ROME (Reuters) - Mamadu Bassir sits eating a breakfast of warm milk and cookies in a migrants shelter in Rome - one of nearly 65,000 lone youngsters who have survived the perilous sea journey from North Africa to Italy in the past four years.
His meal finished, the gangly 17-year-old tells the story of his trip from Guinea, via a Libyan prison where a guard knocked out three of his teeth with a club, to his crossing of the Mediterranean, where he watched a friend drown in front of him.
Both fell into the water as migrants scrabbled out of their deflating rubber boat to reach rescuers. Bassir could not swim but someone threw him a life-jacket just in time. “I fell in the sea, but Italians saved me,” he says. Then he puts his head on the table and starts to cry.
For many of his fellow young migrants, the dangers do not stop when they reach dry land.
Four months ago, Italy passed a law aimed at protecting child immigrants, even those who do not qualify as refugees, providing them with housing, food, healthcare and an education.
But without adult guidance and under pressure to send money home, campaigners say thousands end up back in the hands of smugglers or exploited to work long hours for little pay.
Many want to reach relatives in other European countries, but increased border security in France, Switzerland and Austria often means they have to pay high fees to be smuggled north.
“They (the minors) are the most vulnerable elements of this big phenomenon called migration,” said Kostas Moschochoritis, head of humanitarian group Intersos, which operates the shelter for unaccompanied minors in Rome where Bassir, who has nowhere to go, has been sleeping.
It has hosted 4,000 unaccompanied minors since 2011, and just opened a new shelter with more beds on the outskirts of the capital.
“More than 5,000 minors have left the communities where they had been living this year,” said Raffaela Milano, a director at Save the Children in Italy. “Of these, it’s inevitable that some are exploited.”
“We have the stereotype in Europe that they are adults because they have been through so much. It’s not true. They are still kids,” Milano said.
Syed Hasnain, a 28-year-old Afghan, arrived in Italy a decade ago. His mother sent him away when he was 10 years old to keep the Taliban from taking him to fight. Now he helps youngsters like Bassir.
“The fundamental thing that they want to do when they arrive in Italy is to get a job,” Hasnain said.
“Italians cannot give him jobs” because the teenagers, mostly boys, do not yet speak Italian, so “he goes to the people from his country... they know that he needs money because his family puts pressure on him” to send money home, Hasnain said.
“The majority of them, they say, ‘I miss my family, my country, my culture, my society, but the main thing that I miss is my mum,’” he said.
For now, Bassir is making his way with the help of charities like Intersos. He is taking Italian classes, and has an immigration lawyer helping get the documents he needs to either work legally or to go to school.
He longs to see his mother in Guinea, but is determined to stay where he is. “If I stay in Europe, I’ll have more of a future,” he says.
Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Andrew Heavens