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IMMIGRATION

Inside the travelling campervan that puts migrants in touch with loved ones

After an 11-month journey across desert and sea, Mohamed finally hears his mother's voice once more thanks to a Red Cross camper that travels across Italy to help migrants call home.

Inside the travelling campervan that puts migrants in touch with loved ones
The campervan has seen moments of joy, hope and sadness. Photo: Alberto Pizzolo/AFP

From the border crossing of Ventimiglia in the country's north to the southern island of Lampedusa, this white converted camper van has offered hundreds of freshly-arrived migrants a three minute call to their nearest and dearest.

Last stop was the capital Rome, where it pottered to a halt on Monday in front of a Red Cross tent camp which houses up to 200 people plucked from unseaworthy vessels in the Mediterranean before they are sent to reception centres.

Mohamed, a 27-year-old from Senegal, takes his place at one of the tables manned by volunteers laid out in the sunshine, as others from Bangladesh, Eritrea, Pakistan and West Africa crowd around, some unable to believe their luck.


Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

It can take time: numbers might not work, there may be network issues, or the phone rings off the hook. But often, a mother, brother or neighbour picks up on the other side of the world, and the distance drops away.

“I have not spoken to my mum for five months, I heard her voice and it was like a blow to the heart, a blow of madness. I'm happy,” Mohamed tells AFP with a wide smile.

Tears, celebrations

He left home in April 2016, crossed the Sahara desert, was held hostage in Libya, before escaping and setting out to sea, where he was rescued by a Norwegian ship operating under the European border agency Frontex.

He was brought to Sicily on Sunday, and was driven to the capital overnight and given a bed at the Red Cross camp.

Mohamed used his three minutes – as the seconds tick down on a timer clock beside him – to thank his elder sister, who gave him the money for the journey.

He also urgently wants to warn his friends: “Never try what I did. I risked my life.”


Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

It is not the first time the Red Cross volunteers have seen people warning loved ones. A few weeks ago in Pozzallo, Sicily, an Ivorian woman used the phone call to beg her mother to stop other young women leaving.

“Libya is hell,” she sobbed according to the Red Cross, describing how she was raped by men holding her captive there.

“My head was there in the village, mother, it was only my body that was with those men,” she was quoted as saying.

The calls can be difficult when migrants discover someone back home has died.

Others are moments of celebration, such as one in which a Malian man finally got through to his wife only to be told she had given birth to their baby boy.


Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

In either case the calls work wonders, says project manager Francesco Montrone, who since mid-January has overseen over 1,500 calls, 60 percent of which have been successful.

Mood changer

“The mood in the centres changes a lot once the migrants call home. They calm down, the atmosphere is more relaxed,” Montrone said.

The project was launched a year ago in the Netherlands by the Vodafone Foundation which finances the camper and pays for the calls.

The unit, which has spent two months on loan to the Italian Red Cross, will now return to tour Dutch reception centres, but Montrone hopes it won't be thelast Italy sees of this mobile psychological lifeline.


Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

Reception centres are obliged to provide migrants with telephone cards, but those waiting to be transferred from first responder camps do not have this privilege, nor do those living in informal settlements at the borders.

A shy young Nigerian sits down at one of the tables, shivering in his threadbare clothes. The volunteer assigned to take care of him runs to get him a body warmer before helping him dial his father's number.

At the next table, a Pakistani who arrived last week reassures his brother he is well until an alarm clock sounds: the three minutes are up.

By Fanny Carrier

MONEY

How much does it cost to raise a child in Italy?

How big is the financial commitment parents have to make in Italy to pay for their offspring’s needs and expenses until they’re grown up and independent? Here's a look at the predicted costs.

How much does it cost to raise a child in Italy?

Family is the bedrock of Italian society, but it’s also an unbalanced economic crutch, propping up children who leave home much later than most of their European counterparts.

