Thousands of Kids are Stranded at Rome Airport—or Disappearing

More than 11,500 unaccompanied minors have arrived at Rome’s main airport with nobody to pick them up. Some are adopted by the local community, many go missing.

Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty

FIUMICINO, Italy — It’s just before noon on a Tuesday morning in early August and two adolescent boys from Eritrea are waking up in what amounts to the passport prison of Rome’s Fiumicino-Leonardo Da Vinci airport. Soon, the required waiting period the Immigration authorities must keep the minors for someone to claim them will have expired. After that, they become wards of the community of Fiumicino, essentially children of the airport.

The Eritrean boys, who say they are brothers despite appearing to be nearly the same age and looking nothing alike, are among 11,500 such minors who have arrived by air to Italy from Africa in 2016, according to an exposé on the phenomenon in La Repubblica newspaper. That number is far more than double the 4,410 who arrived in Italy this way by midsummer last year.

Authorities say the Eritrean boys have phony documents and boarded their flight in Kinshasa, in Congo, with a mysterious “minder” who disappeared somewhere along the way, either to a connecting flight or through passport control, which could mean the minder was European or had a document that allowed a quick exit.

“It’s a worrying phenomenon,” Esterino Montino, the mayor of Fiumicino, told The Daily Beast. “They are almost all from Somalia, Eritrea, Nigeria and Afghanistan—asylum-seeker-producing countries, which creates a loophole that allows them to travel here unchecked.”

European Union law requires that airlines verify valid visas for anyone traveling into Europe, but the rule is waived if the passenger hails from an asylum-seeker-producing country, which can be almost anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa at the moment.

The specifics give an idea how convoluted the rules can be, and why Europe is so ill prepared for the migrant crisis of the last two years. European Union Directive 51/2001/EC passed in 2001 mandates that airlines can be fined up to €5,000 per passenger and have to pay for the return costs of repatriation if a passenger is entering Europe illegally.

If, however, the person intends to apply for asylum, Clause 3 of that directive states that the rule can be waived. What happens is that airlines tend to fear the fines and block anyone without a document, but that has only led to an illegal document market that satisfies the airline it’s done its duty, especially since it cannot cross-reference visas and other documents against a European database, as Dimi Reider pointed out in a publication of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Complicating matters more, airlines are often too short-staffed to act as border patrol guards for Schengen countries, Montino says, and it seems the Italian government is reluctant to pressure airlines to enforce the rules the way some other European countries do. France, for instance, does impose heavy fines if an airline lets anyone through without a valid visa. A spokesperson with Italy’s foreign ministry declined to comment on whether or not such a practice could be instated in Italy.

If the air route tightens, it’s likely the often lethal sea route to Europe will be used instead. Over the last five days, more than 6,000 people have been rescued between North Africa and Italy trying to make their way to Europe—of those, Save the Children estimates that more than 10 percent are unaccompanied minors.

In those same five days, around 20 minors have arrived by air to Rome. Others have arrived at airports in Milan as well. None will be turned back to their original countries, no matter how they arrived. They all are from countries whose citizens are allowed to apply for political asylum.

Foreign ticket agents are supposed to ensure that anyone intending to travel for asylum purposes will face scrutiny to ensure their documents are valid, according to EU regulations. But in an age of online boarding passes and easily acquired fake documents, it is easy to see how people slip through the cracks, essentially showing up at African airports with documents that match their self-printed boarding passes and visas.

In many cases, human traffickers pose as guardians or even parents to accompany the children on the trips, guiding them through security and avoiding undue attention by authorities at departure cities.

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The children of Rome’s airport generally are well versed in the art of the deal they or, more often, their parents cut to get them to Europe.

In most cases, human traffickers ensure boarding passes and documents match, says an official at Rome’s Fiumicino passport control who explained the procedure but preferred not to be named. Immigration officers are trained to spot such fake documents, he says.

“You’d be surprised how many of these kids have the same last names and birth dates, and how many of them have an uncle Mohammed they say will be waiting for them in the arrivals hall,” the agent said. “Even if their visas come up as valid, we generally send an officer out to wait with them. And generally the uncle never shows up.”

Once the airport immigration office releases the unaccompanied minors, they are Montino’s problem. The community of Fiumicino takes them to one of several reception centers or, for the younger ones, foster families. They are given Italian lessons, are sent to local schools and enrolled in sports programs.

Many times, relatives (real or ostensible) wait a few weeks and do come to claim them. Other times, the children are transferred to centers across Italy where they are matched with people from their hometowns. But more than 20 percent of the children just escape from the reception centers and disappear forever, says Montino.

In January, Europol announced that there were 10,000 missing minors in Europe who came in as refugees or migrants and simply vanished into thin air. Nearly 5,000 of those are missing in Italy, according to Italy’s Foreign Ministry, which sounded its own alarm bell last summer.

“The hope we have is that children end up with family members who are already here,” Equality Now trafficking consultant Esohe Aghatise told The Daily Beast then. “But the reality is that many end up in the sex trade or exploited in other ways.”