Oxfam: Europe is failing refugee and migrant children

Published: 7th September 2016

With latest UNICEF figures showing ever more children globally are uprooted, the number of unaccompanied refugee and migrant children arriving to Europe through Italy has doubled this year and Europe is failing to properly support them, a new Oxfam report reveals.

Each day 28 unaccompanied children fall out of Italy’s weak reception system. The children who remain in the system experience extended stays in de-facto detention centers, live in unsafe and inadequate accommodation, and receive little to no information about their rights. They are running away from these centers in order to escape these conditions, choosing to live on the streets and so are exposed to even greater risks. Oxfam says this is yet another example of how Europe’s current approach to migration isn’t fit for purpose.

Since governments decided to close the Western Balkans route and the European Union entered into its deal with Turkey, Italy is once again the principal arrival point for refugees and migrants to Europe. According to the latest UNHCR data, the number of unaccompanied children arriving in Italy has risen significantly in 2016, and is now 15% of all arrivals. By the end of July, 13,705 unaccompanied minors had landed in Italy - more than during all of 2015 (12,360 children).

Italy is failing to cope with the increased arrivals. Despite efforts in many Italian cities, regions and by civil society, the country’s reception system is far from adequate for protecting unaccompanied migrant children and their rights. Hotspot centers, for instance, set up by the EU and Italian authorities to register new arrivals and execute swifter returns of those rejected, are chronically overcrowded and do not even have adequate sanitation. While the maximum stay in these hotspots is meant to be 48-72 hours, many children end up being stuck there for as long as 5 weeks with minimal provisions, meaning they can never change their clothes, not even their underwear, and are not being able to call their family back home or relatives in Europe.

Oxfam is calling on the Italian government and its European partners to take immediate action to systematically provide unaccompanied children with safe and adequate accommodation and the support they need, so they can live a life in safety and dignity.

Natalia Alonso, Oxfam International’s Deputy Director for Campaigns and Advocacy said: “The appalling experience of children in Italy is a harsh indicator of the failure of European governments and the Italian authorities to protect children coming in search of safety and dignity. It also exposes once again the failure of Europe’s wider policy approach to place the responsibilities of managing a common border upon only a few European countries. Europe must stand together to welcome the people arriving here, who are fleeing from conflict, persecution and other unbearable situations.”

Most of the children arriving on boats are from Egypt, Gambia, Eritrea, Nigeria, and Somalia and travel alone to Europe.

Galo, 16 years old, from Gambia, said: “I left Gambia a year and a half ago with my brother. It wasn’t safe there anymore, the police threatened us. Some of our neighbors had been killed in gunfights. (…) We left on an inflatable boat with 118 other people. After a few hours there was something like an explosion, a fire, and in the confusion my brother slid into the sea. I never saw him again. He’d given me his lifejacket.”

The situation in centers of first and second reception, where children are transferred to after registration, is in many cases no better than at the hotspots. Some of them have become de-facto detention centers where children cannot leave. Oxfam has also collected testimonies of cases where there have been allegations of abuse and violence, which have not been dealt with by the management.

Shewit, 17 years old, from Eritrea, said: “Together with us in the Pozzallo center [in Sicily] there is also a group of adults from Somalia who treat us Eritreans badly, they beat us up and insult us. Despite the fact that we have repeatedly reported them to the police and to the staff at the center, (…) nobody does anything about it.”

“EU governments must support Italy in improving the national reception system for unaccompanied children with high standards and well-trained staff. In addition, all EU member states must eliminate and prevent every form of detainment of minors. There is no circumstance in which detention of minors is acceptable – it is always a violation of a child’s rights,” said Oxfam’s Alonso.

Oxfam and local partner organizations have regularly been meeting children who say they have not been informed of the possibility to present a request for international protection, or of the right to have a legal guardian - someone to act in their best interests and protect their rights. The appointment of a legal guardian can take up to eight months, depriving children of guidance on their rights and how to secure these through Italian law – thereby jeopardizing any real chance of a successful future for these children.

During the first six months of 2016, 5,222 unaccompanied minors were reported missing, having run away from reception centers continuing their journeys to mainland Italy and on to Europe. They become invisible and live under the legal radar, consequently becoming even more vulnerable to violence and exploitation.

If the situation of these children is extremely critical, that of those who turn 18 is no less so. On their birthdays, many of them are simply thrown out of the centers where they have been staying, and they, too, end up on the streets.

Notes to editors

  • Spokespeople are available for further information regarding the situation on the ground and to comment on the EU context. Please contact Oxfam’s press office to arrange interviews.
  • Oxfam's Stand as One campaign calls for global action to welcome more refugees, prevent families from being separated and keep people fleeing their homes safe from harm. Already more than 212,000 people have taken actions with Oxfam, calling on world leaders to guarantee migrants and refugees safety, protection and a dignified future: oxf.am/standasone.
  • Download the full media brief in English or Oxfam Italy’s full report (in Italian).
  • High-resolution pictures of refugee and migrant children in Italy can be downloaded for free use.
  • Latest data on arrivals of refugees and migrants to Europe can be found on the UNHCR website. The full data set shows that 93,774 people arrived from January to July 2016, with 16.2% being children, and 14.6% of all arrivals being unaccompanied children.
  • According to the Italian Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, 5222 refugee and migrant children have run away from reception centres in Italy in the first six months if this year. That are on average 28 children per day.
  • Oxfam’s briefing paper “EU ‘hotspots’ spread fear and doubt” questions the legal basis for these facilities and it concludes that EU member states have collectively failed to find a solution to managing migration that puts human lives first.

Contact information

Florian Oel | Brussels | florian.oel@oxfaminternational.org | office +32 2 234 11 15 | mobile +32 473 56 22 60

For updates, please follow @Oxfam and @OxfamEU