A four-year-old girl who reached Italy without her parents on a boat carrying migrants from Tunisia in October was repatriated on Thursday, authorities said. A judge in Sicily ruled she should be returned on a request by Tunisian authorities.
A Tunisian child protection delegate accompanied the girl on the trip home "and handed her to her family upon arrival at Tunis-Carthage airport," the Tunisian family ministry said in a statement cited by AFP on Thursday (November 24). A Sicilian judge had authorized the repatriation on Monday.
The girl, referred to as Linda by authorities, was separated from her parents over one month ago. The parents had planned to leave Tunisia for Europe as a family along with the Linda's seven-year-old brother. They were about to board a makeshift boat from the coastal town of Sayada in the hope of reaching the Italian island of Lampedusa when they got separated.
The father reportedly handed his daughter over to the smuggler on the boat, before retracing his steps "to help his wife and son who were far behind," according to the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), which closely monitors migration from Tunisia. "In the meantime, the boat left for Lampedusa," FTDES said.
Linda reportedly disembarked on the island of Lampedusa on October 17, after 26 hours at sea on a crowded wooden boat with another 70 migrants. She was taken to a community center for children in Palermo, where she was given psychological support by Save the Children, according to The Guardian.
The parents, who work as street vendors, were initially detained on the suspicion of "joining a gang with a view to illegally crossing maritime borders," the Tunisian national guard said at the time. They were later released, but were handed a travel ban which prevented them from repatriating their daughter themselves.
Minors reaching Italy alone
According to FTDES, about 2,600 Tunisian minors reached Italy between January and August. More than two thirds of them were traveling without their parents. They are among a total of around 13,000 Tunisian migrants who arrived in Italy during this time.
An increasing number of Tunisians are attempting to reach Europe due to a deep economic crisis that is pushing people to emigrate. Many head for Lampedusa, which is about 130 kilometers off the Tunisian coast. The authorities, under pressure from the EU to stem irregular migration, are struggling to stop the departures of boats.
According to the latest report from the FTDES published on October 26, 544 people have died or disappeared on the route from Tunisia to Italy since the beginning of the year.