Lives on the margins: unaccompanied foreign minors in Sicily between protection needs and illusions of support

The present report – produced by Borderline Sicilia based on data collected in 2019 – provides a snapshot of the situation of unaccompanied foreign minors (MSNA) in Sicily, where they continue to arrive in record numbers at the largest amount of facilities dedicated to their care, despite arrivals of migrants on national territory overall decreasing since 2017.

Over the course of this most recent period, the MSNA have assumed increasing importance among the influx arriving in Italy, not only in the context of quarantine but also for the challenge they pose to the system of reception itself. Despite the decrease in arrivals overall and the reduced presence of MSNA in Sicily compared to the past years, the quality of services provided by the municipalities and reception centers has not improved as delays, shortages, violations, and illegitimate practices are continually reported.

This report refers to the perceived situation prior to the Covid-19 pandemic that has overwhelmed every corner of our lives, and those of migrants in Italy. With regard to the situation of MSNA, from the time of lockdown to the present moment we have discerned that each of the critical issues described in the report has become more acute and amplified. The MSNA who arrive in Italy during this period are restricted to emergency facilities for the quarantine period, comingled with adults, and held for periods of time that exceed those advised by health protocols. These facilities are not suitable for the prevention of disease spread, and sanitary isolation cannot be implemented correctly with such overcrowding. Furthermore, the climate within these facilities has been – and at the time of this writing continues to be – characterized by high tensions resulting in protests, expulsion, and intervention by the police on guard there.

But the critical issues identified in these recent months also concern daily life in the centers for the MSNA, in which the precarious equilibrium described in this report is all but looked over: administrative procedures and social-labor integration processes are interrupted and in many cases blocked, scholastic courses have been canceled, and abrupt transfers and consequent uprooting have been reported. In many facilities, confinement took place without the constant presence of operators or clear explanations as to the situation or measures to be adopted, contributing to increasing discomfort among the minors. Another pertinent issue encountered concerns the difficulty experienced by young adults upon leaving the facilities in their search for suitable housing and work placement.


Research method

From a methodological point of view, this report is based on the collection of qualitative data integrated with official quantitative information (Ministry of the Interior, Juvenile Courts, and Social Services) in order to provide a complete picture of the situation, analyzed and in keeping with the type of monitoring that Borderline Sicilia has been practicing for years: a mixed-method research which simultaneously reads the statistics and official numbers while incorporating the life stories and direct testimonies of the people involved.


Kawsu, 19, Gambia

Having arrived in Pozzallo in 2016, Kawsu spent four months in a primary reception center, despite immediately enduring and reporting sexual abuse. In the center, he finds himself living among young men who attack him for his homosexuality. Finally, he is transferred to a second reception center in Marsala where he obtains a residence permit, but he is not sent to school. Kawsu often leaves the center to go work in the countryside, but this concerns none of the operators. Meanwhile, the second reception center closes due to economic problems, and Kawsu – with no warning – is transferred to a community in the province of Syracuse, uprooted from the only environment he had come to know. He chose to go and live in the ghetto of the countryside between Marsala and Campobello di Mazara, where we met him. Kawsu is forced to work to support his five brothers who are still in the Gambia. He is aware that he risks losing everything by living on the streets, but he argues that there is nothing to gain by living within the community – so he prefers to be invisible, but at least have a few euros in his pocket.


Analytical approaches

Borderline Sicilia has examined the data and information collected in the field through legal, social, and educational lenses, in the attempt to reconstruct the complexity of the social and administrative paths of MSNA in Sicily.

With regard to the administrative process, the research focuses on the types of residence permits issued to the MSNA, on the procedural changes that resulted from the introduction of the so-called Security Decree which abolished the granting of residency permits for humanitarian reasons, citing oppressive wait times and means of access to the procedures, and underlining the issues related to reaching adulthood. The report also verifies the effective application of certain protective measures regarding the MSNA as required by the Zampa Law: the multidisciplinary approach directed at verifying the age assessment, the role of the voluntary guardian, and the practices pertaining to further administrative procedure.

The reception of minors and its context are also examined: the scarce or absent social-educational resources, the difficulty of finding stable job placements, welfare assistance that challenges the effectiveness of social integration measures by infantilizing minors in the process of assuming adulthood, and the inadequacy of social and psychological services dedicated to minors.

An analysis of the number of MSNA present in Sicily with respect to those in other regions has revealed that the majority of minors who turned 18 in 2019 were in Sicily, highlighting the need for a particular focus on monitoring the condition of the new adult and on the effectiveness of integration into the social-labor fabric to which they were introduced as minors.


