A Long Journey for a Chance at a Second Life

U-Report on the move

by Sarah Martelli (Edited by: James Powell & Hira Hafeez-ur-Rehman)
Child looks at the street from the window
06 December 2018

‘As a young person it’s so natural to take decisions -- we don’t think, we just do it. I didn’t think how dangerous my journey will be or how different my life will be in Europe. I left Senegal to get a better education. It has not been easy but I don’t want to give up -- if you don't risk you do not achieve anything’,

Khaoussou Diassigui is a U-Reporter who arrived as a minor in Sicily from Senegal two years ago.

In 2017, more than 171,300 people entered Europe through the central Mediterranean route -- 70% arrived in Italy. 32,000 of them were children, including at least 17,500 unaccompanied and separated children. That means even if they left with their parents or guardian, they didn’t arrive with them.  In 2017 the proportion of children arriving unaccompanied or separated increased by 31%; four of every five arrived in Italy.  

At the same time, Sicily saw a 20% increase in the number of migrants arriving by sea as compared to 2016 and was met with an unexpected volume of asylum applications as neighbouring countries closed their borders. In mid-2016 UNICEF set up a response programme in support to the  Government of Italy focusing on the care, protection and social inclusion of young migrants and refugees who have suffered because of war, persecutions, other forms of violence, lack of services and dangerous journeys.

Young boy looks at the horizon facing the sea

The Role of Technology: U-Report On the Move

UNICEF’s role is to ease the burden on unaccompanied child migrants and refugees as they arrive in a new, strange place without much knowledge of what to expect or even their rights, through the U-Report On the Move (U-Report OTM) project.  

U-Report OTM allows young people to express themselves on various issues they face, and allows UNICEF and our partners working with unaccompanied children to receive feedback from them on Facebook messenger. Through U-Report OTM, refugees and migrants also access information about their rights and the complex bureaucratic system they find themselves in. They access critical information that supports their protection and social inclusion rights. The programme is unique in its area, giving unaccompanied and separated children a chance to think and see their lives differently and settle in more smoothly. Data on U-Report OTM can be easily accessed by anyone, anywhere in the world transparently through the public website.  

U-Report OTM is active in Italy in the regions of Calabria, Lazio, and Sicily. It is giving a voice to young migrants and refugees on a number of issues including school attendance and health -- while promoting knowledge and helping to understand of the legal framework, policies, and programmes for refugees and migrants in Italy.

U-Report On The Move has reached almost 20% of the adolescent refugees and migrants in Sicily in the past year, and is now expanding to other regions in Italy.

Young migrants and refugees join U-Report via Facebook messenger by registering basic, anonymized information about themselves, and then as U-Reporters they become part of polls, notifications, and a two-way dialogue with UNICEF and partners.

The Journey...

Unaccompanied child migrants and refugees who arrive in Palermo are assisted by the Government of Italy, UNICEF, other UN agencies, Intersos, and NGOs. Many have been housed in a reception center called ‘Asante’ - Centro di Prima AccoglienzaMSNA. Asante is a Swahili word which means Thank you and the center is supported by the European Union and other partners. As you walk through the stairs and corridors of Asante, you’ll notice murals of African flags and maps painted by the young migrants and refugees. At a reception center in Bagheria, Sicily refugee minors are provided housing, food, and life skills -- learning the Italian language, finishing secondary school and more --  until they turn 18.

Bassirou Dembele smiles for the camera

At the Asante center we met U-Reporter, Bassirou Dembele (18) who arrived in the same boat as Khaoussou from Mali in May 2016. Both of them arrived together in Sicily after a four-day, life-threatening boat ride with hopes of a better education and employment prospects in Europe.

“It was the moment of biggest change when I decided to leave - it’s not easy to make friends in Italy; in my country it was so easy.” - Bassirou

Since the young boys arrived, they’ve had many opportunities from UNICEF to learn, finish secondary school and talk about their issues through U-Report.

“As a U-Reporter I not only get important information about my rights in Italy but also tell them about my problems. I received important information on U-Report on my rights as a minor refugee -- to work in Italy and how to find work, which I didn’t know before, and I was able to find work after knowing what my rights are as a migrant.” - Khaoussou

U-Report: Taking Action

Over the past year, U-Report poll results and interventions have been used by the Ombudsman and UNICEF to speak out on conditions of refugees and migrants, with the aim of improving reception conditions, ensuring young migrants and refugees have a Guardian, promoting access to socio-recreational activities, support to education and vocational training paths.

