not like in Libya. But what do you need freedom for if you don’t have any job?”

In the centre where Ahmed is hosted there are ten young boys altogether, coming from Tunisia, Egypt, Bangladesh and Ghana. Ten very different stories living under the same roof. Some have fled their country because of the fear of persecutions, others because of poverty and deprivation; some are following the myth of success handed down by a distant relative who emigrated long ago, others have been forcibly sent by their family, because they could not be maintained anymore; some are in Italy by their own choice, others because there was not any other choice left. As they are at the same time minors, alone and foreigners, unaccompanied immigrant children are a particularly vulnerable category of migrants and international legislation recommends providing them with special support. But their rights are repeatedly forgotten.

As a consequence of the turmoil of the Arab Spring, in 2011 more than 55,000 migrants landed in the small island of Lampedusa and among them 4,500 were unaccompanied children. Delays in the transfers to the mainland and lack of organisation in the reception centres meant that Lampedusa was plunged into chaos, with hundreds of migrants left without shelter, without food, without water, without medical and legal protection. In April, a state of emergency was declared. “The minors stayed weeks on air mattress or lying on the floor, in a building where it was sweltering during the day and freezing cold at night,” says Alessandra Ballerini, a lawyer specialising in immigration and human rights. “They were illegally detained and treated as criminals, although they had not committed any offence.”

In 2012 the immigration influx has decreased and the situation is said to have gone back to one of ‘normality’. Beyond the word ‘normality’, thus, there are daily tragedies. On September 6, a smuggler’s boat loaded with 136 young migrants sank, about ten miles from Lampedusa. Only 56 were rescued, and among them five were unaccompanied immigrant minors. While the families were soon transferred to the mainland, the five children stayed for weeks in the temporary centre in Lampedusa, in conditions absolutely inadequate. New year, same story. “For the State it is easier to wait until they turn 18,” adds Ballerini. “If they turn 18 and they are still without any document, then the State owes them nothing. When you consider that last year 830 minors disappeared from the reception centres, it is clear that the Italian state has failed.”

The young migrants often escape from the reception centres, hoping that out of there it will be easier to start a new life and to find a job. “They are under high pressure,” explains Rossella Zenoni, director of a reception centre in Milan. “Many did not want to leave their countries, but it was their family who decided to send them, and who run up debts of 3,000-3,500 euros with the traffickers to pay for their trip. Thus, the young migrants must quickly find a job to repay the debt and send money back home.” Many reception centres try to enhance young migrants’ integration into the labour market. “Our team works with the minors taking into account their motivations and needs,” says Mariella Bisesi, director of the apartment ‘La Vela Grande’, in Palermo. “First the boys attend a basic language course, then we offer them to start an internship.  For those who have a regular salary we also offer an apartment, where they have to pay only a participatory quote and the bills.”

Hussan, an 18-year-old boy, is one of the five young hosts of the apartment. He arrived one year ago from Bangladesh and he is working as a trainee cook. “When I arrived in Italy the trafficker I was travelling with took my passport and my phone, and he left me alone in a town near Rome,” says Hussan. “I felt totally lost. Then things started going better. Now I have learnt Italian, I have many friends, I have a job and I always have food. My parents are always asking me to go back because they miss me. I miss them too, but I cannot go back. I have to work, and I have to stay here if I want to work.”

In a climate of extreme job shortages, however, even finding a job as a porter or dishwasher is becoming a matter of luck. “Here in Italy the main problem is the black labour market,” continues Bisesi. “The boys always ask me: why, if every Italian is working without a regular contract, should I have to wait to have one? It’s true, young Italians can work illegally. But if an immigrant minor gets caught working illegally, he risks being repatriated.” Illegality is a buzzword in the immigration discourse. Illegal is the silent majority who works under the burning sun in the fields, illegal are all those whose request of asylum is not accepted, illegal are all those who are kept in inhuman conditions in the immigration centres. Calling them ‘illegal’ makes things much easier, as no rights must be granted to the outlaws. Immigrant minors, though, can never be defined as illegal and the law prescribes that their protection is a duty of the country where they arrive. Yet, this duty is frequently ignored.

There are Afghani minors sleeping in the cold at the main train station in Rome, there are Nigerian minors forced to prostitute themselves in the outskirts of Milan, there are Ghanaian minors harvesting tomatoes in the Sicilian countryside: they are the invisible, forgotten element in the phenomenon of youth immigration. “These minors are aware of being the pioneers of a new historic course,” says Curcio, sociologist and essayist. “Without a land to return to, without a new land to embrace or to conquer, with their feet and their head in a new big world with no boundaries, where everything must be created from scratch. Karim, one of the boys, asked us this question: You believe this word is yours, you try to close it inside walls and boundaries. But today we too are inside, so…who does this world belong to?”

It’s a daunting question. It’s their world too, but it’s a world that is not willing to find a place for them. They are inside ‘our’ borders, but they are condemned to be outsiders. If they want to survive, they have to accept back-breaking and underpaid jobs, to put up with humiliations of every kind, to sell their bodies, to lose their childhood and their dreams. For those who don’t have the luck of finding a job, but who don’t accept to be exploited, there is only a third choice left. They must leave again. Italy is increasingly becoming only a transit country, an obligatory step before heading off to the richest European countries.

After one year in Italy, Ahmed for example is dreaming of Germany. “It cannot be like here in Sicily,” he says. “I am sure that over there I will find a job. As soon as I have all the papers, I am leaving.” The unknown doesn’t scare him. The world is calling, and Ahmed is ready to answer. 

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