Charities fear the unaccompanied minors are vulnerable to being forced into crime and prostitution.More than 5,000 refugee children have disappeared without trace this year after arriving in Italy in smugglers’ boats from the coast of North Africa, raising fears that they are vulnerable to exploitation and prostitution.
The children are thought to have simply walked out of refugee centres and headed north for richer countries such as the UK, Germany and Sweden, with their journeys sometimes organised by people traffickers.
The migrant children come from countries such as Eritrea, Sudan, Afghanistan and Somalia, which have been ripped apart by war, poverty and political repression.
Some were rescued by the Royal Navy’s HMS Bulwark, part of a pan-European naval force conducting search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean.
After being taken to Sicily or the Italian mainland, they set out by train, bus and on foot – a group of three young Eritreans was picked up on a road in Tuscany last month, heading north.
They spoke no Italian and their only word of English was “Germany” – their long-hoped for destination, where they said they had relatives.
The 5,110 untraceable children are among an estimated 13,000 unaccompanied minors who have reached Italy so far in 2015.
Most were teenagers but some were as young as nine, charity workers said.
“It’s an emergency within the broader migration emergency,” said Michela Vittoria Brambilla, the head of a parliamentary commission on children and a member of Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-Right party, Forza Italia.
“I appeal to the government to dedicate more attention to the problem.”
The adolescents were the most vulnerable of the 62,000 migrants and refugees who have reached Italy this year, she said.
Refugees cannot be detained in migration centres by force so if they want to leave, there is little the Italian authorities can do to stop them.
“Unaccompanied children are at the greatest risk from people traffickers. Some are being forced into manual labour, domestic work, drug smuggling and prostitution,” the British charity Save the Children said.
The charity had encountered 17-year-old Nigerian teenage girls, after they were rescued by HMS Bulwark, who had not paid for the boat journey from Libya, suggesting they were being trafficked into prostitution.
Teenage boys were also vulnerable to being forced into prostitution, said Gemma Parkin, the charity’s spokeswoman.
“They think they can find work in pizza shops or car washes in Italy but then they find that there are 50 other boys lining up for the same work,” she told The Telegraph. “They find that they need to make money by any means possible.”
It was crucial that such vulnerable minors were accommodated in safe centres, the charity said, but Italy’s migrant reception facilities were overwhelmed with the demand for places.
Justin Forsyth, the charity’s chief executive, praised European governments for contributing warships, planes and helicopters to the search and rescue mission, but said that EU nations had to give more thought to what happens to migrants once they reach Italy.
Save the Children has called on the British government to relocate 1,500 of the unaccompanied children who have arrived in Italy so far this year.
“For many of these children, their journey has only just begun. We have a brief window of opportunity to save them from people traffickers when they land in Italy, before they disappear into a criminal underworld,” the charity said.
“Italy must be given more support to protect every unaccompanied child, at the point of arrival, and beyond. EU governments must share the responsibility for the care and protection of vulnerable children who cross the Mediterranean – especially victims of trafficking and violence.”
Meanwhile, the mayor of an Italian town that is on the frontline of the refugee crisis said that failing to provide asylum seekers with safe passage to the EU while hundreds died at sea was tantamount to genocide.
“We’re living a genocide, and in a few years we Europeans risk being found responsible,” said Leoluca Orlando, the mayor of Palermo.
Around 1,800 people are believed to have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean by boat this year.
Mr Orlando said Europe should make it easier for asylum seekers to apply for refugee status outside the EU, after which they could enter the bloc legally rather than having to rely on dangerous sea crossings organised by traffickers.
“If Syrians, coming from a country at war, have the immediate right to refugee status, why stop them taking a plane ticket from Istanbul to Paris, for example, and oblige them to go via Libya and the Mediterranean?” he asked.
“The stories told by survivors who make it to Sicily resemble the accounts told by survivors of Dachau and Auschwitz (concentration camps),” he said.
Source: The Telegraph