Thousands of migrant children are disappearing after arriving in mainland Europe, triggering concerns that they are falling prey to a new and thriving market for child trafficking and forced labour.
Of some 12,164 unaccompanied minors who arrived in Italy from north Africa this year, about one-third have vanished from foster homes and government shelters, with the authorities warning they are likely to face sexual and labour exploitation if left unprotected.
Hundreds of children, mainly from Egypt, Eritrea and Somalia, are arriving on Italy’s shores every month. In Catania, on the eastern coast of Sicily, local NGOs say that Eritrean children have begun to be kidnapped from parks and train stations.
“Most of the Eritrean children refuse to be identified by the authorities on arrival in the country because the Dublin Convention doesn’t allow them to claim asylum in other countries if they have been registered in Italy,” says Elvira Iovino, director of Centro Astalli, a migrants shelter in Catania.
“While they are sleeping at the train station they are intercepted by networks of traffickers who promise to give them shelter and get them jobs. But then they are locked up in houses and, if the family can’t pay for them to be released, they have to work for them selling drugs, through prostitution or working in the Sicilian agriculture. These are all high-income activities for these networks.”
Children who are registered as unaccompanied minors upon arrival in Italy are also vulnerable to exploitation. Under Italian law, children arriving in the country without their family should automatically come under the care of the state; they should first be housed in emergency shelters, then moved to foster homes and into integration and education programmes. Yet, as authorities in Sicily buckle under the weight of the influx of migrants, children are being left in overcrowded and decaying emergency shelters for months, with little protection.
In the Sicilian town of Augusta, which has been the landing point for more than 4,000 of the 12,164 migrant children who have arrived in Italy so far this year, local authorities say they simply can’t cope with the numbers of children for whom they are becoming responsible.
“Recently we had 1,500 people arriving at our port in one night – 250 of these were children,” says Francesco Puglisi, the commissioner in Augusta responsible for immigration. “Here we just don’t have the structures to give the right protection to such large numbers.”
Conditions at the Scuola Verde first aid centre, Augusta’s only emergency shelter for migrant children, are increasingly grim, with overcrowded dormitories and rubbish-strewn hallways. The centre has the facilities to support 20 children, but there are as many as 150 currently housed there. Many minors who were supposed to be relocated after 48 hours are still at the centre four or five months later.
According to migrant rights activists, many children who escape, or are lured out of emergency shelters or foster homes by the promise of employment, end up working in conditions of forced labour, packing boxes of tomatoes in basements or greenhouses in Sicily.
Others head for cities and towns across Italy. The Guardian followed the trail of migrant children from Sicily to Rome, where young Egyptian teenagers were found working for a few euros an hour at the train station and fruit and vegetable markets. Some said they were told by their traffickers where to find work to pay off their debts before they left for Europe; others received instructions on their arrival in Sicily.
“I said ‘Bye bye, Sicily,’ as nobody was helping us in the centres over there,” says Hamdi, a 17-year-old from Kafr Ikhsha in Egypt. “There are guys who help you with the tickets. When I arrived in Rome, an Egyptian man told me to go to Ponte Mammolo bus terminal and find the bus with all the other Egyptians, which would take me to the market. You only earn between two to 10 euros for a day of work, but my family have to pay back the 2,500 euro trip to Italy we paid.”
Ahmed, who claims he is 17 but looks years younger, says he is under huge pressure to find a way of repaying the 3,500 euro debt he incurred on his journey to Europe. He is scared about a contract his family signed with the smugglers who brought him across to Sicily. “Even five euros a day would be something,” he says. “I have to send money home, my family only have five months to repay the debt.”
Mariella Chiaramonte, chief of the police station in Tivoli, near Rome, says that Guidonia’s 140-hectare (350-acre) market, 15 miles from Rome, has become a hub of child labour in the past few years. In the past month there have been efforts to clamp down on the exploitation of migrant children working as porters at the market, but the problem persists.
“Until about a month ago, all the porter work at the market was done by Egyptian children, because their labour is so cheap,” she says. “Their employers give them two pennies and take advantage. The situation is out of control. Even when we place these kids in foster centres, nobody checks whether they are going to school. We believe that there is a connection between those who traffic the children to Italy and those who employ them at the markets, so we are planning an investigation to establish these links.”
The fear of their families facing the wrath of the traffickers is driving some to find quicker ways of repaying their debt. Khaled, another Egyptian teenager, who is earning 50 euros a week at a petrol station, says many young Egyptian children are recruited by drugs and prostitution gangs upon their arrival in Rome.
“Other guys accept selling drugs or prostituting themselves to pay off their debt. It is much quicker and not difficult to find this kind of job. It’s enough to just wait at the Termini bus station and somebody will come to you,” he says with a shrug. “Sometimes they are Egyptians and sometimes Tunisians, but I don’t want to do these things. All I want to do is pay off my debt and send money home.”