Europe

Mediterranean migrants crisis: West Africa’s lost boys

Adolescent migrants are seen at the courtyard of an immigration centre in Caltagirone, Sicily, 18 March 2015 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The number of unaccompanied minors reaching Italy has increased recently, officials say

In the grounds of an imposing 19th Century villa, perched on a Sicilian hilltop, some 50 West African boys lounge in the sun, kick a ball about, and wait.

One or two clutch mobile phones, hoping to hear a voice from home or news of the future.

But mostly these boys from The Gambia, Senegal and Ivory Coast - part of an alarming wave of unaccompanied minors reaching the southern shores of Europe - feel trapped.

Aged 16 and 17, they are prevented by Italian law from simply moving on and finding their own way. But without documents, nor can they simply go home. The process of getting them is long and laborious.

To them, the small town of Caltagirone, about 70km from Catania, feels like a kind of prison.

They are frustrated, angry, confused - and lonely.

Ismael, a soft-spoken teenager from The Gambia, arrived in Sicily on Christmas Eve last year. Surrounded by boys who have had to grow up fast, he seems more vulnerable than most.

"I want to talk to my mum," he tells me.

"Every day I think about that. If I'm sleeping, I dream about that. Two years to miss your mum is painful."

Ismael's story, like all the stories here at "La vita è Adesso" (Life Now), is complicated.

Embarrassed, or worried that to reveal too much could be a mistake, the boys do not immediately open up. But when they do, they describe a complex array of political, social and family problems that propelled them to take desperate decisions.

Ismael paints only a sketchy picture of a mother embroiled in a land dispute with threatening neighbours. Fearing violence, they fled to nearby Senegal, but Ismael felt he had to move on.

"I said to mum 'Let me go to Libya and work there. Maybe if I have something, I can come back.'"

But that was two years ago. Mother and son have not spoken since.

"I don't even have her number. I don't know whether she is alive or… I worry about her."

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The young migrants face a long wait for documents which would enable them to leave reception centres

In Libya, Ismael joined the ranks of those from West and sub-Saharan Africa still seeking work, amid the chaos and violence of a failed state.

Asked what kind of work he was doing, 16-year old Ismael's reply is matter-of-fact.

"Any kind of hard labour. Sometimes you work and they don't even pay you."

For all his apparent nonchalance, Libya was clearly a traumatic experience for everyone. Most of them spent months there, saving up money to send home or pay for their uncertain passage to Europe.

'I feel like an orphan'

The work was hard, they were exploited by unscrupulous employers and preyed upon by thieves.

But astonishingly, some of them wish they were still there, rather than sitting in the tranquil surroundings of Caltagirone, where birds sing in the pine trees and no-one is coming to kill or rob them.

"I thought if I came here, things would be alright," says Mohammed, another teenager from Gambia.

"But this is the worst place. The time I was in Libya, I used to send money to my mother."

When he left home, Mohammed struggled to find anywhere else to live or work. He moved to Senegal.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption In picturesque Caltagirone, unaccompanied teenagers feel trapped

"So I started the journey. Senegal to Mali. Mali to Burkina Faso. Burkina Faso to Niger. Niger to Libya. Then here."

The journeys were epic, but sometimes the circumstances which forced them to leave home in the first place were even more traumatic.

Mohammed says he was abducted by rebels from the southern Casamance region of Senegal when he was just 13.

For a year and a half, he was forced to work on a marijuana plantation, but he managed to escape on a lumber truck bound for The Gambia.

If he had not, he says, he would have been turned into a child soldier.

"If I stayed, I would have become a murderer," he says.

Four years later, he is tall and rangy and exudes a world-weariness that marks him out, even by the standards of this place.

"I'm still a boy," he insists.

Even if he had documents, he could not go home. He shows me a scar on his shoulder where the rebels cut him, marking him for life.

"If they see that, they'll kill me."

Using the internet, he has somehow managed to track down a possible relative in England. After four years with no information, he wants to find out what happened to his family.

"I feel like an orphan sometimes. My brain tells me they're alive but sometimes I say no, they're dead."

To call the boys at Vita e Adesso "economic migrants" hardly seems adequate. But for all their complex stories, their biggest frustration is that they lack the wherewithal to retake control of their lives.

"If I have money, I can decide what I will do with my life," says Ismael.

"And find my mum, too."

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