Increasingly desperate African families are sending children as young as 12 on the perilous sea journey to Europe alone so they can earn and send money home. It is a trend that is costing countries like Italy millions of euros. ( dpa )
"It is a dangerous phenomenon," said Simone Moscarelli, the legal representative of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Lampedusa, an Italian Mediterranean island and frequent landing site for illegal immigrants. "Migration is getting younger."
Moscarelli was speaking at a briefing in Geneva, where the head office of the IOM is based.
In two incidents, mothers had even thrust their babies into the arms of strangers on the dockside after they had failed to gain a place on a boat. The IOM had been handed the babies at the other end.
The children and teenagers that arrive on the islands of Sicily and Lampedusa have joined the wave of asylum seekers and economic refugees paying smugglers between 1,000 and 2,000 euros (1,600-3,200 dollars) to travel in unfit boats.
According to Italian legislation, minors cannot be expelled. "This is a pull factor," explained Moscarelli that the IOM believes is behind the worrying new trend.
Moscarelli came across one 12-year-old whose mother was angry that he had been detained by the authorities. "She called him and said what are you still doing there. Why are you not sending money back? It isn't a vacation," Moscarelli said she was saying.
Peter Schatzer, the IOM's regional representative for the Mediterranean, said Italy was now caring for 7,000 minors, providing schooling and support at a cost of 200 million euros a year. "It is an extremely costly exercise."
It was not just Italy. Spain had 6,000 in its care and has now reached an understanding with Morocco that some of the children will be sent back to be cared for at centres in that country.
In 2007, 16,700 people arrived on the Italian islands of Sicily and Lampedusa. As many as 2,000 were unaccompanied minors.
"We see this as a trend, more and more minors either go on their own or are sent by their families either to have a better life or because they hope to establish an anchor in Europe so other family members can follow under family reunification."
In Greece, another major frontline Mediterranean destination, there were also growing numbers of minors arriving, this time from Afghanistan.
In Italy, most of the arrivals, who use Libya as a stepping stone, are from Africa, Nigeria, Somalia and Eritrea fleeing conflict or food scarcity.
Sicily and Lampedusa, are, like the Canary Islands, the gateways to Europe for up to 120,000 illegal refugees a year.
The EU's border patrol organization, Frontex, which uses boats and helicopters to patrol the sea crossing, showed little sign that it acted as a deterrent.
Frontex was more about search and rescue than returning people, Schatzer said.
Moscarelli added: "When you are on the high seas and you see a boat with 50 or 60 people on it, women and children, it is very difficult to send them back. It is very dangerous."
Generally the Italian or Spanish coast guards would rescue them first and ask questions later, she said.
The problem with closing doors into Europe was another one would open. Illegal Algerian immigrants had now started arriving in Sardinia where there were, as yet, no facilities for them.
"Managing migration is a bit like squeezing a water balloon. You might make it thinner one end but the pressure comes out somewhere else," Schatzer said.
With Spain and Senegal collaborating very well on interception and returning, more people were moving from the western route to the central Mediterranean route, he said.
For Italy, while many boats set off from Libya, the North African state refuses any returns, which acted as an incentive for would-be immigrants.
The majority of arrivals were men aged between 20 and 30 and there was no end to the flow, Schatzer said.
Between January and March this year, almost 3,000 people had made the crossing to Lampedusa in Italy. A total of 111 had died so far.
More and more unaccompanied minors were among those taking their lives in their hands.