On the 10th and 11th of October 2017, 606 men, women and children were rescued from seven sinking ships in the Mediterranean sea by the rescue ship Aquarius. Chartered by the organization SOS Mediterranean, these asylum seekers were attempting to make the dangerous crossing from Libya to Italy – a route which is now considered by the United Nations to be the most common route taken by asylum seekers attempting to reach mainland Europe from Africa and the Middle East. While the rescued people set sail from ports in Libya they came from a variety of home country’s including Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Mali, Ivory Coast, Guinea Bissau, Nigeria, Ghana, The Gambia, Bangladesh, Yemen, and Turkey. There are reports that at least 11 of the women rescued were pregnant, others were malnourished or had experiences of sexual violence, imprisonment and injury. Alongside the men, women and children rescued in family groups, four in ten of those rescued were unaccompanied minors. All 606 rescued people are now in Palamo, Italy, where they face a lengthy screening process to determine who can legitimately claim asylum.
According to SOS Mediterranean, the proportion of unaccompanied minors rescued has “never been equal until now.” Open Migration agrees that the numbers of unaccompanied minors has been rising. Data shows that between 2014 and 2016, there has been a nearly two-fold increase in the number of children arriving in Italy unaccompanied. In 2016, the total number reached 25,846. This rapid increase contrasts with a decrease from 13,096 to 2,377 over the same time period of children arriving in Italy accompanied.
As Italy is now the main entry point into the EU for those seeking refuge or asylum, it is concerning that there are increasingly large numbers of minors attempting this dangerous journey alone and then once arriving, facing lengthy, complicated processes to determine the legitimacy of their claim for asylum. Due to the system being unable to cope with such large numbers of unaccompanied minors due to both structural and bureaucratic problems, a bottleneck has been created. Reception center where minors would in normal circumstances be housed for up to 60 days before relocation and ideally integrated into the community have instead become center where these minors will be kept indefinitely or until 18 years old, while their claims are being processed. These facilities are not adequate for the longer-term housing of children. They are understaffed and not properly resourced, and thereby unable to meet the physical, mental, and educational needs of these children who, in many cases, will have experienced conflict and trauma.
The Italian system for processing migrants also creates opportunities for the misrepresentation of the true number of unaccompanied migrants. “Age” is a key factor in categorizing new arrivals and plays a significant role in determining where the person will “end up.” There is evidence, according to Open Migration, that migrants are manipulating this system for personal gain. For example, they may pretend to be a minor in order for them to be entitled to the rights and services that minors receive. Others may manipulate this system under duress by claiming to be an adult rather than minor, as adults are theoretically easier to control and blackmail than minors due to having less protections. Furthermore, due to this manipulation of the system it is not uncommon for police to classify a person as an adult even when documentation showing otherwise is present. By classifying minors as adults, the issue is compounded, as they are blocking minors from receiving the services, rights, and protections that they are entitled to.
It is important that we consider the way unaccompanied minors are processed when they are attempting to gain asylum. These people are particularly vulnerable socially, politically, economically, and physically. The current system for processing unaccompanied minors upon reaching Italy doesn’t provide for the protection of these vulnerabilities and in some cases, may cause the vulnerabilities to be exacerbated. As the number of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum is ever-increasing, it is only becoming more important that we act to ensure their protection.