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The Lone Children of Lampedusa

by Sarah Tyler, Save the Children | Save the Children - International
Monday, 18 April 2016 16:35 GMT

Migrants and refugees rescued on the Mediterranean sea between Libya and Italy arrive at the port of Palermo in Sicily, April 2016. Save the Children

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

What are the triggers that push a child to travel alone, far from their homes to another continent? What inner strengths do they rely on to get through their perilous journey from their homes in Gambia, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and Eritrea, to arrive in Italy?

I am back in Sicily one year after last year’s shipwreck, one of the worst in Mediterranean history, when 800 lives were lost at sea. I won't ever forget hearing the reports from the Italian coast guard, that only four children had survived the trip. We might never know the numbers who were locked below deck unable to escape when the boat capsized. It was a tragedy that spurred the world to wake up to the unfolding humanitarian migrant and refugee crisis happening on Europe’s doorstep.

Nasre, a 17 year old from the Ivory Coast is holding a photo of his mother. She’s smiling and in her arms is Nasre when he was only a baby. He’s wrapped in a white blanket and his mother looks at him with love and pride. The photo is worn and tattered and creased along the lines where for years it’s been folded and unfolded into four parts.

“The only thing I brought from my home in Cote d’Ivoire is this photo of my mother, I thought that I would make the trip safely because my mother would protect me. Even though she is dead she gave me strength.”

Nasre left home because he says he had nothing left to live for. He was an orphan and, at 15 years old, was already working grueling long hours trying to make enough money to feed himself. One day he dreamt of going to Italy because there he thought he would be safe, He began to save up for the trip to Italy.

Over the past three months, there has been a huge influx of unaccompanied children making the deadly journey from sub-Saharan Africa through Libya, and on to the Italian shores. Since 2016 alone, more than 3,300 minors have come here, four times the number over the same period last year. Children travelling alone are the most vulnerable and all of the children we have spoken to over the past year have experienced abuse and exploitation on their journey to Italy.

Libya has been described as a 'furnace of hell' by some but the whole journey they undertake poses unimaginable dangers. Many children who are travelling alone said that they worked along the route as cleaners, builders, and street vendors. They are targets for smugglers and traffickers and, unfortunately, there are also young girls end up as sex workers.

The average age of a minor crossing by boat from Libya to Italy is between 15- to 17-years-old but I’m taken to meet an 11-year-old boy from Somalia who also made the trip alone. Now he is living with other unaccompanied children in a local community in a small town in Sicily. The boys are hosted in children’s homes or in first reception facilities set up to protect them.

As soon as we walked through the front entrance a tall, lanky boy bounds down the stairs and runs up to Mohamad, Save the Children’s cultural mediator. He gives him a massive hug and says, “I remember you, I met you in Lampedusa two years ago.”

Mohamad is thrilled and remembers this landing in 2013. So many children run away from the reception facilities they are placed in because they are impatient to continue their trip to Northern Europe, so it’s a real boost for Save the Children’s team here to see these young boys living in Italy, learning Italian, and making friends and assimilating into this small Sicilian town.

On the island of Lampedusa we visit the reception and assistance centre, now a hotspot, that is now sheltering over 200 people, among them 99 unaccompanied minors who have been rescued by the Italian coast guard. Even if it is not formally a detention centre, people can’t go out whenever they want to.

We meet Bukola, a 15-year-old Nigerian girl. She is impatient becasue she and other Nigerians girls here have been waiting to be transferred to the mainland. The Save the Children team explains to them that places in reception facilities are limited as there are more minors coming to Italy than places available to house them.

Save the Children is calling on the Italian government to standardise reception facilities with adequate systems that prioritise the protection of children. As the weather gets warmer we expect the numbers of minors making the trip to increase, but reception facilities are bursting at the seams.

Bukola, 17, tells me that when she was a young girl she was given away by her mother to a family to work as a domestic worker. Unfortunately the owner of the house 'couldn't keep his hands off me, he always tried to sleep with me and I couldn’t take it anymore, ' so she fled Nigeria and is now hoping that she’ll finally be able to go to school and learn how to read and write properly.

The belief that they can have a better future in Europe is what gives them the strength and it will continue to drive people to Europe. Because what choices do they have? As Abla told us: 'If I would have stayed in the Ivory Coast they would have killed me, just because I am gay.'

I’m touched by the number of children that wander into the tiny sparse office of our Save the Children colleagues on Lampedusa. There’s a mixture of reasons they come - many ask questions such as when will we be transferred? What will happen to me in Italy? What are my rights for protection?

Mohamad* sits in the corner of our office studying his Italian words and sentences. He writes them out phonetically so he will remember how to pronounce them. He looks up and smiles at the team as he practices them and he’s encouraged constantly But it’s apparent he’s not here for lessons, he’s here because he needs human interaction and affection and to feel like he’s not a number. As Silvia the legal advisor told me, 'Here they call us the mama and papa of children.'

At last night’s landing in Palermo, 900 people came ashore. More than 164 of these were unaccompanied children. A young boy from Mali said to me: 'Thank goodness we are now in Italy.'

I’m just hoping that this Europe, that seems to be prioritizing security interests, rather than human lives, lives up to his dreams.