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Childhood and Migration: Youth migration and the border of childhood

In the second installment of our blog series on 'Childhood and Migration,' our member Sarah Walker (University of Bologna, Italy) examines the plight of unaccompanied African children seeking asylum in Italy during a time of increased anti-immigrant political sentiment.

July 3 2024

‘When I am bambino [child] I cannot do things a lot. Even if I want to do it, my lawyer or any appointment they used to follow me - all of them, the workers! They used to escort me there. I don’t know why. They don’t want me to get lost! They are not the one to escort me from Africa to this place! I come alone! I don’t know why they used to follow me everywhere - everywhere! [laughs].’


‘They always control somebody. Do this do this! You have to sleep! Because I was small […] I was having 17 years when I was in Giallo, so maybe because in Italy you have rules. Bambinos [children] have rules, adults have rules.. […] when I was 17 any time I wanted to do anything, like go outside, they used to tell me ‘No, you are a bambino you cannot do it! Come inside!’ When I become 18, I say I want to do it, they say you are 18 you can go anywhere you like because you are now an adult.’

 - Justice


After this conflictual start, Justice tells me he eventually found Giallo (the accommodation centre for unaccompanied minors where he is living at the time of this conversation) to be a place where:

‘They make you a future.’

Source: wikicommons

This is an excerpt from a conversation with Justice, a young  Nigerian who made the perilous journey to Italy in 2016 at the age of sixteen, in search of a better future.[1] When I met him, he  was eighteen years old and housed in a reception centre for male unaccompanied minors named ‘Giallo’, in Bologna. Giallo is the site of my ethnographic research with young African men (Gambian, Ghanian, Nigerian and Somalian) who sought asylum in Italy, examining their transition to adulthood. The young men all had legal status when I met them, with two having been granted Refugee Status and the rest Humanitarian Protection.[2] Dominant Western understandings of childhood are based on assumptions that children should be cared for, rather than do the caring. Thus, young men such as Justice must then submit to the care (by adults) granted by the asylum system. In submitting to this care, they encounter a number of ambiguities and tensions. Not least in the fact that these young men have, as Justice points out, been ‘looking after themselves’ for some time prior to arrival in Italy. The rigid binary between childhood and adulthood is then at odds with their biography and experiences prior to crossing the border of Europe. The young men’s experiences reveal how, as Ashis Nandy highlights, there is nothing inevitable about childhood; there are as many childhoods as there are families and cultures. Thus, Nandy provides us with an understanding of the plurality of childhood, as a concept not in opposition to adulthood, rather an integral part of being human. Yet, this more nuanced and complex understanding is missing from border controls, which reinforce the rigid border between childhood and adulthood, with problematic consequences.

Whilst there is a significant amount of policy and academic literature on unaccompanied minors as children, very little is focused upon what happens after they become adults. Although literature is now beginning to emerge, it remains the least studied area of young migrants’ lives. Yet, in the EU, when they turn eighteen and become ‘adults’ the rights they are accorded as children, including the right to stay in the host country, may be lost. Indeed, there is no legal framework or specific support schemes for unaccompanied minors entering adulthood. This leaves many young people to fall through the gaps. In Giallo, however, post-eighteen support is provided. Additionally, the young men also had ongoing legal status (refugee status or humanitarian protection) which meant they continued to have the legal right to remain in Italy even after turning eighteen and losing the status of being ‘minors’. Thus, although Justice expresses his initial frustrations at the control he is subject to as a bambino, using the Italian term for a small child, reflecting the infantilization he feels, this is then reconciled with the fact that in Giallo ‘they make you a future’. This is in marked contrast with young migrants coming of age in other countries, such as the UK. For example, Francesca Meloni found in her work with young migrants that many ‘experience[d] the transition into adulthood as a sudden and violent abandonment by institutions’.

Significantly, the young men in my research expressed no fear over turning eighteen. Rather, there was an acknowledgement that in the European ‘rule based’ society the rigid division between adult and child meant that turning eighteen led to greater freedom and the ability to work.[3] Nonetheless, despite their capabilities, the young men maintained post-eighteen support was necessary, and many had autonomously moved to Bologna for this. These findings reflect the wider possibilities of support and forms of ongoing care that can supersede the border of childhood imposed by immigration controls, which creates a rigid binary between childhood and adulthood, and instead recognise the pluralities of childhood.

However, in late 2023 the far-right Italian government introduced new immigration legislation specifically targeting unaccompanied minors. Under the new rules, minors between the age of 16 and 18 years old will no longer receive extra support, but may be treated as adults. The given reason being to use the money that will be saved (c. 45million euros) to fund the armed forces. Contemporaneously, the government has legislated to dramatically increase the number of detention centres in Italy. The cost of this operation is huge, with 20 million euros allocated for the building of new migrant reception and detention centres in 2023, plus additional ongoing operational costs.

In a recent decision, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, expressed ‘deep concern’ at this legislation which has ‘provided a legal basis for placing unaccompanied migrants over the age of sixteen in facilities for adults’ and specified that Italy must take further measures to ensure that unaccompanied minors arriving in Italy are placed in dedicated facilities and to address concerns around the violations of minors’ rights.  Given that organisations such as UNICEF have recognised post-eighteen support as necessary for young migrants and the increasingly reduced support available in the government’s ‘crackdown’ on minors, these developments are deeply concerning and show the increasingly punitive approach being taken towards those who seek to enter Italy through ‘illegalised’ means.  As evidenced by my research, under the previous legislation my participants could access wider post-eighteen support and thus forms of ongoing care that superseded the border of childhood imposed by immigration controls. These forms of care are vital for ensuring that transitions to adulthood for unaccompanied minors are not a moment of fear, but rather, and more in line with citizen children, a moment of greater freedom and autonomy. Forms of care that, as Justice states, enable futures to be made.

[1] All names are pseudonyms.

[2] Humanitarian Protection (a two-year renewable status) was widely granted to protect unaccompanied minors who did not meet the conditions for refugee status. It was abolished by Law 132/2018. On 5/10/2020 a new Immigration decree was passed which reinstated a similar status, ‘special protection’.

[3] Age assessment was not an issue for the young men in my research. At the time of the research, the authorities in Bologna had been instructed to accept the age the child declared themselves to be. This is no longer the case following the new legislation.

Sarah Walker

Università di Bologna / University of Bologna

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