Mental Health

“The boy was totally deprived of his right to be a child”

Aurelia Barbieri, an Italian MSF psychologist. Photo: Sara Creta/MSF

“It was early September when I met the boy for the first time. His case had been referred to me by a social worker at the emergency reception centre, as there was no psychologist working there at the time. I was told he was disturbed and clearly suffering. He was the only French speaker in a centre where the common language was English.

Immediately you could see that he was younger than the age he had given on arrival in Italy. Just a boy, he was living in a reception centre surrounded by men. Later, he confessed to me that he had falsified his age out of fear of being put in prison.

A few weeks later – and four months after his arrival in Italy – he declared his real date of birth during an interview with the Local Commission on his request for asylum. Faced with this new information, the authorities decided to reconsider his case, and to find him a legal advisor who could help him through the process.

From my side, I had written a report about the boy’s mental condition, highlighting the clear signs of Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including persistent headaches, memory problems, insomnia, apathy and intrusive thoughts; even if for months nobody had noticed them.

In the following months, his mental health took a gradual but consistent turn for the worse. This was due to the isolated context in which he was forced to live, where it was very difficult to him to communicate with others. In addition, the absence of any possible activity had a major impact on his state of mind, as did the fact that time went by without him receiving notice of another interview, or any news about his legal advisor. Receiving a response to his asylum request seemed less and less likely.

The situation was made worse by several episodes of violence within the reception centre, after which the workers were kept from having any contact with the guests. The boy was obliged to live far away from the rest of the world, in a noxious environment with no basic services, totally abandoned and left to himself.

I referred his case to the local authorities and I contacted his legal advisor and the social services. But still it was months before he was finally called for interview. Eventually, a full year after his arrival in Italy, he was transferred to a SPRAR centre, by which time he had turned 18 and officially become an adult.

Why this story?

To show how this boy was totally deprived of his right to be a minor, and of all those rights accorded to children, as set out in the International Convention on the Rights of the Child. Not only the right to protection, but also the right to health, the right to education and the right to attend school. This boy had never been given a safe place to stay; instead he spent a year in a centre for adults, where violence and security issues were the order of the day.

Throughout his time there, it was impossible for him to socialise – for linguistic reasons, but also because of age and cultural differences. The isolation he experienced in this environment further aggravated his disturbed mental state. The boy is now an adult – an adult who hasn’t had access to mental health services or to any of the opportunities and rights that a minor should have; an adult deprived of the advice and protection which were rightfully his.

Find out more about MSF's work in Italy

Read MSF's new report Neglected Trauma