Various factors are at play, from a declining birth rate, youth unemployment, being unable to get on the property ladder to young Italians moving abroad in search of better financial opportunities.

It probably comes as little shock, then, that parents in Italy end up forking out huge sums of cash to support their offspring through childhood and early adulthood (and beyond).

Even just up to the age of 18, raising a child in Italy can cost upwards of €320,000, according to data from Italian consumer research body ONF (Osservatorio Nazionale Federconsumatori).

The average spend of raising a child from 0-18 years is €175,642, but it rises in families with high incomes, classed as over €70,000 per year.

READ ALSO: Italian class sizes set to shrink as population falls further

Researchers noted that the cost of bringing up children has jumped up following the effects of the pandemic too: compared to 2018, child-rearing expenses increased by 1.2 percent by 2020.

The decrease in expenditure related to transport due to spending more time at home, as well as those incurred for sports and leisure activities, was not enough to mitigate the increase in costs for housing and utilities, which increased by 12 percent compared to 2018.

Photo by Suzanne Emily O’Connor on Unsplash

Food prices rose by 8 percent compared to 2018 and education and care jumped by 6 percent for the same timeframe.

In fact, Italy ranks as the third most expensive country in the world for raising children, only coming behind South Korea and China, according to data from investment bank JEF.

The pandemic has contributed to extending an already growing phenomenon: the decrease in annual income of Italian households.

Household income dropped by 2.8 percent from 2019 to 2020, the report found, citing data from national statistics agency Istat. It marks a further squeeze for families, especially low-income and single-parent families.

Depending on earnings, the amount needed to bring up a child until the age of 18 varies considerably.

READ ALSO: ‘Kids are adored here’: What being a parent in Italy is really like

A two-parent family with an annual income of €22,500 spends an average of €118,234.15 to bring up a child until the age of 18; for the same type of family but with an average income of €34,000 per year, the total expenditure to bring up a child increases to €175,642.72.

For high-income families, stated as over €70,000 annually, raising a child costs €321,617.36 on average.

The figures mark an increase of around €5,000 for low- and middle-income families, and a much sharper rise of €50,000 for high-income families, compared to ten years ago.

The money gets spent on housing, food, clothing, health, education and ‘other’ categories. The report revealed that the average spend on a child aged 16 years old is almost €11,500 annually, amounting to €955.78 per month.

Almost €2,000 per year gets spent on food, €1,615 goes on transport and communication, €782 goes on clothing and €1,600 goes on education annually, the report found.

They begin small, yet the costs are anything but. (Photo by LOIC VENANCE / AFP)

For the ONF, “these data highlight how, today more than ever, having a child is becoming a luxury reserved for the few, which fewer and fewer Italians are able to afford.”

READ ALSO:

The numbers on supporting children after their 18th birthday are a little hazier, as when children eventually fly the nest varies – but figures from Eurostat show that Italy ranks third in Europe for the average oldest age at which children move out of the parental home, at 30.2 years old.

Only young people from Croatia and Slovakia wait longer to live independently, while the EU average for flying the nest is 26.4 years old.

Even then after eventually leaving home at over 30 years old, it’s not entirely clear how many Italians are fully independent once they get their own address, or whether their parents continue to bankroll their living costs.

Italy’s president Sergio Mattarella sent a message to Italy’s Birth Foundation (Fondazione per la Natalità) in May stating, “The demographic structure of the country suffers from serious imbalances that significantly affect the development of our society.”

In response to worsening economic circumstances, the Italian government has recently pledged to do more to help people have families and reverse Italy’s continuing declining birth rate.

It has introduced the Single Universal Allowance (L’assegno unico e universale), but along with it has dropped various so-called ‘baby bonuses’ that provided lump sums to new parents.

The new allowance is a monthly means-tested benefit for those who have children, or are about to have a child. It is payable from the seventh month of pregnancy until the child reaches the age of 18 or in some cases, 21. For more information on what it is and how to claim it, see here.

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