What happens to Italy’s missing migrant kids?

Almost 5,000 refugee children have disappeared after arriving on Italy’s shores since last summer, with many passing through the small Sicilian port town of Pozzallo. The Local spoke to one woman there, who has witnessed both their fear and determination to survive.

What happens to Italy’s missing migrant kids?
Of the almost 6,000 minors who landed on Italy’s shores during the first six months of this year, more than 3,830 arrived alone. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

Virginia Giugno, a mother of two, is the chief of staff at Pozzallo’s town hall. Last year, she also became the legal guardian of over 800 children who arrived alone in the Ragusa town by boat.

She said that 2014 saw the highest number of unaccompanied children – around 1,000 – landing in Pozzallo, compared to just a handful in 2012.

Ranging in age from 12 to 16, they mostly came from Eritrea, Sudan, Egypt, Mali, Ghana and Ethiopia.

“They arrived traumatized, without family, alone,” she told The Local during a recent interview.

The town’s mayor, Luigi Ammatuna, called on his community, and specifically Giugno, to help.

As legal guardian, it was her duty to house the children in separate reception centres to adult refugees, or find them space in homes provided by the church or members of the community.

Meanwhile, local families also rallied in their support.

“It was easy to find people ready to welcome them,” Giugno said.

“We adopted them like our own. We took them to the beach, restaurants…we organized football matches and tried to integrate them.”

But shortly after arriving, many went missing without trace.

According to figures from Italy’s Foreign Ministry in May, 4,840 children had disappeared from reception centers across the country since last summer.

The government has set up a unit to deal with the cases of missing migrant children, with the aim of preventing them falling into criminal hands.

Of the almost 6,000 minors who landed on Italy’s shores during the first six months of this year, more than 3,830 arrived alone, according to estimates from the charity, Save the Children, in June.

The charity said that those missing were vulnerable to “manual labour, domestic work, drug smuggling and prostitution.”

Traumatized by their ordeal, Giugno has witnessed first-hand the emotions that come with young children who were forced to separate from their families in order to escape conflict and persecution.

But she also saw in them a strength and determination to survive.

“Some escaped before being systemized,” she said.

Despite fears for their safety, she added that “many arrived with a project to head on…to family and friends in northern Europe”.

“Those who had been through this experience had clearly changed their outlook on life. They were brave, strong…yes, they cried for their parents, but with great dignity.”

She added that the children did not concoct a “great escape” plan, they simply walked out of wherever they are staying.

Refugees cannot be held in reception centres by force, so if they want to leave little can be done to stop them.

“Our only hope is that they make it somewhere safe,” Giugno said.

“But there are groups out there exploiting this situation.”

In contrast to the anti-immigration stance adopted in some parts of the north, where regional leaders have refused to house refugees, nobody could accuse Pozzallo of indifference.

“Pozzallo has always been a door of Europe,” Giugno said.

“But in the last few years, it's changed. It's no longer an emergency in the sense that it's no longer a surprise, we know it's going to happen and so are better prepared.”

Of the children who do stay, most continue to live in reception centres until they are 18 or 21, she added.

“They go to school, they get educated. Some find jobs in the area.” 

The community is leading by the example set by Mayor Luigi Ammatuna.

“When parents say goodbye to their children, they never see them again,” he told The Local.

“Many are escaping war, we're obliged to help. And people from Pozzallo understood they needed to help, even if they themselves were struggling.”


How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.