Migrating across the Mediterranean
Stories of survivors
In Lampedusa, a small island in southern Italy close to the Tunisian coast is the first landing point for many people crossing the Central Mediterranean route in search of safety, peace and better opportunities.
Children, the majority of whom are travelling alone without their parents, and pregnant women are among those arriving on wooden boats or small iron vessels, many of which corroded by saltwater and sun, requiring rescue missions by NGOs or authorities in territorial waters.
Most children arriving have departed from Libya and Tunisia. Some bear wounds, sometimes due to the journey, sometimes due to violence on their journeys. For some, crossing the Mediterranean - where many children before them have lost their lives – and reaching the other side becomes a chance to survive. For others a place to feel safe. And for many, the chance of a better life.
People line up as border police and health checks begin and organizations including UNICEF provide support from the early stages of arrival in Italy.
UNICEF works in collaboration with partner organizations. Our social workers identify children and women who need support.
“How old are you?” “Are you traveling alone?” “Is the adult with you a relative or not?”
Three questions are all it takes to establish the level of vulnerability and identify special cases that require more intensive support.
People arriving, including children are quickly transferred by authorities to the hotspot – reception centres. The team of social workers makes their way there.
At the hotspot, I meet Soul*, an 8-year-old boy from Ivory Coast, entrusted to an adult with whom he has no family relationship, and who will soon continue his journey alone. Soul is smiling. In one day, he has already met all the social workers at the site and all the people who arrived like him, shortly before or after, on a makeshift boat. He participates in an information session with the team. The social workers explain, with the help of a map, where he is and that he will be transferred to a house - the "maison des enfants" - with other children his age, where he can study and play.
At the hotspot I meet a mother and her baby, born at night on a small boat mid Mediterranean. Another mother holding her one-month-old child asks "What is it like to be a single mother in Italy? Can I do it? I want him to feel safe as he grows up."
In recent days, I have met girls who made their journeys alone including 17-year-old Tamara* from Ivory Coast. Forced into marrying an older man at 14-years-old she became pregnant twice, miscarrying both. She couldn’t bear her life anymore. In danger, she fled her country and spent five months travelling through Mali, Niger, Algeria and Tunisia before reaching Italy.
While at the hotspot a 9-year-old boy called Saidou* from Guinea arrived. He left with a friend of his father, his only point of reference. He tells me that his parents were not allowed to board the same boat, so they entrusted him to this person, hoping to be reunited with him again soon. Saidou cries when the man agrees to be transferred to another center to start his journey in Italy.
UNICEF’s team continues with the information sessions, identifying the most delicate cases and reporting them to specialized services. Activities with the children also continue. Some draw a boat, others the flags of their own country and the Italian flag. A corner of dark asphalt quickly fills with improvised drawings made with chalk: a house, a flower, and for a moment, it feels like being in a different place.
The day after, I saw Soul and Saidou playing together. Soul asks us for the map we showed him the day before. He wants to show Saidou the "maison des enfants". Italy is not just the end of a journey but also the beginning of a new path, a new possibility. For the first time, Saidou smiles and the hotspot - where fatigue, tiredness, and pain converge - appears less harsh once again.
From her eyes
(based on the testimony of Anaya* collected during the first week of July at the Lampedusa hotspot)
"How long do I have to stay here? When can we leave? It's strange to have come this far and be stuck in this place, not knowing what happens now and what will happen next. I often see them calling some people, they get on a bus and leave from here. Not me yet, and I've been here for several days now. They say it's harder for women and children, but why?"
"I'm 15 years old, I come from Sierra Leone, I miss everything about my country. These days I feel very lonely. I left home because I felt in danger. Ever since my father remarried, my life has changed. I had to leave school and work at the market, trying to scrape together something for the family, my stepmother and my younger brothers, but it wasn't enough. So, they decided that I should marry an older man. 40 years old, 25 years older than me. I know what happens and how dangerous it can be for girls. My aunt helped me; with her support, I decided to leave. I still don't know what awaits me. Sometimes I feel guilty, sometimes I'm just tired, other times I'm calm because I think that no matter what happens, I'll have the freedom to go back to studying and feel safe."
"Today I talked to the social workers here. I told them that since I left, I've lost contact with everyone. I wished they would look for me, hear from my aunt that they were waiting for my return, but it didn't happen. I've wondered a thousand times what I'll do now, how I'll start here, if I can really go back to studying and how my life will be alone in a place I don't know. Today, some social workers told me that I'm not alone, that I will be fine now. Is that really true? Will there be someone I can rely on? What will happen now?"
Anaya is 15-years-old. I met her at the Lampedusa hotspot. Children and women are often exposed to violence and exploitation at every stage of their journeys. They need quick and specialized support. However, waiting times for transfer to reception centers is often longer due to the difficulty of finding suitable facilities for them.
UNICEF is active on-site in Lampedusa and in other regions of arrival and transit in Italy, providing critical protection and support services, and information to children, women and families. This year, UNICEF expanded its support for children and women at the border and in reception centers through PROTECT, a project financed by the Directorate-General for Migration and Home Affairs (DG Home) of the European Commission through the Asylum, Migration, and Integration Fund (AMIF).
UNICEF Emergency Response in Italy:
Italy supporting refugee and migrant families and children.
Deprivation and violence in the countries of origin, dangerous and life-risking journeys, combined with the risky conditions of living in transit countries and uncertainty and difficulties of prolonged transit, reduce the resilience and undermine the safety, physical and mental health of people on the move.