Over 100,000 unaccompanied Afghan minors, almost all of them male and generally between 14 and 17 years of age, applied for asylum in Europe between 2008 and 2016, making Afghanistan the single largest country of origin for this group of refugees. While Germany and Sweden received by far the highest number of applications, Italy became an important staging post in the long journey to other European destinations. Its importance as a transit country has diminished in the last two years, but small numbers of minors stranded in the Balkans and Greece continue to trickle in. AAN’s Jelena Bjelica and Fabrizio Foschini have visited Rome, Trieste and Gorizia to gauge the situation for unaccompanied Afghan minors and learn about a new Italian model law for protecting them.Afghan minors teaching Italian kids to fly kites, Trieste 2016 - photo by Fabrizio Foschini
This research was supported by a grant by the Open Society Foundations
Afghan minors in Europe: an overview
Unaccompanied minors (classed as those under 18 years of age) from Afghanistan have filed far more asylum applications in Europe during the last two years than any other nationality, according to the European Union’s Eurostat agency. They also represented the most numerous group of any country of origin for unaccompanied minors in half of the EU member states (see here).
In 2015, 51 per cent of the over 90,000 unaccompanied minors who applied for asylum in EU member states were Afghans (45,300 individuals). More than half registered in Sweden (23,400). (See also AAN’s previous reporting on Afghan minors in Sweden here.) (1)
The following year, in 2016, the number of unaccompanied minors who applied for asylum in Europe declined by almost one third (EU countries registered 63,300 of all nationalities). Afghans made up 38 percent of the total – 24,000 applied for asylum in the EU, nearly two-thirds (15,000) of them in Germany.
The majority of the unaccompanied minors came via the Balkan route, before it was blocked by the walls and electrified fences which various countries erected and before the EU-Turkey deal which came into force in spring 2016 and which also aimed to halt the flow of migrants (see AAN reporting here; here; and here). A smaller proportion of the total, those who did not come via Bulgaria, Macedonia or Serbia to Europe, chose to travel via Italy, as many migrants had done before the Balkan route was opened. Many hid in lorries in Patras in western Greece that were loaded onto ferries sailing to the Italian port cities of Bari, Brindisi, Ancona and Venice.
Before the Balkan route: a brief overview
Although Afghan minors had arrived in Europe in smaller numbers before 2015, it seems that 2008 and 2009 marked an increase in their numbers. In 2008, around 3,500 sought asylum in Europe and in 2009, around 6,000 (see here). (2) Many children aged 14 to 17, in the years before the opening of the Balkan route, arrived by sea, or via one of the principal smuggling routes that goes across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy.
Statistics on arrivals by sea to Italy, as well as asylum applications in Italy before 2010 are sketchy and scattered, although the general assumption is that the majority of Afghan minors who travelled by the Mediterranean route in the early 2010s continued their journey on to northern Europe, ie to the countries with stronger currencies and economies and/or more benefits for unaccompanied minor migrants; they included UK and the Scandinavian countries (a companion dispatch will be published looking at migration to and through Italy, in general). Available data shows that only one in seven (429) unaccompanied Afghan under-18s requested asylum in Italy in 2008. That was equivalent to half of the total number of children of all nationalities requesting asylum in that country. Data for 2009 and 2010 is sketchy – AAN could not find the number of unaccompanied Afghan minors’ asylum requests in Italy for these two years – but in 2010, 98 unaccompanied minors, the majority of them Afghans, arrived in Apulia, the country’s most south-easterly region, while seven landed in Calabria, in the south-west, according to the Italian ministry of the interior. In 2010, Italian authorities intercepted 389 unaccompanied Afghan minors who had landed on the shores of Apulia (265), Calabria (119) and Sicily (5), also in the south. (3)
Some of the main gathering points for Afghans arriving in Italy in 2009/2010 were the various informal settlements that had sprung up in or around Rome’s Ostiense train station (migrants had established the first settlements there in 2004/2005). Initially, the Afghans squatted in a large abandoned building nearby which lacked access to clean water and sanitation. The inhabitants gradually moved to a makeshift camp located on some abandoned railway tracks known by volunteers and civil societies as ‘la Buca’ (‘the hole’ or ‘pit’). During the winter months, those living in the camp were allowed to sleep on a platform with a roof. According to a local researcher of unaccompanied Afghan Hazara minors in Italy, between 2008 and 2010, maybe one-quarter of all Afghans transiting and temporarily living in Ostiense were minors. (4) But after the situation was perceived to have got out of control, a series of police raids in 2013 closed the informal camp down, clearing the station of migrants. (5)
In 2011 and 2012, the number of unaccompanied Afghan under-18s arriving in Italy by sea grew to 544 and 541, respectively. In 2013, their number declined to 310 (see here) and then dropped by another third (to 181) in 2014, and then, when the Balkan route opened, to a mere 38 arrivals in 2015. After its closure, however, figures started to rise again: to 134 in 2016. Then, in 2017, numbers saw a new drop (24 Afghan minors were registered between January and July), according to the Italian Ministry of Interior. Most of the new arrivals came by boats to Apulia or Calabria, some from Turkey, but the majority from the ports of Greece. (6)
Save the Children’s latest research on unaccompanied minors in Italy (available in Italian here) describes how hiding in lorries has resulted in the deaths of many refugees, often minors and often Afghans. They had died in the ports and on the highways of Italy, frozen to death or asphyxiated inside containers. Others were run over by trucks which they had sought to hide under or cling to. (See, for example, this news in Italian from 27 June 2017, about the death of an Afghan man inside the trailer of a lorry due to the excessive heat near Cesena, the truck had been coming from the Patras-Ancona ferry route.)
