How voluntary guardianship for unaccompanied minors took root in Sicily

“You gave me back my dignity. I will never forget that you even gave me underwear. Without which I would have to wait for 15 days! You have always been there whenever I needed you. Even after 4 years, you are taking care of me.”

These are the words of Amadou, regarding the network of guardians called Accoglierete, in southern Italy. I had the opportunity to work with him as guardian in 2013. Amadou is now 21, lives in Rome and works in a supermarket. We are still in touch. Based on my professional and personal experience as a guardian, I offer some recent insights on Sicily’s voluntary guardianship programmes for unaccompanied minors.

With the 2016 New York declaration for Refugees and Migrants 193 States committed to save the lives of migrants and refugees; to protect their rights and share the responsibility for meeting these universal duties. United Nations agencies are leading the development of two global compacts on refugees and migration. However, there is some criticism that their non-binding nature may undermine their good intentions, as shown by United States dropping out and the underfunding of emergency responses. Nevertheless, States and civil society good practices are already taking place as revealed in the UNICEF report Beyond Borders.

Building on UNICEF’s Agenda for Action for Refugees and Migrant Children, this report shows that the goals of providing children with a safe home, safe passage and safe destination is possible. Italy offers a good example of a community-based initiative, recently endorsed by law, for providing care and support for these children. The arrival of unaccompanied and separated children (UASC) has seriously affected the country’s geo-political, economic and socio-cultural landscape with the number standing at 15,779 in 2017, according to UNHCR. In April 2017 Italy approved a comprehensive law (Zampa law 47/2017) establishing protection procedures for unaccompanied minors.

When voluntary guardianship works properly, and the child feels a connection with the guardian—that another human being genuinely cares—it has a powerful effect on reducing abuse, exploitation and harm.

Italian authorities further acknowledged that ‘institutional’ guardianship was not effective and recognized the added value that active citizenship could bring in protecting unaccompanied children. Accordingly, one of the main objectives in the Zampa law is the promotion of foster care and the enhancement of the guardianship system by involving and training locals as volunteer guardians.

The guardian is defined as an independent person who safeguards a child’s best interests and general well-being, and to this effect complements the limited legal capacity of the child (CRC/GC/2005/6). In Italy, guardianship is voluntary and not remunerated. To become a guardian (or ‘tutore’) the interested person needs to participate in a training promoted by the regional authorities for children and adolescents, her/his designation is lately formalized by the Juvenile Court. While families interested in fostering care should approach the local social services in charge. Community-based associations and NGOs often facilitate contact between citizens and those institutions providing support.

The guardian ensures that the child is well informed and legally assisted, that their best interests are properly assessed, crucially, with the child’s active participation. No one better than the child himself knows his migration project (progetto migratorio). In Italy, progetto migratorio literally translates to “migration project,” emphasizing each migrant’s individual experience.

© UNICEF/UN065139/Salvatore CavalliA pizza making class in Centro Astante which supports the registration and asylum application process for young migrants who arrive in Italy.

For example, in the context of children, it includes the causes for each child to leave his homeland, his ambitions and plans, both short-term and long-term. When necessary the guardian facilitates the child’s voice being heard and ensures that material, social, health, psychological, and educational needs are met. As such, guardians become part of each child’s story as the main facilitator in allowing the child to pursue his progetto migratorio.

I have also become part of Amadou’s story and personally experienced the positive differences that proper guardianship can make in the life of an unaccompanied child. I have taken part, as a practitioner and previously as a guardian, in an incredible bottom-up effort taking place in Sicily, called AccoglieRete. In response to the massive protection needs of thousands of unaccompanied children arriving since 2013, locals in Siracusa, Sicily came together as both volunteer guardians and foster families, and united under AccoglieRete. This practice, to an extent, helped pioneer the new Zampa Law.

Amadou, and many others like him, became part of our everyday life: myself, my family and friends, including the scout group that I led. I am still in touch with them all. Around the same time, we met Ibrahim. When we were first introduced, Ibrahim was a traumatized fourteen-year-old boy who had arrived to Italy through the deadly central Mediterranean crossing. Before uttering a single word, he showed me a piece of paper containing his reception centre’s identification number. He looked surprised when I told him that the only thing I wanted to know was his name, if I was pronouncing and spelling it correctly, and then, how he was getting along? Since then I accompanied Ibrahim throughout his asylum application and through his longer-term integration path. In 2017 Ibrahim turned 18, even though legally I am no longer his guardian, he knows he can rely on me and he does in every critical moment or choice he has to take. This is a very special and rewarding relationship for both of us.

The volunteer guardianship practice started by AccoglieRete in Siracusa, Sicily—now more broadly in Italy—goes beyond the representation role of the guardian towards true human care for the person. It is not a contract, but a relationship based on affection, trust and mutual enrichment. Relationships between guardians and unaccompanied minors inevitably becomes long-lasting, far beyond the realm of laws and regulations.

© UNICEF/UN069365/ALESSIO ROMENZIDiane, a Nigerian girl who is pregnant with twins after being forced into prostitution following her arrival in Italy, stands in a home run by an Italian NGO in Asti, Piedmont region, Italy.

When voluntary guardianship works properly, and the child feels a connection with the guardian—that another human being genuinely cares—it has a powerful effect on reducing abuse, exploitation and harm. There is anecdotal evidence from reception facilities I have visited that children are less willing to take the risky decision of escaping these facilities, exposing them to dangerous risks, when they are assigned a guardian.

One important issue to keep in mind is that Italy is perceived as a transit country and children particularly from certain regions (Eritreans, Somalis) have preferred to escape Italian facilities to join their families elsewhere. Even for these minors, guardianship mattered, as they developed trust in their guardians, they waited for family reunion to happen through lawful means.

This form of guardianship is not simple. Guardians and foster families don’t have a magic wand to sort out all the challenges that each minor faces: asylum processes, access to health, education, employment. They can and do try to minimize the challenges these children face in extremely difficult circumstances. Volunteer guardians need to be properly trained and continuously supported by professionals in accomplishing their delicate role. Under the Zampa law, capacity building and assistance must be better supported to ensure full implementation of the new law.

Let me share a few examples of how guardians supported good outcomes:

  • Blessing found the strength to denounce her “maman” (trafficker) and now lives in a protected house.
  • Eyob from Eritrea could hug his uncle in Sweden through relocation.
  • Ismaila joined a football team and his coach’s family became his foster family.
  • Fares, following vocational training, became the chef of a well-known restaurant.
  • Remon wrote a book.
  • Ahmed was admitted into the United World College and got a scholarship to pursue his dream of becoming a doctor.

This has been possible due to the commitment of volunteer guardians and their ability to open their network and collaborate across various sectors. Cooperation is not only between authorities, humanitarian agencies and NGOs. It also requires strengthening and convening one-response with local civil society associations, raising widespread awareness, involving private sector organizations (companies, restaurants, sport clubs) and all the different actors willing to foster unaccompanied minors’ protection and inclusion.

The voluntary guardianship model aims to demonstrate that a more humane reception and creation of a warm, ‘familiar’ environment, will not only enhance protection but, by engaging locals actively, will foster integration in the host community. This approach is the basis for a more welcoming, multicultural society that sees the child before the migrant.

Iolanda Genovese is a migration research officer with the UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti. Explore the UNICEF Innocenti research catalogue for new publications. Follow UNICEF Innocenti on Twitter and sign up for e-newsletters on any page of the UNICEF Innocenti website.

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