As the August heat in Eritrea grew torpid, Mahari, 17, laid plans to flee his homeland. With relatives in the U.S. contributing funds for the journey, he kissed his family goodbye, slipped out of his house and walked four hours to the border of Ethiopia. He continued on to Sudan, trekking across the blistering Sahara for five days until he reached a known trafficking route, then climbed on a truck filled with other migrants. Parched and exhausted, he finally reached the smugglers’ hub of Zuwara on the northwestern coast of Libya, where he crammed aboard a boat with about 240 other people and set off across the Mediterranean for Italy. The boat never made it–on Sept. 2, an Italian coast-guard vessel rescued the passengers, bringing them to Sicily.
Settling his lanky frame for the night on a discarded mattress amid a trash-strewn vacant lot in the Italian city of Catania, Mahari says he did not once consider staying at home, despite the dangers of crossing the Mediterranean, where 3,000 migrants have drowned this year. The alternative–life in Eritrea, one of the most repressive countries in the world–seemed far worse. “I had to leave,” he whispers.
The last names of the migrants in this story are being withheld to protect their identities. Which is ironic in a way, because they are already the invisible migrants of this crisis–asylum seekers under the age of 18 who have made their way, alone, to Europe. For these youth, there have been no Facebook appeals to house them or welcome parties to greet them at train stations. Instead, police and aid workers meet every migrant arriving on the shores of Sicily or Greece, identify the lone children among them, hand them food packages and fresh clothes and escort them to residences for underage migrants. There, overstretched organizations shelter them for months, as they try to determine what their futures might be.
For now, those futures seem precarious. The minors have largely arrived penniless, without a network of relatives to rely on or often even identity papers that could bolster their claims to asylum in Europe. Officials aren’t even sure exactly how many minors have arrived in Europe, or even how old they are–some local authorities X-ray the wrists of new arrivals to try to determine an approximate age. But what numbers exist appear to have rocketed upward. The E.U.’s statistics office says the number of lone children among asylum seekers nearly doubled from 2013 to 2014, to 23,150, and this year looks as if it could go higher. About one-quarter of the 25,000 children crossing into Serbia this summer arrived alone, according to the aid organization Save the Children, and Swedish officials say 13,848 unaccompanied minors have arrived in their country this year, nearly double last year’s figure.
Most of the youth arrive deeply shaken by their experiences. The teenagers describe terrifying journeys to Europe that often include weeks of unpaid labor and regular beatings by traffickers or by prison guards in jails in Libya, where they scrape together, through menial work, their “cross money,” or smuggler fees for boat rides on the Mediterranean. “Many of them have nightmares, they isolate themselves, they have flashbacks,” says Annalisa Pino, the sole psychologist at the state-funded Ahmed reception center in Messina, Sicily, which Italy’s Ministry of Interior converted last year from a home for pregnant girls to one housing hundreds of unaccompanied migrant youth.
Now those who survived the crossing will ultimately have to prove they have the right to stay in Europe. International laws governing the protection of children oblige E.U. governments to feed and shelter those who arrive in their countries. “From the legal point of view, unaccompanied minors cannot be rejected at the border and cannot be expelled to the country they come from,” says Christopher Hein, spokesman and policy adviser for the Italian Council for Refugees in Rome. “There is protection until the age of 18.”
But for the majority of European nations, all bets are off once those teenagers reach legal age. Immigration courts then decide whether they are genuine refugees facing persecution or death back home, or whether they are economic migrants fleeing poverty for better lives in Europe. If it’s the latter, they can be deported back to their home countries, unless they can show a steady source of income; many courts issue a humanitarian stay until they are 21 to give them time to prove their case.
The legal tangle casts a pall over teenagers from the moment they set foot in Europe, even while they are figuring out how to survive with little money or skills, far away from their parents. For Syrians arriving in Europe, escaping a war that has killed over 220,000 people, the case for asylum seems clear. But many of the thousands of young people arriving alone have fled obscure, forgotten conflicts, mostly in Africa, and even then, few may be able to prove that their own lives were under threat back home. “I would like to stay here in Italy,” says Mandjo, 16, who says he fled his home in Guinea during a rebel attack on his neighborhood when he was just 14. Mandjo and his cousin hid in the forests, then over two years worked their way through Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Algeria, paying traffickers for each onward stage. There was only enough money for one Mediterranean crossing, so Mandjo left his cousin in Algeria and crossed to Sicily, arriving alone on Aug. 11. “I arrived with nothing, not even my documents,” he says.
