In 2016, about 25,800 unaccompanied minors reached Italy by sea; approximately twice as many as the previous year. The phenomenon is compounded by a near total absence of a system of redistribution towards regions other than Sicily, a system which exists for adults instead. Consequently, more than 40% of these unaccompanied minors remain on Sicilian territory. While minors cannot be repatriated or expelled like adults, their age increases their vulnerability on many fronts. The first one is administrative: being underage means that they are unable to sign the documents necessary for the regularisation of their legal status on Italian territory, such as applying for asylum or requesting any kind of residence permit. In the absence of their parents, they need a legal guardian to accompany them through the laborious process of dealing with Italian bureaucracy. Yet, widespread delays in the nomination of a legal guardian by the relevant authorities often leave minors unprotected for months.
Secondly, going through adolescence – a critical moment of life for anybody – in a situation of uncertainty and irregularity, in a totally new country and culture, and without the presence of parental figures, results in serious challenges for positive personal development. In addition, the Italian reception system is congested at every level. Unaccompanied minors should spend a maximum of 90 days in “first reception centres”, which provide them with basic services such as food and shelter before being transferred on to smaller “second reception centres”. Once there, an individualised process of integration should start, enabling them to register for local schools as well as a series of activities and sports. However, this happens only on paper. In practice, minors spend several months (at times even a year) in first reception centres, living together in cramped accommodation with hundreds of other minors and devoid of opportunities to start any process of integration.
The challenging conditions and the empty routine of prolonged waiting in the first reception centres leads to a situation of desperation for minors and drives the most restless amongst them to escape in search of new horizons. Yet in doing so they become ‘invisible’, disappearing off the radar of local authorities, and more vulnerable to exploitation. Even those who wait patiently are by no means guaranteed the support that they require to integrate. Many turn 18 before receiving a tutor or being moved to secondary reception centres. At 18, the minors become legal adults, losing many of the rights they previously enjoyed. There almost seems to be a belief that the desperate need these young people have for support and protection disappears the moment they enter adulthood.
In 2013, a year in which the amount of unaccompanied minors arriving in Sicily skyrocketed, volunteers active in various civil society organisations in the city of Syracuse came together to try to fill a widening gap in the protection of these young people. They started providing legal guardianship to unaccompanied minors in the city, weaving a network of like-minded people that today counts over 150 volunteer legal guardians. This network constitutes the core of AccoglieRete Onlus. Over the last three years, about 1,500 minors have benefited from the support of legal guardians within AccoglieRete’s network.
AccoglieRete’s main goal is to promote the role of the legal guardian and to support them in the many tasks involved in providing legal guardianship to unaccompanied minors. The guardian promoted by AccoglieRete leads the minor through the administrative difficulties of his or her regularisation procedure, acting in the supreme interest of the minor. They also become a trusted point of reference. This means accompanying the minor along a multifaceted path of integration. Consequently, a guardian who does not know the minor personally cannot fulfill this role completely. AccoglieRete thus encourages guardianship that is built on a relationship of mutual understanding and friendship. In the best of cases, the guardian is able to recreate moments resembling a “normal life” outside the desolation of overcrowded reception centres. In fact, some of the strongest relationships even turn into family fostering.
Thrǣdable & AccoglieRete
Thrǣdable inaugurated its partnership with AccoglieRete in December 2016. A series of three workshops were held in Syracuse, involving some of the minors who are protected thanks to guardians within AccogliRete’s network. The organisation of the workshops was facilitated by some of these guardians, who gave the guys a lift! Many of the participants came from first reception centres, and the workshops gave them a chance to get out, socialise, and release some of their pent-up teenage restlessness through the colourful strokes of a paint brush. Their creations mix memories of home with, images of Sicily and newly learnt Italian words. The workshops were followed by a vivid exhibition, generously hosted by Arci Siracusa. The African beats got everybody to dance!
See the photos here!
Where does my money go?
AccoglieRete’s legal guardians are often not child protection professionals, but active citizens who perform the role on a voluntary basis. This means that they themselves need to find both the time and resources required to support their tutees. The monetary commitment extends far beyond an occasional ice cream on a Sunday. The cost of administrative paperwork can become considerable over the length of the guardianship period. For example, when a minor turns 18, his or her permit for minors needs to be converted into another kind of residence permit, and to do so it is necessary to have a passport, which can be requested at the embassy of the country of origin. This means that when approaching their 18th birthday minors need to go to Rome (often more than once), incurring travel and administrative costs (e.g. passport tax). While these are crucial procedures that allow minors to overcome irregularity, reception centres often do not cover the necessary costs.
In order to promote the role of voluntary legal guardians, AccoglieRete aims to provide support in the fulfillment of costly tasks that can become impossible for a guardian to sustain on his or her own. The profits generated by the sales of Thrǣdable’s dedicated line will thus go towards making the vital position of the voluntary legal guardian a sustainable one.
A breakdown of the costs is as follows:
- 5 €: enable a minor to contact his or her family to let them know that (s)he is alive and that there is someone who can take care of them (the guardian);
- 25€: linguistic and cultural mediation and legal support to enable the minor and the guardian to communicate and to understand their rights and the regularisation procedures;
- 70€: bus ticket to reach the embassy of the country of origin to request and obtain a passport.