An estimated 50 million children have been uprooted from their home countries because of violence or insecurity, 28 million of whom have fled conflict. Some leave on rubber dinghys to get to the European Union across the Mediterranean Sea from places like Libya and Egypt. Once they arrive, they face a host of obstacles like figuring out new languages and getting an education or a job.
For at least two child refugees from Egypt and Ethiopia who now live in Italy, another obstacle they face is access to bathrooms. The children — aged nine and 11 — were allegedly ordered by teachers at a private Catholic school to use separate bathrooms after parents complained that they could pose a health risk to other students, the Italian news publication La Stampa reported.
Parents of existing students were shown medical records proving that the two child refugees were in good health, but that wasn’t enough to quell the anger over the school’s admission of refugee children. At least two families reportedly took their children out of the school. Several more threatened to do the same unless separate toilets were put in place. The sisters at the school in Cagliari, Sardinia complied and created segregated toilets out of “a precaution.”
Both children lost their parents as they made their way across the Mediterranean. Two lawyers, who are now their caretakers, have called on the school to stop segregating the children.
‘[Other children] were unsociable,” Antonella Taccori, one of the lawyers told La Stampa. “During recess our children were immediately isolated, and it was not only because they are still not able to speak Italian.”
“The behavior of the other kids obviously reflects what they have heard at home from their parents,” Taccori continued. “I only found out about the toilet segregation two days ago. Now we hope the school will integrate the toilets again.”
“This does not happen when a child has a cough or cold,” Marina Bardanzellu, the other lawyer said. “The health concerns are hiding real racism.”
Between January and May this year, about 7,000 unaccompanied children made the journey across the Mediterranean Sea to get to Italy, with the number of asylum applications increasing in recent years. Many are subjected to harassment and even sexual violence, according to the human rights organization Human Rights Watch.
These Catholic school parents would ironically not find an ally in Pope Francis, who is a strong advocate for immigrant rights. In the past, Francis has prayed for migrants and refugees who died trying to make it to both the European Union and America. He has also physically touched refugees, washing their feet as a symbolic way to restore their dignity. And he sharply criticized the “globalization of indifference” that people have towards the refugee crisis and has called on every Catholic parish in the European Union to take in at least one refugee family.
Resentment against refugees is a sentiment that has many deep pockets of support in the European Union at a time when large numbers of people have arrived. Although the Hungarian government failed to pass a referendum vote to prevent refugee resettlement plans in the country, the vast majority of voters supported the measure.
Still, vile behavior towards child newcomers is not isolated to Italy. In June, drunk England fans allegedly mocked refugee children in France by making them fight over coins that they threw on the ground. And in 2014, protesters physically blocked buses of Central American immigrants, including children, from driving to a Border Patrol processing facility in California. In that incident, at least one person shouted, “Nobody wants you. You’re not welcome. Go home.”