The distraught father of a disabled 13-year-old Iraqi boy who died in northern Italy on Sunday has spoken of his anguish at flaws in Europe’s migration system.
Adan Abdulrahman, who had muscular dystrophy, died in hospital in the early hours of Sunday while recovering from a fall from his wheelchair. The cause has not been confirmed. He also had breathing difficulties and caught an infection in the days before he died.
His family spoke of an arduous week after they arrived in Italy as they struggled to find accommodation, even spending a night under a bridge.
Authorities in Bolzano, in the wealthy Alto Adige region close to the Austrian border, have scrutinised their treatment of migrants following Adan’s death.
“Despite being disabled, Adan was a bright, happy, intelligent boy,” his father, 36-year-old Hossein Abdulrahman, said by phone as Adan’s mother cried in the background.
“She can’t eat, can’t drink, can’t sleep,” Abdulrahman said. “She is completely destroyed.”
Two years ago Adan’s five-year-old sister was killed in a car bomb in Kirkuk, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. The family fled to Europe, arriving in Sweden, which received more than 160,000 asylum applications in 2015.
They were told in September this year that their request had failed and that they had 21 days to leave the country before being deported home.
“We were told that we had to leave or go back to Kirkuk, but it is not a safe or secure place,” said Abdulrahman.
EU rules allow the family to reapply for asylum in another state, so they left Sweden by train and made the three-day journey towards southern Europe, transiting through Denmark, Germany and Austria to northern Italy, where they had heard about the presence of Kurdish communities.
They arrived in Bolzano on 1 October, and spent their first night sleeping under a bridge. The next day they visited the Catholic church-run charity, Caritas, which notified social services that a family with four children, aged between six and 13, needed accommodation.
The request was turned down, owing to a local regulation – the “Circular Critelli” – that restricts the reception of migrants who enter Italy from other EU countries or are not referred by Italy’s interior ministry. The charity persevered, pointing out Adan’s disability, but to no avail.
“They told us that all the [refugee] accommodation was full and instead offered to pay our train ticket to go somewhere else in Italy,” said Abdulrahman.
On 2 October the family went to the city’s police headquarters to make an appointment for an asylum request, only to find the office was closed. That evening Adan’s health took a turn for the worse – he struggled to breathe and had pains in his body – so he was taken to hospital, where he and his family spent the night.
He was discharged two days later, on 4 October, and the family was put up in a hotel paid for by volunteers. On 5 October, the hotel was full, so they slept on the floor of an evangelical church.
On 6 October, Adan fell from his wheelchair as the family made their way to a Caritas foodbank following a second visit to the police HQ.
He was taken to hospital and underwent an operation, a procedure he seemed to be recovering well from before he developed an infection and fever. Adan died in the early hours of 8 October.
Martha Stocker, a councillor for Bolzano’s local authority, said in a statement that the family should have been able to qualify for accommodation for up to three nights, and that their request was perhaps rejected “due to a lack of information”.
She expressed her condolences to the family, while highlighting the “need to improve communication between various public institutions, voluntary associations, the province, the state and communes”.
But Thomas Branca, a law consultant at the Association of Juridical Studies on Immigration, said a document existed that proved that the hospital provided authorities with information about Adan’s medical condition on the day he was discharged, and urged them to accommodate the family.
“They [social services] applied the rules in a restrictive way for this family … In the time they had to make a decision they didn’t find this family’s case to be serious enough,” said Branca. “They also tried to blame the volunteers because the volunteers told the hospital they were taking care of the family.”
The UN’s refugee agency has called for the Critelli regulation to be scrapped and for Bolzano to clarify its local procedures for refugee reception to ensure they comply with refugees’ rights at national and EU level, particularly in regards to minors and those most vulnerable.
Around 700 people are housed across Bolzano’s four refugee centres, while over 100 are believed to be sleeping rough, according to figures from volunteers.
Although Bolzano meet’s national quotas on taking in refugees, Francesco Palermo, a senator representing the region at national level, said it placed restrictions on numbers.
Palermo said this was due to tensions at the border with Austria, which has persistently threatened to deploy troops to block migrants arriving from Italy, as well as a desire to avoid appearing as a favourable place for people to come.
“It’s not so much that the wealthy region isn’t equipped to deal with the problem,” he said. “Politics is at play. But when you see that there are fragilities in the system then you really need to start wondering about yourself. This very sad story will spark some further reflection. What kind of society do we want to be? ”