Teenage refugees claim they have been sexually molested in Italy

16-year-old Ermias Haile from Eritrea tells his story

Teenage refugees claim they have been sexually molested in Italy

In this file photo, about 150 sub-Saharan refugees and migrants wait aboard an overcrowded rubber boat on the Mediterranean Sea | Image: Santi Palacios / AP/Press Association Images

Teenage African migrants arriving in Europe have alleged they are being sexually molested by Italian men and being extorted by smugglers.

Ermias Haile (16) from Eritrea arrived in Sicily a few weeks ago.

He was one of the more than 70,000 migrants and refugees rescued this year from small boats attempting to cross the Mediterranean from Libya to Europe.

He explained that after just a week in an Italian government-run migrant camp, he and his friends walked out convinced there was no hope of a future inside.

But leaving the camp has put them at greater risk of extortion from smugglers - who claim to be helping them to travel north - as well as sexual abuse from Italian men.

Ermias says: "He [the Italian man] find us in a place like this and he invite us to a bar and he let us drink beer and then he take us to his home and there he give us beer."

"We start drinking and then he start touching us on our body. After we leave the house, he calls us and he gives us money."

The British charity Save the Children has documented many similar stories.

"All of them are minors"

Abdul Fateh, an Eritrean who has successfully claimed asylum, now helps the new arrivals avoid the smugglers and to be safe.

"All of them are minors unfortunately at this time," the 34-year-old says.

"Thousands of people everyday, they are rescued [from the sea], they saved their lives and this is a very great job. But now thousands drown in the streets of Italy today and no one here is ready to rescue them and this is a very sad reality," he says.

The smugglers are Eritrean too and live among the people they are extorting.

They are migrants who have taken a different direction from that which Abdul Fateh chose.

From his pocket, Ermias produced a scrap of paper with phone numbers on it. He gave it to Abdul Fateh and claimed that it was his uncle in Rome.

Abdul Fateh called the number - it was not the teenager's uncle, but a smuggler who was not far away.

The next day, convinced he knew the smuggler's identity, Abdul Fateh confronted him at a cafe near a train station in the Sicilian town of Catania.

"Yesterday I called you and you told me that you were 'Thomas'," Abdul Fateh said to the man as we filmed discretely.

"This is your number or not? Now I discover that you are a smuggler here."

The smuggler shrugged and walked off.

Some 14,400 of those rescued from the Mediterranean since January have been under 18 years old and travelling alone, according to Save the Children.

However, few unaccompanied minors have successfully claimed asylum in Europe despite often being from countries like Eritrea, which should guarantee them refugee status and asylum.

"It's shocking that in this day and age, so many vulnerable children are being subjected to this kind of violence, manipulation, and exploitation." said Tanya Steele, CEO of Save the Children.

"They make the dangerous journey to Europe on their own seeking safety and a better life, but instead find themselves trapped in a cycle of abuse."