Why Were So Many Unaccompanied Children on the Ship That Sank Near Italy?

The ship that sank near the coast of Italy was filled with around 500 African migrants, only 155 of whom survived.

All in all, 41 children survived the shipwreck that occurred just six miles off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa on October 3. When I speak with Filipo Ungaro, who works with Save the Children there, the unmistakable babble of children’s voices is clearly audible in the background of the call. “They are really shocked and traumatized,” says Ungaro.

These children had narrowly escaped a devastating event: The sinking of a ship bound for Italy, filled with around 500 African migrants, only 155 of whom survived. They are currently staying in a severely overcrowded migration center, where between 900 and 1,000 people are crammed into a space intended for only 200 to 250. This means hundreds of families are sleeping on mattresses outside the building, exposed to the elements. A storm hit over the weekend, according to Carlotta Bellini, Head of Child Protection at Save the Children. They should not stay there for more than a few hours, Bellini says, but many minors are kept in this center for weeks at a time after landing on Lampedusa. “Children are together with adults. There are very few bathrooms,” Ungaro says. “Some of them are very young, from 11 to 17.”

The incident provided a window into the tide of unaccompanied children that flows from Africa to Europe, some of them barely old enough to understand where they’re going. More than 5,800 children have entered Italy since the beginning of 2013, Bellini says, updating earlier Save The Children statistics released just after last week’s wreck. Of these, 3,000 were traveling without an adult guardian. Most of the children who entered Italy this year were from four nations: Eritrea, Somalia, Syria and Egypt. Eritreans and Somalians are those most likely to enter via boat from Libya, as the migrants on the shipwrecked boat last week were attempting to do.

Children from Eritrea and Somalia make the risky journey to Europe for many different reasons. “Children leave because of poverty,” Bellini says. “Children leave because of conflict.” Those from Eritrea, she says, where teenagers as young as 13 are often forced into the army, flee because they “don’t want to serve in the military.” Many don’t even tell their parents they are leaving, for fear of military reprisals against their families. They leave with the goal of reaching somewhere where they can have a better life, dreaming of seeking asylum in northern European countries like Norway or Sweden. But their journey is extremely difficult.

“There is a place you visit in your dreams…and then there is the one where you actually end up. One is Europe. The other is Sodom and Gomorrah.” This is the opening line of a documentary I heard when I first moved to Accra, Ghana, Children of Sodom and Gomorrah, exploring why and how African children make the dangerous desert journey to North African countries and on boats and planes to Europe. Many of these children aim for Libya, where they can buy passage to Italy. “[Italy] is the main gate for migrants to enter the EU,” Bellini says. But in Libya, many migrants must wait for weeks or months in detention centers before boarding a ship. Children have been detained as many as seven times in seven different detention centers in Libya, Bellini says. Many are victims of abuse or exploitation during their journey. “The consequences have been very serious.”

For the 41 surviving children from the shipwreck, like the other children who arrive in Europe each month, the future is very uncertain. They have the right to stay in Italy, according to Bellini, under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that every child should be guaranteed protection and should not be expelled. But many children want to go on to northern Europe and apply for asylum to gain refugee status. If they cannot prove that they first entered Europe through the country where they wish to seek asylum, however, they are generally returned to Italy, often without any arrangement for their care or protection. And even for those who stay in Italy, the resources available to them are inadequate. It is Save the Children’s position, Bellini says, that each child’s case should be handled individually.

“A long term solution should be identified in his or her best interest,” she says. “What is important is that that person is a child.”

Sharon Benzoni has worked as a journalist specializing in the urban informal sector and social innovation. She was co-founding editor of Innovations Online, before which she contributed to Next City, primarily as the Accra-based blogger for the Informal City Dialogues. She has also worked as a consultant and researcher on projects focused on climate change, human rights and social entrepreneurship. Previously based in Accra, Ghana, and New York City, she now lives in Bologna, Italy. She is an MA candidate at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. 

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