The age of flight

In recent days the publication of a report from the ‘Migrantes’ foundation has brought public opinion’s attention to the situation of unaccompanied foreign minors. Faced with a report which speaks of thousands of young people on the run, it is distressing to note that, for some, their main preoccupation remains unfortunately in explaining that there is “no invasion” of migrants, calming the citizens, without getting to the root of the question of so-called “welcoming”, which often simply traps people in its cogs.
Waiting for months, often in inadequate places, sometimes suddenly shifting, other times with continuity, without a tutor for reference, with all the consequences of this situation for the processing of their documents, for enrolment in school and access to all the services which ought to be guaranteed: this is the situation lived out by the average unaccompanied minor in Sicily, leaving aside the less fortunate but frequent cases, of those who happen to be in structures where they cannot be provided with even the very lowest level of assistance or any sense of continuity. The strategy is always to act, or promise to act, on the effects not on the causes. Becoming aware of the high number of minors who have absconded from the area, the institutional representatives compete to demonstrate their concern about the risks to which these young people are exposed. A dutiful and sacrosanct act, which takes nothing away from the struggle against criminal organisation and exploitation, at every level. But there is a danger of obscuring the other more profound reasons why those who have escaped violence and devastation risk a new flight after their arrival in Italy.

This is a complex and difficult question, as we must not also forget people’s many different reasons for migrating, and above all the sacrosanct and never over-defended freedom of everyone to chose where to live, already put at risk by fleeing. We are speaking of young Somalians, Eritreans and Syrians who have family ties and friendships with others of their nationality dispersed throughout Europe, or in other places in Italy, and who obviously choose to join those who they know but instead, with the absurd timings and limits of bureaucracy, cannot hope to see them for many years. And this brings us back to the urgent need of reviewing the Dublin 3 Regulation.

But the daily news from the island returns us to the continuing cases of minors running away from centres, even after weeks and months, for various different reasons. The group of 17 young people who ran away in November from the Casa Mose in Messina, the minors who escaped to Catania from the centre in Mascalucia and partly still waiting for accommodation, all of those other migrants who disappear everyday from facilities, even when the situations do not apparently seem to be conflictual. “If we had the documents, we would all be gone in two days”, O told me, a 17-year-old from Gambia, currently housed at Zagare in Citta Giardino, Melilli. “I arrived in Italy six months ago, and in November I was was transferred here from Portopalo. I waited all these months without doing anything except eating and sleeping. When I got to Citta Giardino, I thought that things would get better, I spoke with the police to complete my signed photo, I went to the lesson run by the Italian organisation of ‘Terres Des Hommes’, but still, since December, nothing. Before Christmas they told me that I had a tutor, but I haven’t seen or heard from one, so for me he doesn’t exist. I prefer to think that he won’t, as that angers me less. The problem is that I don’t know what to do to not go mad. I think only about my documents, when I can go to the police station and can then decide what to do by myself.” In a situation where there is not faith at all in the operations of the centre, members of supporting humanitarian organisations and even most of the other resident young people, have the single objective of surviving, and hoping for an immediate development, which would allow them to take hold of life properly. “I escaped from my country two years ago” continues O, “I could not stay there, but I didn’t believe it would be so difficult to stay here. I feel trapped: when we eat lunch, police sit down with us to watch that we don’t take any food into the rooms. If I got and get the bus to Siracusa by myself, I don’t know anyone and I can’t go to school. The only thing which remains is to let off steam playing football. And to hope to be moved soon, but who knows where. My only luck is that I’m still 17 by the end of September.

And in fact age is not a small factor accounting for the immediate future of these young people. The average age of those who arrive is notably getting lower, as a consequence of the dramatic events of some conflicts, such as in Syria, which motivates anyone who can afford it to flee. An exception is the Egyptians, many of whom are very young: the average age of declared unaccompanied foreign minors hovers around 16/17 years. This is really worrying as, given the shamefully slow initiation of the procedures for documents, most of them find that by reaching 18 they are still practically only a signed photograph. What happens when you grow up? “For me things are only getting worse” said C, who has always been resident at the Zagare. “The other day a group of my peers and friends were transferred, and I keep thinking when they will move me. The problem is that in December I turned 18 and have been in Italy since July. First I was in Augusta, where the situation was bad but I had many friends. Then I got lost in the system, I completed my signed photo and kept up a good rapport with my tutor, but I worry that when I got older everything was blocked for me.” C told me immediately that he didn’t want to speak about the journey that brought him here as “every time I talk about it it’s a bit like reliving it,” but he wanted to tell me about his life “before Italy.” “In my country I chose to study and my real passion was break dancing. Then they killed my father, and I took on the responsibility of maintaining my family. But now I can only think about my documents, when I will be able to go to the Commission and explain the truth about why I fled. Unfortunately I’m not lucky: becoming an adult means it will take more time, they will move me and perhaps I will need to wait another six months!” There is a great disillusionment in the words of these young men, a total lack of faith which over the months has substituted even their anger. “Many people pass through here. They say they’re working to help us, but I believe they’re thinking only about their salary, because the only thing they say: wait” continues O. Not finding anything else to hold onto in the situation, all energies are focussed on obtaining the documents, and every change is perceived as a threat which might slow down the procedure, every question is magnified into an unspeakable anxiety about a suspended life. In their accounts, there is no enthusiasm of adolescence but only the dark situation, in which they move like puppets links to invisible and ever-shorter threads, where the only solution seems to be to cut them, and go on the run again.

Lucia Borghi
Borderline Sicilia Onlus

Translation: Richard Braude