Naveena Kottoor –
Ibrahim is a shy, skinny teenage boy, who unlike many other children his age, loves to go to school.
When he was 14, he was sent on a journey that took him from his native Gambia via Libya to the coastal town of Syracuse in Sicily.
Speaking to dpa two years later, he still struggles to talk about the details of how he managed to make it from West Africa to southern Italy.
“My mother told me to move,” he says after a long pause.
“She gave me a bit of money, and I left. On the way I ran out of money, so I had to work in Libya to pay for the journey,” he says reluctantly.
“I was so relieved to get here,” he says of his arrival on the shores of Sicily in January 2015.
According to United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the number of unaccompanied children arriving in Italy by sea from the shores of North Africa doubled to 25,800 in 2016, twice as many as in the previous year.
While the number of arrivals has been steadily rising, the Italian system has struggled to adapt, with the institutional response haphazard and heavily reliant on the good will of civil society and volunteers.
In a report issued on Tuesday, Afshan Khan, UNICEF’s Special Coordinator for the Refugee and Migrant Crisis in Europe, warns that “unless a system of care is developed that is equal to the numbers of arrivals,” there is a risk that migrant children travelling on their own, like Ibrahim, will increasingly be pushed into criminality and prostitution.
“Many of these children require psycho-social care and want to go to school,” Khan added.
For Ibrahim, too, the first year in Italy was rough.
He was homesick, isolated and housed in an overcrowded camp, longing to be home with his family in Gambia.
But he was lucky. An NGO in Sicily called Accoglierete was able to provide him with a temporary legal guardian, a requirement in Italy for any unaccompanied child like him that wants to remain in the country.
Ibrahim was matched with curly haired Federica Bellassai, a 26-year-old law graduate and Syracuse native, who is currently acting as a legal guardian for five other West African boys.
She supports Ibrahim and the others not only in applying for identification papers and registering for language classes, but has also introduced him to the Italian habit of drinking espresso.
She says that even after almost a year of knowing Ibrahim, he avoids speaking about the journey. “This period in their lives is difficult, and they need to trust me, so I can support them” says Federica about her experience with the six boys.
But amidst an anti-migration backlash in Europe, the appetite for dedicating more resources and personnel to the steady flux of migrants arriving from Africa, is low.
With elections coming up in the Netherlands, France and Germany, European politicians have been focused on trying to stem the flow rather than expanding the institutional response to migration.
Federica thinks that is a mistake. “To say that there is no space and shut the door is the response of someone, who is not interested in solutions,” she said.
“Sicily is full, but still we are trying to be human. It’s not a matter of space, but of organisation.”
Five years down the line, Ibrahim is hoping to have graduated from school and have a job. “I want to be able to pay for a flight to see my mother and my sisters,” he says. “I miss them so much.” — dpa