A U-Report poll revealed that 65% of young migrants and refugees do not know their Guardian. The poll results supported UNICEF’s and the Ombudsman’s ongoing efforts in the establishment and roll out of the first model of volunteer legal Guardians that provides one-to-one support to unaccompanied minors. Further polls have highlighted the importance of alternative care models, such as foster families, which UNICEF is also promoting together with national and local authorities.

Another U-Report poll asked adolescent migrants and refugees about their rights to work in Italy. 76% of Refugee U-Reporters had never worked in Italy; of those who did, 59% worked on irregular contracts and almost half of them were underpaid by their employers. 18% of minors indicated they were not sure about the nature of their contract and compensation of their position.

In some situations, employers often take advantage of the difficult situations of migrants and refugees, and one of the main reasons is the lack of information on their rights to work. Following the poll results, UNICEF and Intersos shared a handbook and guidelines on right of migrants and refugees to work in Italy with U-Reporters. The handbook includes tips on finding work in Italy, minimum requirements and documents required to work, skills and personal characteristics evaluation, workers’ rights in Italy, how to write a CV, letters and more.

“With UNICEF and U-Report OTM I feel safe and included in the city, I’m not afraid.”


Both Bassirou and Khaoussou are in the process of getting their residency papers and hope to become cultural mediators to bridge the gap between refugees and Italian youth and build a community with better and stronger connections.

“I want to be a receptionist and a cultural mediator -- I speak four languages, I like talking to people and solving their problems, I’ll be very good!”

Khaoussou smiling for the camera

U-Ambassadors: Young People on a Mission to Engage their Communities

Bassirou and Khaoussou are also U-Ambassadors or U-Report OTM’s community volunteers. As U-Ambassadors they encourage other refugees and migrants to be part of U-Report OTM, receive important information and also speak out on issues they care about.

U-Ambassadors is U-Report’s volunteer initiative that started in Pakistan in 2016 -- since then this model has scaled to 8 countries, and encourages young people to be an active part of their community not just digitally but also in person (U-Ambassadors meet, organize camps and other gatherings, and take action.)

We asked the boys how else they would like to be engaged and feel socially included, and Khaoussou said:

“Look we are Africans and we are practical people, just words are not enough -- as a U-Reporter and also a U-Ambassador I want to bring more people together in my community, and I want to do it through football! I want our own football team in Palermo where we play with Italian youth and refugees and have a fun time. I also want to share the information we receive via U-Report and show them what we have been able to learn from this platform.”

U-Report OTM: What’s next:

While visiting a reception center for young women in Bagheria, we met a group of refugee girls and UNICEF partners in the center. A majority of the girls were trafficked illegally and rescued at the Sicilian port.

Intersos and UNICEF also work and deal with illegal trafficking of girls and women. Along with the Government of Italy, they provide legal information and support to every girl and woman who arrives at the Port of Palermo. All the girls and women identified as victims of trafficking are referred to the “Piattaforma Nazionale Anti Tratta” -- this puts them in contact with specialized centers who take care of the girls.

Many of these girls don’t have legal documentation and have been in the process (and waitlist) of acquiring their documents. A young female refugee from the Ivory Coast has been waiting for her documentation for over 2 years -- while waiting she finished her fast-track secondary school and is now looking for work. In Palermo jobs are scarce and youth unemployment has gone up to nearly 60% percent in the past 10 years. Many of these young migrants are trapped in a cycle of bureaucracy and boredom.

U-Report OTM is now engaging with these girls to develop their own entrepreneurial education projects that can potentially be scaled up into social enterprises and businesses. Through UPSHIFT, the young migrants and refugee U-Reporters will learn how to build education initiatives and generate change at the micro level -- with the aim of building solutions to challenges that are everyday realities in their communities.

People looking at things glued in the wall

Future for Young Refugees and Migrants

UNICEF wants to make migration safe for every child.

UNICEF’s engagement on issues regarding children on the move is built on the premise that a child is a child, independent of his or her migratory status. This core principle underpins UNICEF’s 6-point Agenda for Children on the Move.  

This year in December the world will have its eye on the negotiations and adoption of the Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. UNICEF will continue its call to Member States to include the rights, protection, and wellbeing of uprooted children as central commitments in the final text.

This is a landmark agreement -- and recognizing UNICEF’s role as the leading advocate for children and young people on the move -- U-Report is bringing the voices and experiences of young people migrating or forcibly displaced from all over the world to Marrakech in December 2018.

U-Report OTM is led by One UNICEF Response team in Rome and Palermo, a small team of three have reached to over 1000 migrants and refugees in just under a year and planning to go even bigger. Sarah, Chiara, and Angelique are the backbone of the programme who have special powers while connecting with the migrants and refugees on the ground.