In Italy, 'guardians' help refugees settle in their new home
New, nationwide effort aims to match each "unaccompanied foreign minor" with an Italian citizen who volunteers his or her support
By Vera Haller
PALERMO, Italy, Oct 31 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The 16-year-old Bangladeshi boy and the retired Italian social worker made an unlikely pair as they strolled though a Palermo park.
Sharing no common language, the teenager, named Sobuj, and 65-year-old Christiane Frost used Google Translate on her smartphone to figure out what the other was saying.
The oldest of five children, Sobuj, identified only by his first name, was dispatched to Europe earlier this year by his family - first on a flight to Libya and then smuggled by boat across the Mediterranean by traffickers - after his ailing father could no longer work, Frost said.
"All he wants is a job to make money to send to his family," she said of Sobuj, who is one of more than 18,000 child migrants and refugees in the Italian government's care who have arrived without parents or adult companions over the past several years.
Frost acts as Sobuj's guardian, part of a new, nationwide effort in Italy to match each "unaccompanied foreign minor" with an Italian citizen who volunteers his or her support.
It is an ambitious goal in a country that has received more than 600,000 migrants and refugees in the past four years and where growing anti-immigrant sentiment is expected to feature strongly in next year's election.
Nearly 70 percent of respondents of a recent national opinion poll said they believed Italy was host to too many immigrants.
Yet, the government is forging ahead with the guardianship programme, which envisions a corps of regular Italians guiding vulnerable youngsters who arrive on Italy's shores after a dangerous Mediterranean sea crossing.
Under the scheme, the children remain housed in government-supported centres while the guardians help enrol them in schools, obtain healthcare and help them with legal applications to stay in Italy.
Filomena Albano, who heads the national Authority for Children and Adolescents in Rome, said Italy was the first European country to formalise such a comprehensive guardianship project in law, passed in March, which includes additional protections for young unaccompanied migrants and refugees.
So far, 2,100 Italians across the country have applied to be guardians, she said in a phone interview, adding that a rigorous vetting process and training meant the programme was only now starting to move forward.
"Clearly, this is just the beginning. The numbers are not there yet to give each child a guardian," Albano said. "But I see the programme allowing us to take responsibility for the future of these young people."