For teenagers like Mandjo, the urgent question is how to acquire the schooling, skills and work they need in order to win settlement in Europe–all before they turn 18. That requires huge assistance from countries like Italy and Greece, which face their own financial stresses; more than 9,000 unaccompanied minors have arrived this year in Italy, a country with a youth unemployment rate of 44.2%.
While governments are legally obliged to help, they are clearly under strain. In the Regina Elena center for underage migrants in Catania, the director Vincenzo Di Mauro shows me a ledger claiming that local and national authorities are late with funds totaling nearly $300,000, making it impossible to regularly disburse $80 monthly stipends to the 75 teenage boys living there. “The budget is a real problem,” Di Mauro says. Two days earlier, some of the youth smashed tables and chairs, tossing them off second-floor balconies into the courtyard below, in protest over the lack of money. The morning TIME visited, there were screaming arguments between teenagers and staff over late payments.
To aid organizations, governments’ responsibilities toward the youth are clear. “Unaccompanied minors are children, with the same rights as children everywhere, to have their needs met,” says Anthony Lake, executive director of the U.N. Children’s Fund. “They don’t know whether they are migrants or refugees. They only know they need our help. Desperately.”
On the streets of Catania, a Sicilian city of 300,000, the sense of desperation is everywhere. One afternoon in September, Osas, a diminutive boy in a zip-up black jacket and too-big shorts, tells me in a near whisper, “I am 13.” He says he fled his home in Nigeria’s Edo state last year, after gunmen who he believes were from the terrorist group Boko Haram attacked a church in which he was sleeping. His parents, he says, had died some time previously in a motorbike accident. In a disjointed account of his yearlong journey to Europe, he says “a man” took him first to Libya’s southern city of Sabha, where he baled grass for animals for several months, without pay, in exchange for food and shelter. Finally traffickers took him to Tripoli and gave him a boat passage to Sicily. When he landed on Aug. 22, he told Italian police he was 16–highly improbable, given his tiny body, smooth cheeks and high voice.
Yet it is a lie that many migrants feel is necessary. “I also told police I was 16,” says a boy named Godstime, who says he is really 14 and who also fled Edo state in Nigeria, landing in Sicily the same day as Osas; now the two boys are inseparable. “If I tell them I am 14 they will keep me in the camp [center for underage migrants] for four, five years,” Godstime says. The boys were taken in by the Regina Elena center, and they admit that living among older teenagers has left them on edge. Still, like every migrant I spoke to in Sicily, they ruled out returning home, saying there is nothing to go home to.
E.U. officials have come to believe the only way to stop more people–many from the world’s poorest countries–from crossing the Mediterranean is to invest heavily in the migrants’ dysfunctional home countries. E.U. leaders decided in September to plow $1.1 billion more into the U.N. refugee agency and to try to persuade Turkey to constrict the flow of migrants rushing to neighboring Greece. But the crippling realities in Africa–droughts and floods linked to climate change, intermittent conflict and high population growth–might still push millions to try to make it to Europe for decades. On Sept. 9 European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced a new $2 billion fund for Africa to create jobs and tackle “the root causes of illegal migrants.”
But such plans will be of little help to the Africans who have already made it to Europe. Mahari, the 17-year-old from Eritrea, says he faced the prospect of military conscription with no time limit, in a region rife with conflict. So desperate is he to begin earning money in Europe that when he landed in Sicily on Sept. 3, he slipped out of sight of Italian police and hid in the streets of Catania. The teenagers–virtually all boys–receive lessons in Italian if they live in the centers. But those sleeping rough, like Mahari, while away days in a desultory state of limbo, debating where might be best to go and lining up at charity soup kitchens. “There are no jobs in Italy,” Mahari says late one night in the vacant lot in Catania that serves as a hiding place for migrants. The first chance he gets, Mahari says, he will head north to Germany to find work.
With Europe’s governments overwhelmed by refugees, Mahari’s choice to bypass official channels could become increasingly common. Already, about 5,000 minors have vanished from Italy’s reception centers, likely headed for better prospects elsewhere. The Mediterranean countries where youth initially land have few job prospects for their own citizens, let alone for migrants, but prosperous northern Europe offers better odds.
If Mahari finally makes it to Germany, it could take months before he shows up on a refugee list and far longer before his prospects take shape. Even less certain are the futures of the Nigerian boys Osas and Godstime, who might need years of schooling before they can find work, let alone win the right to stay in Europe. “I want to go to school, do my work and help my family, because my family does not have money,” says Godstime. Thousands more teenagers are headed to Europe, on their own.
This appears in the October 19, 2015 issue of TIME.