Development & Aid, Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees, Population

RIGHTS: Migrant Minors Twice Vulnerable

Sabina Zaccaro

ROME, Mar 22 2006 (IPS) - Hundreds of minor migrants reach the Italian coast every year, often to face more difficult conditions after they ‘disembark’ than those they fled.

They are first taken usually to one of the immigrants detention centres set up in 1998 to manage the growing number of arrivals. The migrants are kept there for some days before being moved elsewhere.

“We have collected more than 890 allegations and other information regarding the presence of minors in most detention centres in Italy in recent years,” Paolo Pobbiati, president of Amnesty International Italy told IPS.

In a report ‘Invisible children – the human rights of migrant and asylum-seeking minors detained upon arrival at the maritime border in Italy’ Amnesty documents the stories of many asylum-seeking minors detained at these centres after an exhausting and often dangerous journey to Italy.

The report presents details of 28 unaccompanied minors detained at some point between January 2002 and August 2005. Almost all were asylum-seekers from sub-Saharan countries.

According to Amnesty, 80,000 migrants have arrived in Italy over the past five years, including hundreds of children. Many of the children travel on their own from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Turkey and other countries in North Africa, the Middle East and East Europe.

The interior ministry has said that “it may happen that minors remain in these centres for a very short time after their arrival, to be then entrusted to the social workers.” Official figures point to 1,270 minors arriving in Sicily clandestinely.

Public debate on migrant detention centres became front-page news after journalist Fabrizio Gatti from the L’Espresso weekly disguised himself as an illegal immigrant and spent a week at a detention centre at Lampedusa together with 450 others, in a centre with a declared maximum capacity of 190. The centre is located on a little island midway between Malta and Tunisia.

Gatti said in his account that he had seen immigrant detainees humiliated and physically and verbally abused by security officers. He said one officer amused himself by showing a pornographic movie on his mobile telephone to religious Muslims. Gatti reported blocked sinks, a lack of doors on lavatory cubicles, and floors ankle deep in excrement.

“Although the government claimed that all detainees are brought in front of a magistrate, my own detention was entirely arbitrary,” Gatti said. ‘Bilal Ibrahim el Habib’ as he presented himself was finally released to “go work in any city of Europe as an illegal alien.”

The treatment for minors is similar, Gatti told IPS. “The youngest are usually taken to the ladies section. The others are subjected to radiography in order to assess their age.”

All minors have the right to be accepted in Italy, and “that’s why many families decide to send the children alone,” Gatti said. “The day I left Lampedusa, 36 minors were sent to another place. Very often most of them run away from these places to join relatives or friends in another European city.”

Pobbiati says “minors are invisible because we don’t have any accountable statistics on them, and because of the lack of transparency on the conditions of life in the permanence centres, where they entirely miss respect for their rights as human beings and as children as well.”

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has not monitored the situation of arriving minors, spokesperson Laura Boldrini told IPS. No independent person can access the centres, all located at far ends of suburbs, out of the sight of public opinion.

Most people brought to these centres are sent back within few weeks. Those who succeed in staying, among them the minors who escape, become ‘ghosts’ without an identity.

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