Critical issues

  • More than three years after its ratification, the new rules introduced by the Zampa Law appear to be disregarded from various points of view, and deeply-entrenched practices are still enforced that violate the key principles at the basis of the 2017 reform. Certain provincial health agencies were never equipped with a multidisciplinary team for age assessment. Only minors who enjoy effective care by a close team (guardian, social services, and the outside managing body) can benefit from the administrative process, an institution that guarantees the minor autonomy after completion of the path. The basic training sufficient for enrollment in the lists of voluntary guardians does not provide them with the skills necessary to adequately accompany the MSNA in the process of integration into the social fabric and administrative procedures (issuing and conversion of residence permit, school enrollment, and national health service).
  • The administrative process for MSNA is made so difficult by numerous illegitimate practices – which often vary by province – performed by the public administration. Often the process for issuing a residence permit to a minor, and for its conversion, becomes an obstacle course for the various documents that are requested, though they are not in fact legally required.
  • The system for the care and protection of MSNA, which involves diverse institutional operators, is not capable of effectively monitoring the reception facilities due to the fragmentation of skills at the local and central level, and which vary according to the type of reception facility.
  • Due to the reductions and delays of fund disbursement, the operating companies of the reception centers do not have qualified professionals (legal operators, linguistic-cultural mediators, psychologists) for the provision of services to minors. This prevents the paths for social-labor integration of each minor from truly being started or completed. Furthermore, in Sicily, work grants and other forms of paid or reimbursed training internships are too often exploited by companies – occasionally with the facilitation of the center’s management – as a means of employing cheap labor rather than as a genuine job opportunity for the minor or new adult.
  • Many of the reception centers for MSNA are located outside urban areas, exacerbating the difficulty of accessing services for literacy and education (CPIA), for training (high school), or job placement that guarantee the minor’s enrollment in courses, the continuation of attendance, and access to the workforce.
  • The climate of intolerance and racism that has been fueled by government policies touches all foreigners in Italy, and discrimination – by larger institutions and common citizens – makes no exception even for minors. Even in Sicily, there has been a sharp increase in reported cases of racism, discrimination, and racial hatred towards foreigners and migrants in 2019 [1]. In Messina, for example, frequent episodes of racism have been witnessed towards children who move out of reception facilities to go to school or the city center.


Mamadou, 17, Senegal

Mamadou looks like a small and shy boy. When he arrived in Pozzallo in 2014, he declared himself to be an adult because he was totally unaware of his actual age (11 years old at that time). In Senegal Mamadou had never attended school and had been a victim of domestic violence and abuse that had resulted in serious damage to his hearing.

Despite his plainly infantile physical appearance, and despite the Territorial Commission of Syracuse requesting his consent to proceed with the age assessment, this examination was never carried out. Meanwhile, Mamadou came to be hosted in a CAS* for adults and then transferred to a SPRAR* center, without any operator ever questioning the boy’s age. Only one person encountered outside the facility was concerned, casting doubt on his age and helping him to find his birth certificate through the Senegalese embassy, from which it emerged that Mamadou was just 16. After alerting the public prosecutor of the juvenile court of Catania, Mamadou now lives in a center for minors and is followed by a guardian and social services.


Conclusions and recommendations

The present report shows how the combined critical issues identified prevent the full exercise of children’s rights, as well as their participation in public life as citizens.

In line with numerous studies and monitoring conducted in recent years, it emerges from this report how a reception system still persists that neglects the rights, needs, and perspectives of MSNA who flee their countries of origin in order to escape economic, social, and cultural deprivation, and that, upon arrival in Italy, they risk encountering similar disappointments.

Borderline Sicilia, therefore, recommends to the competent authorities:

  • to update the procedures implemented in public administrations in compliance with the guidelines of the Zampa Law, with particular reference to foster care, and to facilitate the performance of functions carried out by voluntary guardians through the provision of continuous training;
  • recourse to the administrative procedure in all cases in which the minor has been integrated to school or work after the age of 16;
  • centralization of the control room of the MSNA reception system that unifies institutional responsibilities with regard to any type of reception center, and the strengthening of the role of the Guarantor for Childhood and Adolescence, who should be entrusted with monitoring the reception and adopted protection measures in the interest of the minor;
  • the provision of more selective criteria in the assignment of reception management;
  • the opening of reception centers in areas that possess essential services for MSNA to facilitate the development of integrated training and job placement paths, necessary to minors in their advancement toward autonomy;
  • the reinforcement of social services staff within local entities, in relation to the number of MSNA that can be accommodated in the municipal area;
  • the adoption of preventive measures aimed at raising awareness among young people against all forms of racism and discrimination, as well as the creation of local monitors for the effectiveness of access to essential services and fundamental rights (housing, work, school, health care) by MSNA and new adults.

This report’s examination of critical issues pertaining to the MSNA protection system highlights how the abandonment of paths to protection is a direct consequence of the structural deficiencies of the system of reception and protection. Descent into cycles of crime, labor, and sexual exploitation too often represents its tragic end, as well as an end to the aspirations that had initially led the young minor to undertake his or her own migratory path.

21 September 2020


Borderline Sicilia


Download the full report (Italian)

[1] Referring to the report The ‚good‘ Sicilians – Report on Violence and Discrimination on the island


*CAS: Centro di accoglienza straordinaria – Extraordinary reception center

*SPRAR: Sistema di protezione per rifugiati e richiedenti asilo – Protection facilities for asylum seekers and refugees. It is a communal reception system on a voluntary basis, about 3,000 – 3,500 places throughout Italy. Should serve for the integration of the refugees


Translation by Olivia Taibi