Hidden in the packed programme of the recent international film festival in Rome was Il Mondo Addosso (The weight of the world) by young Sicilian director Costanza Quatriglio. Shot in Rome from November 2005 to March 2006 and produced with support from the United Nations childrens fund (UNICEF), the 90-minute documentary follows the fortunes of four unaccompanied foreign adolescents: Inga from Moldavia, who is studying Italian and training to be a pastry chef; Josif from Romania, who sleeps in a train depot and scrapes a living as a prostitute at Stazione Termini; Cosmin, also from Romania, who would rather spend his 18th birthday having fun with his mates than worrying about where his first paycheque will be coming from; and Mohammad Jan from Afghanistan, a youth worker, who spends nights at Ostiense station trying to persuade his young co-nationals to come out of hiding. All aged under 18 when they arrived in the capital, their different stories shed light on the challenges and dilemmas faced by unaccompanied foreign minors in Italy as they struggle to build a life and a future for themselves here.

The issue of unaccompanied foreign minors in Italy is regulated by two main bodies of legislation: laws concerning children generally, inspired partly by the 1989 United Nations convention on the rights of the child, and the 2002 Bossi-Fini immigration law.

All foreign children who are found in a state of neglect must be reported to the authorities for identification and taken into care pending a decision on their case. The procedure is overseen by the committee for foreign minors (comitato per i minori stranieri, CSM), a body operating under the auspices of the ministry for welfare, which is responsible for ascertaining that the child in question qualifies as an unaccompanied foreign minor (under Italian law this requires the child to be a non-EU citizen present without a parent or relative within the fourth degree of kinship and who has not applied for political asylum) and deciding whether he or she should remain in Italy or be sent home.

Repatriation is only carried out with the childs consent and following careful investigations in the country of origin to ensure that it is in his or her best interests; there have been only five assisted reunions in the last year, according to welfare ministry sources. Having been granted the status of unaccompanied foreign minor, the child is then issued with a residence permit for under-age foreigners or, if the competent judge or social services department finds a suitable placement, a permit for residence in foster care.

On 30 September 2006 the CSM had 6,551 unaccompanied foreign minors on its books. Of these, 2,396 came from Romania, 1,430 from Morocco and 1,013 from Albania, while smaller numbers came from other eastern European and African countries, as well as Afghanistan and Iraq. However, these figures are only the tip of the iceberg as many youngsters are not intercepted by the authorities and remain underground, often living in squalid conditions and falling prey to petty crime, prostitution and labour exploitation among other things. Nor do they include the small number of young asylum seekers and political refugees, whose cases are handled by different authorities. Of the reported cases, just over 80 per cent were male and around 46 per cent were under 16.

The economic migrants arrive with a distorted idea of what Italy is like, says Marco Caporale, director of the Centro polifunzionale per lintegrazione run by the non-profit organisation Virtus Ponte Mammolo ONLUS in Via dei Colombi (off Via Casilina in eastern Rome), one of the services for unaccompanied foreign minors featured in the documentary. Many are sent here by their parents, or presumed parents, to earn money and think it will be easy finding a job and then they are confronted with the reality.

These youngsters usually spend the first four-five months on the streets before approaching the police spontaneously or getting reported to the authorities by an organisation or private individual or being intercepted by a patrol. Not surprisingly the number of reported cases is highest in large cities such as Rome, Turin and Milan where the kids know they can access better services and therefore have a greater chance of remaining in Italy legally beyond their 18th birthday, when the residence permit for minors and its accompanying entitlements expire.

The 18-year threshold is a critical time for unaccompanied foreigners, as Marilina Tuccinardi, the person in charge of minors at Romes social policies department, explains. The requirements for obtaining a residence permit on reaching adult age are extremely strict. The applicant needs to have been entrusted to social services and to have been resident in Italy for at least three years and participating in an integration programme for at least two. This means that, on paper at least, anyone who arrives in the country between the age of 15 and 18 is not entitled to stay, irrespective of any efforts made towards integration a fact which not only discourages many older minors from seeking help in the first place but also encourages kids to make the journey to Italy at an even younger age.

However, the rules have been challenged in both the Constitutional Court and the Council of State and are not always applied to the letter. Indeed, Caporale says that none of the participants in the integration programme run by the centre in Via del Colombi called Scuola di Volo (Flying School) have failed to have a residency permit converted on turning 18, regardless of age on arrival. Now there are calls on the government to alter the requirements to make it easier to obtain an adults permit of stay as part of its review of the existing 2002 immigration law.

Scuola di Volo has seen around 170 adolescents through its doors since it began life as a pilot project under the auspices of the Rome city council social services department in January 2004. The programme aims to bridge the gap between the criteria for integration as set out by law and the reality of becoming self-sufficient as a young person in a foreign country. It does this by supporting participants beyond their 18th birthday until they are, as suggested by the name of the programme, ready to fly.

The programme is residential and is divided into three phases. The first phase, which takes participants up to the age of majority, involves providing basic social, physical and psychological assistance as well as schooling and professional training for future employment. Once participants have turned 18 and found a job, there follows a period of so-called supported semi-independence lasting around six months. During this time the young adults continue to live in care but they have greater autonomy, and they are encouraged to contribute to their basic living expenses. The final phase, known as co-participatory semi-independence, lasting a further six months, is intended as a springboard to full autonomy; participants are expected to pay for their accommodation themselves as a way of acquiring money-management skills among other things. The adolescents take part in regular progress reviews, which they are required to sign off as a way of giving them ownership of, and responsibility for, their present and future.