New data from the International Rescue Committee (IRC) reveals the number of unaccompanied children arriving in the Italian city of Trieste via the Balkan Route doubled in 2023. 

There has been an alarming increase in the number of children arriving in Trieste via the Balkan Route without their families or guardians, exposed to neglect, trauma, and both physical and psychological violence, including pushbacks.

Suleman, a 17-year-old from Pakistan interviewed by the IRC upon reaching Italy in October 2023, recounted experiencing violence at different stages of his journey: "When they catch us, they took off our shoes and clothes and leave us just in underwear. They took just the belt from pants, and shoes. They were screaming and they beat us.” A 16-year-old, Mohammed, added: "What I experienced destroyed my mental wellbeing. I have no focus, I cannot study or focus on my studies because these incidents stay in my mind I cannot forget them, I cannot focus on anything."

IRC data confirms the dangerous trend highlighted in a recent international investigation, which revealed that an average of almost 47 children have disappeared each day after arriving in Europe over the past three years, leaving the whereabouts of 50,000 children unknown. 

In Trieste alone, unaccompanied children struggle to access a safe space to sleep, as they cannot enter temporary emergency shelters without prior identification by law enforcement. The fear of involvement with authorities often pushes children to sleep rough or in makeshift shelters next to the central station, areas known as 'silos,' where they are exposed to further harm and violence. 

Alessandro Papes, IRC’s Area Manager in Trieste, said: 

“Unaccompanied refugee children at the European borders are still children, brutally deprived of their childhood. The nearly three thousand children supported by the IRC in Trieste last year represent only a fraction of those who go under the radar, with the majority belonging to a generation of young Afghans fleeing in search of protection. 

”In 2023, we encountered an average of eight unaccompanied children per day risking sleeping rough in degrading conditions. How can one remain insensitive to the sight of children sleeping in improvised tents in Trieste's silos?

“Starting from their country of origin and throughout their treacherous journeys, children on the move face numerous threats and constant risk of violence. Once they have landed in Trieste, they are in urgent need of immediate aid: food and basic necessities, medical assistance, a place to stay, and reliable information on their rights. All children must be provided with dedicated support to finally be safe and recover.” 

Marta Welander, IRC’s EU Advocacy Director, said: 

“There is no excuse for any child to be left alone on Europe’s streets, without adequate protection and support. With the number of lone children at transit points such as Trieste increasing, it is essential that the EU and its member states shift their focus away from deterring people at all costs.  All EU states have a moral and legal obligation to ensure that all children on the move are welcomed with dignity and respect, and their rights upheld at every step of their journeys. 

“At this critical juncture, ahead of a new five-year EU mandate, it is essential that policymakers prioritise people - not borders. This will require the EU Pact to place its focus on protecting fundamental rights and protections for people seeking safety, rather than eroding them further still. And it will require a significant expansion of safe routes so that people in need of protection - particularly children - are not forced to risk their lives on these dangerous journeys in the first place.” 

A total of 11,373 people arrived in Italy by sea in the period January-March 2024, out of which 1,086 were unaccompanied children. Find out more in our annual report from Trieste. 

Notes to editors: 

IRC has been present in Trieste since 2021 providing support to newly arrived people from the Balkan route. A team of three native speakers’ protection officers reach out to dozens of newly arrived people every day in the central station area, providing them with information on their rights, legal guidance, and support in accessing first aid services (low-threshold dormitories, canteen, medical clinic) and asylum application, identifying vulnerable profiles and those with specific needs. In 2023, in collaboration with a number of civil society organizations, we met and supported 16,052 people. 

Italy – situation overview | January – March 2024: