#Staff Blog : On the frontline

"I made a mental note to drop my girls a text ..."

Last week, Plan International Ireland CEO, David Dalton, travelled to Milan, Italy to visit a programme we are funding in partnership with Terre des Hommes.

The programme, assisting thousands of refugees moving from the south, aims to support, counsel and protect.

This is what  David saw.

November 6th, 2015 – Opened in June 2015 by the Municipality of Milan, ‘the HUB’ is part of the main train station, annexed away with a discreet entrance of its own. It was there we were met by Federica Giannotta and Valeria Ferrara from Terres des Hommes Italy, our implementing partner.

My first impression was the noise, the hustle and bustle. There was energy, a liveliness, optimism. These people were on the move, stopping by en route to what they hoped would be a better, safer future.

Federica explained that the ‘HUB’ is essentially a transit facility for refugees, and was established in response to the growing number of refugees finding themselves sleeping rough in Central Station, Milan’s cavernous train station.  With EXPO 2015 on in Milan and the city heaving with visitors, the local authorities are keen not to have refugees hanging around the station.

The Municipality redecorated the facility before handing it over to local NGO Arca to run the centre. Terre des Hommes Italy are among a number of agencies providing services there and Plan International Ireland, through public and corporate support, is funding some of these services.

“Our main areas of focus include providing basic hygiene services, serving a decent meal, looking after the children as best we can, and offering legal advice. But with the numbers arriving each week on the rise, we are struggling to keep up with demand” explained Federica, barely audible over the din and the echo reverberating around the HUB’s vaulted ceiling.

Indeed, the week previous had seen over 1,700 arrive and some days alone over 500 arrive. There’s no logic to explain the peaks and troughs in numbers availing of services. Word spreads. People come.

What struck me immediately was .. scroll down to read more …








… what struck me immediately was how young some of the people availing of the services were. Almost all appeared between 15 and 25 years and we were told that up ten unaccompanied children, sometimes as young as ten years of age, arrive each day.

“I couldn’t help thinking of how they made the journey. Did they travel alone? Where did they come from? What were they running from and how could their parents make the call to send them alone? I thought of my own kids – I have two boys and twin girls, aged eight, and the thought of them travelling anywhere alone would be unacceptable, but travelling across multiple borders, on dangerous seas, alone….”

I couldn’t really get my head around it. I made a mental note to drop my girls a text message later.


However, the general feeling in the HUB was one of positivity.  Despite the hardship that these people that they would have endured many were obviously feeling that they were near the end and close to their destination. They were running from fear and were nearly at the destination – Germany. None of the refugees I met had passports or papers. Virtually all have come to Italy via Libya.

Where do they come from?

Over 80% of the refugees in the HUB that day came from the Horn of Africa i.e. Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia with 10% from Syria and 10% from other countries.  When they enter southern Italy they head north almost immediately as they want to go to Germany (and smaller numbers to Holland and Denmark). They use the HUB as a transit point staying a maximum of 48 hours. Get refuelled for the next leg of their journey.

Traffickers, bandits and underground prisons

Typically the trip to Libya from the Horn of Africa takes two months. I discovered that traffickers are paid along the way for each leg of the journey. The total cost of getting as far as Libya is €5,000 to €7,000.  Many get stopped as they cross the Sahara and are often forced to pay additional sums to groups such as Chadian bandits.

Remember, children as young as ten are making this journey alone. Pockets full of the traffickers’ fees, money scraped together by desperate parents left home alone. They want a better life, but cannot afford the traffickers’ demands. They make the dreadful decision to send on their children. Alone.

Some of the Eritrean refugees I met explained that the journey often gets held up in Libya and sometimes for up to a year.  Many are held in a trafficker’s underground prison known only as ‘Mezra’.  Conditions are dreadfully poor and they are not free to go until the final instalments of the money for their passage has been paid. Often the fee agreed before department is increased, and many are held captive until more money is produced. This whole situation, it is clear, is as much about money and power as it is about political conflict.

The response

The services provided in the HUB include provision of clothes, food, sanitary kits, washing facilities, access to medical care, the internet and phone to ring ahead to those expecting them, and child friendly spaces. They also receive legal support to make them aware of international law and their rights.

Many of the staff at the HUB are volunteers.  We visited their storerooms where sanitary kits were kept alongside stocks of donated clothing and small amounts of supplies such as water and nappies were also in evidence.

Google Maps and Facebook

The refugees had access to the internet so many were planning the next steps of their journey with their friends, relatives and contacts via phone or Facebook. Those not conversant with technology get some basic training. It struck me that technology plays a practical and important role in this crisis. For many, with limited knowledge of Europe, Google Maps were essential in navigation through Italy and beyond. Screen shots were taken before departure and Wi Fi services utilised where possible. In the HUB, among the din of conversations, prayer and children’s laughter, the sound of mobile phones, notification ‘dings’, vibrations and the familiar Skype ringtone were audible.

I visited the child friendly spaces for young families. These are really practical, hands-on sessions with children aimed at giving them a sense of normality among the unpredictable, often dangerous and fluxed life they have found themselves in. In situations such as this Refugee Crisis, at Plan International, we know that is the children are affected the most. They get uprooted from their lives, their schools, their friends. Lacking the skills of communications at such a young age, they often go in on themselves and internalise. This can have a lifelong impact on their lives and the child friendly spaces are a small step in reducing this impact and giving them a break. I have witnessed the child friendly spaces being used again and again across Plan International’s emergency responses in Haiti, the Philippines, Ethiopia, Mali, Nepal and more, and to see a child being a child again – if even for a brief time – is heartening.

Valeria Ferrarra, from Terre des Hommes Italy informed us that they supply 500 sanitary kits on average per week (cost of €15 per kit). The kits comprise of essentials such as a toothbrush, toothpaste, wet wipes, sanitary towels for women, cream for scabies, underwear and socks.

Some of the money donated from Plan International Ireland specifically was financing these kits. Practical. Hands on support. I like that.

Terre des Hommes Italy also provide cultural mediation to support Eritreans and Ethiopians in particular and organise legal advice through a lawyer three days per week.  The legal advice includes advice on Italian law and links to legal services in the destination countries.

The Dublin Regulation

Interestingly none of the refugees I met wanted to be registered (to be ‘fingerprinted’) in Italy as they don’t want to be repatriated to Italy under the Dublin Regulation (which states you must stay for processing in the country you first arrived in).

The Italian police seem to play along with this and didn’t seem to be checking for papers of the refugees on the street or those registered at the HUB. While I did see them break up large groups of these youths, I felt this was an exercise in not making it too obvious that they are refugees – politics? Optics for the EXPO 2015 attendees? It is interesting how host nations treat the refugees who they know are passing through. Indeed Italy is not favoured by these refugees as there are little prospects for work and the Italian government provide very little supports to the asylum seekers.  After the first few months no services are provided and refugees fear being jobless and homeless.

We left the HUB and on the way back to the airport took a walk around nearby areas.  Many young Eritreans and Ethiopians were to be found around Via Lazzaro Palazzi where there are money transfer bureaux, Internet cafes, ethnic restaurants and Ethiopian coffee houses.  There they plan the next leg of their journies. Off again. Refuelled and back on the road. But to what? What lies ahead? What have they left behind?

Reminds me .. I must text the girls…

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