Afghan minors in Italy
AAN interviewed several Afghan minors in Trieste and Rome who had reached Italy at different times. Their stories, each unique, offers and insight into what they experienced on the perilous journey and how they had sought to make new lives in Italy.
An Afghan from Kabul, A, currently living in Rome told AAN he was 14 years old when he arrived in Italy in 2009. He had left Afghanistan in 2006 and travelled for three years, spending eight months in Turkey and a year in Greece before travelling the sea route to Italy. On arrival, he was entered into a programme for minors in a small town in central Italy where he spent three years. When he got out of the project he could speak Italian relatively well and opted to stay in the country. He headed to Rome, looking for other Afghans and for a job. He was lucky: one of the teachers of a class for migrants that he attended took him under his wing. The teacher sent him to school and basically adopted him: the Afghan boy refers to him as his ‘Italian family’. Now in his early twenties, A is currently studying political science in one of Italy’s best universities, while, at the same time, working as a translator.
Another Afghan, from Nangarhar, B, who is currently living in Trieste, told AAN he left Afghanistan in 2014, and stayed in Turkey for several months, working in a plastic factory, 12 hours a day, for about 300 US dollars a month.
I came to Italy in June 2015 as an unaccompanied minor, via Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary. I was hidden in a truck. On the Bulgarian-Rumanian border, police caught us and kept us for months in detention… Once we reached Hungary, I got into a truck again and came to Italy.
B said he was 17 and a half when he arrived in Italy, “My mother and her brother had arranged my journey from Afghanistan to Europe” (his father was dead which was why his maternal uncle and mother had decided his actions).
[My uncle] suggested that I should go to France, but after I arrived in Italy, I liked it here, so I stayed. I was enrolled in a language course, was doing sport activities and so on. They would take us for picnics to nearby cities. The teachers were nice and sympathetic and I finally got a chance to have my eye treated.
B’s right eye had been injured by a splinter from an explosion in Jalalabad years before. Not only had he lost his sight in that eye, but he also suffered terrible, recurring pain. He underwent surgery in Italy and now has a prosthetic eye and suffers almost no pain.
B said that, out of 13 Afghan minors that were admitted to the same project in 2015 for unaccompanied minors as him near Trieste, only five are left in Italy today. The rest left for other European countries.
In Trieste, AAN also interviewed another unaccompanied minor from Jalalabad. C came to Italy in early 2015, before the Balkan corridor opened. For him, Italy was his first choice. His family said it was not safe for him any longer at home and that he should leave the country. He was 15 years old when he started out from Afghanistan and spent two years in Turkey. There, he found a smuggler in one of Istanbul’s neighbourhoods. (7) After he crossed the Turkish-Bulgarian border, he took a taxi to Belgrade. He reported to Serbian police, who in turn bought him a bus tickets to the Hungarian border. He crossed into Hungary, but the Hungarian police found him and pushed him back into Serbia. He tried again and managed to cross undetected this time, using only his phone’s GPS function. From Budapest, he took a taxi to the Italian city of Udine, paying 350 USD for the ride. He was one of seven people in two taxis, each of whom paid the same amount.
C was a minor when he arrived, but did not want to tell the Italian authorities as he did not want to go to a camp for minors where his ability to move around would be restricted. He wanted to be able to start looking for jobs as soon as possible, so pretended to be older. Although, this is an opposite practice to what has been seen elsewhere – young men pretending to be underage in order to get asylum quicker and benefits such as family reunion – it is also a significant case, because it shows the range of survival strategies used by Afghan minors to find their way around Europe.
C had travelled with a group of adult men, all from eastern Afghanistan. They came via the Balkan route, arriving on Italian soil in Udine. Most of the group continued on to northern Europe, but C decided to stay in Italy. He moved to Trieste where he lived in the dilapidated part of an old port building called ‘the Silos’ for two months. In early 2015, there were almost no refugees in the Silos. During the summer of that year, numbers grew to a crowded 200 (a companion dispatch will be published looking at migration to and through Italy, in general).
Although C learned Italian and is a skilled tailor, he continues to face many problems finding employment. For the moment, he still lives in a state-sponsored reception programme, the SPRAR project. For those refugees who manage to find place in it, it extends the support given to all asylum seekers after they finish their reception programmes by an additional six months or one year (as refugees have become more numerous, such longer-term support has become rarer). C’s term in the SPRAR will expire soon, though. His next challenge is to get a driving licence to increase his chances to find work. Otherwise, like many Afghans who are jobless, he says he may have to leave Italy, after all.
Italy’s invisible minors
Some minors disappear from the system after having entered reception centres. The Italian authorities refer to them as ‘invisible minors’, ie invisible to social services and accommodation centres. Fairly detailed data from the Italian ministry of labour (available online here) shows that the number of invisible minors almost quadrupled in four years: from 1,754 at the end of 2012 to over 6,561 in 2016. Afghans make up a significant percentage of those missing minors every year. Sandra Zampa, an Italian MP in the lower house of the parliament, told AAN that some of the invisibles get pulled into petty crime, or prostitution, but most continue their journey towards northern Europe.
In 2012, according to the Italian ministry of labour, of 1,193 unaccompanied Afghan minors who were registered in reception centres, 567 went missing (see here) and in 2013, of 1,087 registered, 536 went missing (see here). (In 2014, the Italian ministry of labour changed the statistical overview in its annual report, and the breakdown of missing minors by nationality is no longer available online.)
In 2016, Save the Children reports, of the 6,561 unaccompanied minors who went missing from reception centres or other institutions, 4,753 or 72.4 per cent originated in only four countries, Afghanistan, Egypt, Eritrea and Somalia. The report points out that most Afghan, Eritrean, and Somali minors arrive in Italy with the clear aim of reaching other countries and therefore are determined to leave the reception facilities as soon as feasible. Afghans, though, according to Save the Children’s count, had the highest rate of ‘escapes’ in 2016.
Personal observation by one of the authors in the Friuli Venezia Giulia region in northern Italy which borders with Slovenia and Austria is consistent with this trend. Many Afghan minors, after arriving in the region would hesitate, even after a tiring and risky trip, to stay in Italy even after they had been promised care, reception facilities and support programmes. The more determined would carry on to their favourite destinations. Others would register with the authorities (either voluntarily or after being found by the police and forced to) and end up in facilities for minors. Then, during the first crucial week, many would run away and ‘disappear’, after having got in touch with their families or their minders (ie smugglers or smugglers’ aides) and advised to continue to countries with stronger economies, like UK and Scandinavian countries.
A new law
Afghans chose not to stay Italy mainly for economic reasons. Nevertheless, some Italian experts believe that another cause for the disappearances was the absence of a specific law protecting migrant minors in Italy. (8) This changed in March 2017 when Italy passed legislation (which had been awaiting the approval of the Italian Parliament since 2013) guaranteeing a broader set of rights for unaccompanied minors (see here and here). Also known as the ‘Zampa bill’ (after MP Sandra Zampa who strongly pushed for it), the law prescribes a nationally-uniform procedure for verifying the age and identity of minors, one which is more respectful and sensitive to their vulnerability. The new law also makes it mandatory for minors to be dealt with by specialised personnel; sets up a structured system of reception in Italy with better facilities in their first place of reception; upholds the best interests of the minor; ensures the right to healthcare of the same standard as Italian citizens get and also to education through the state school system; and gives minors’ the right to legal aid and to be heard in any judicial and administrative procedures they are involved in.
“The law automatically recognises newcomers as asylum seekers,” Zampa explained to AAN. They are first of all seen as minors and then everything else. Each municipality has an obligation to provide them with everything the new law prescribes. The law also says that no minor can be rejected on arrival.” This had been a frequent occurrence in Italy’s Adriatic ports, when under-18s would be returned to Greece or Turkey, The new law also requires the authorities to collect information about the previous life of a child, so as to be able to act in his/her best interest. If Italian embassies, which are tasked with collecting this information are unable to do so because of insecurity, as is often the case in Afghanistan, the minors cannot be repatriated.
Zampa added that what is called a guardianship system, which also existed under the old law, has been improved. “Before it was symbolic. For example, a mayor or a deputy mayor was usually named as a guardian for dozens of minors. The new law establishes a voluntary system of guardians. Citizens can register in the prefectures for a guardianship, with courts for minors supervising this issue by vetting and training candidates for the role.” Also, the law encourages the placing of unaccompanied minors in the custody of suitable relatives in Italy or other European countries or, in their absence, with foster-parents. However, Zampa added, certain bylaws are yet to be passed which means the law still requires some time to be operationalised.
The number of unaccompanied Afghan minors arriving by sea in Italy is on the decrease, but that of land arrivals could potentially rise again. (There is a lack of data on arrivals in north-east Italy; one exception is a two-month pilot count by the International Organisation of Migration from early 2017, see footnote 6.) The new migrants can be expected to come from the close to 7,000 people, the majority of whom are Afghans, who are currently stranded in Serbia (see also this AAN research) and from those – double that number – gathered in Greece. Italy, which has better conditions than either Serbia and Greece, could be more attractive to them. Italy is also closer to central and western Europe where most of those who have already arrived in Italy intend to go on to. France seems to be the preferred country of destination at the moment (see the companion dispatch soon to be published).
Despite all of Italy’s good intentions and the new rights it has given unaccompanied minors, many under-18s, including Afghans, may still try to ‘escape’ northwards, driven by the lure of stronger economies, rather than attracted to stay in a country that now guarantees their rights. Travelling north has become more difficult, however. Routes through Switzerland and Austria (where the deployment of troops at the Brenner Pass to stop migrants has been publicly discussed) have been blocked. Some may find out, like those AAN interviewed in Rome and Trieste, that a new life in Italy can be favourable, after all.
(1) Breakdown of unaccompanied minors’ asylum application by EU member states and year, are available here.
(2) By 2013, the number of unaccompanied Afghan minors who applied for asylum in the EU member states dropped to about 3,200.
(3) IOM in Italy told AAN that the reason why reliable data for arrivals by sea before 2012 are unavailable stems from a change in migrants’ flow in 2012 and a subsequent change in reporting by the Ministry of Interior and by the search and rescue operations coordinated by the Coast Guard. The change in the flow of migrants could have come about because of the unrests and deteriorating security situation caused by series of protests in the North Africa and Middle East, also known as Arab Spring, which began in late 2010.
(4) The most accomplished and in-depth research on the phenomenon in Italy can be found in a PhD thesis by Francesca Grisot, available on the University of Venice’s website.
(5) In 2013, police evicted migrants around the Ostiense train station. After that, people spread around the city, sleeping in parks and elsewhere. Today, the Ostiense train station is heavily guarded, as are other main train stations in Rome, by the army and police due to fear of a terrorist attack. There is now little room for manoeuvre for those who want to sleep rough in or around the train station.
(6) IOM Italy in early 2017 decided to run a two-month period of data collection in Friuli Venezia Giulia, the region bordering Slovenia and Austria, within the Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM) project which is active as well as in the Balkan countries and Greece. Between mid-February and mid-April 2017, IOM data collectors in the region met and collected interviews with around 140 Afghan nationals, of whom nine were male children (14 to 17 years old).
(7) Two AAN researches who visited Zeytunburn neighbourhood in Istanbul in late 2015 reported that on every corner of Zeytunburn, arrangements for journeys to Europe were being discussed. They visited several Afghan shops, restaurants and money exchangers and described discussions on how to reach Turkey’s borders and explanations of how to cross and reach particular destinations. A smuggler told the researchers that, within a few hours, he could send them to Bulgaria and within just one day to Germany. The amount he asked for an entire journey to Germany for each person was 3000 USD.
See also this AAN’s previous research about Afghan migrants in Turkey.
(8) Until March 2017, the following standards were in force in Italy: the 1989 New York Convention on the Rights of the Child, according to which unaccompanied minors have the right to a residence permit, and the Legislative Decree 268/1998 on immigration, which provides general regulations on the issue. These measures were insufficient to address the problem, since neither provided solutions for migrant minors who left reception centres.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020