Drama of life and death for children on the move to Italy

For once it was a moment not of anxiety and despair but to stop and celebrate. For once we felt the thrill of new life, new hope in the ongoing drama of life and death of children on the move in the Central Mediterranean.

The Italian Coastguard crew on the Luigi Dattilo vessel – who have saved thousands of refugees and migrants from drownings in the deadly waters of the Central Mediterranean – called us excitedly in the early hours of the morning to share the news: they had helped deliver two Eritrean babies on their boat. Another baby boy was born in Catania just moments after the mother arrived. The coastguards were just so happy. They wanted us to share their delight and tell us they had used the child friendly space UNICEF had set up on the boat and had given the mothers some UNICEF puppets for the babies.

The three babies and their very young mothers were in all in good health, and were being cared for by health care workers in Catania and their births had been registered. Babies born in Italy take the nationality of their mothers but they get Italian birth certificates.

A boy sleeping with a teddy bear, on a cot.
One of the hundreds of lone male teenagers who are arriving in the Reggio centre every week.

It was an all too rare and wonderful event. Too often it is tragedy. Within hours of the Eritrean births, a Nigerian mother was in deep mourning, shattered, she told her rescuers her life was not worth living without her two children. In the chaos of the deadly crossing, she had tried desperately to hold the hands of her little sons, three and four years old, but they slipped into the sea and were gone. Those who are treating her now in Reggio Calabria say she is ‘out of her head’ with grief. It is just too much to bear sometimes.

Even for the hundreds of lone male teenagers who are arriving here every week, they have been through so much and they look tough on the outside – they’re energetic, they’re inspiring, they show me the plastic tags around their necks with names of family or contacts in the UK, in Sweden, in Germany and they say they want to learn, they want to work, they want to be part of society in Italy. But when you see them in a state of near collapse after their incredible journeys, where they have been beaten, and abused, witnessed so much, escaped drowning, and they curl up on the sleeping cots in the reception centres with their teddy bears, you know that no matter what, they are just children at the end of the day. They’re uprooted, and face a scary uncertain future in a foreign land with foreign languages.

They’re put into centres so overcrowded it is not possible to keep acceptable standards and they get into fights – like in the last few days when 40 newcomers in Reggio, Calabria were taken to a centre where other unaccompanied children had been staying for months. Violence broke out, they were chased away and had to be taken to a temporary outside shelter. Then they have to wait for their cases to be heard – instead of 60 days as is required by Italian law – so their best interests can be determined and they can receive a guardian – it can take up to a year. So they just leave for other parts of Europe on their own. The southern provinces of Italy, which has the largest number of unaccompanied and separated children, would have to appoint seven new guardians each day to meet the needs of the children. They’re struggling to cope and we at UNICEF are doing what we can to help build up more robust systems so children’s needs can be quickly identified, host families can be found, guardians can be appointed. It’s an uphill battle for the authorities.

It can be overwhelming but when we experience the thrill of newborn life, that’s what we hold on to dearly. That makes us do more and better.

Sabrina Avakian is a child protection officer in Reggio Calabria, Italy.



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  1. There is a small town in the North of Italy, Ventimiglia, that has been efficient in helping migrants and refugees. Consequently it has received the appreciation of Pope Francis who has sent a message to the local Bishop in August 2016. The Holy Father has expressed His spiritual closeness with affection and prayer to the entire diocese and all those who “strive to meet the needs of these people who are escaping war and violence, in search of hope and a peaceful future.” “I wish so much to thank you for the efforts which this diocesan community is deploying with admirable evangelical charity, establishing human, logistical, and economic resources to support these, our brothers and sisters, who are living an immense tragedy.” Pope Francis has written. Also, He has encouraged the Church to continue the generous commitment to welcome and solidarity. Once again, advocating for humanitarian assistance and collaboration among the various actors of the society, including religious and faith groups, is important to address migrants and refugees related issues and support the United Nations (UN) efforts. Laura Gagliardone