Italy is to grant an Egyptian boy citizenship after he saved the lives of 51 children, freeing them from a burning school bus that had been hijacked by its driver last week.
Thirteen-year-old Rami Shehata secretly called his father on a hidden mobile phone after the driver demanded the children hand their phones over. Shehata pretended to pray in Arabic, while secretly informing his father of the situation, who then called the police.
“It was a miracle, it could have been a massacre,” said Francesco Greco, a prosecutor from Milan. “The carabinieri [police] were exceptional in blocking the bus and getting all the children out. They broke the windows and managed to get all 51 kids out.”
The Italian bus driver, originally of Senegalese descent, hijacked his own vehicle in a 40 minute drive last Wednesday, binding the hands of the children on board and eventually setting it alight. After his arrest, he said he was acting in revenge for the thousands of migrants, many of them African, who have drowned in the Mediterranean in recent years while trying to reach Europe from Libya.
One student on board the bus said the driver cited Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini as being responsible for tightening rules on immigration.
Shehata, who has been hailed a hero by his classmates, was born in Italy but does not have Italian nationality; under the law, he must wait until he is 18 in order to apply for it.
“We’re Egyptians, I arrived in Italy in 2001, my son was born here in 2005 but we’re still waiting for the official document,” his father, Khalid, said last week. “My son did his duty, it would be nice if he could now get Italian citizenship.”
“The interior ministry is ready to take care of the expense and to fast-track citizenship for this little hero,” officials later confirmed in a statement.
Meanwhile, Salvini said that he hoped to be able to revoke the Italian citizenship of the driver by pushing for him to be convicted of terrorism, which would then be permitted under a new security decree that the government introduced in December.
Italy’s new populist government has been at the forefront of anti-migrant action, placing pressure on North African countries to prevent people from making illegal crossings. The Libyan coast guard has been patrolling the Mediterranean Sea since striking a deal with Italy in February 2017 that empowered Libya to bring migrants back to the country, even though they are at risk of torture and abuse there, in violation of international law.
The Italian government also funds Libyan authorities to round up refugees and prevent them from travelling to Europe, despite a recent UN report stating that migrants in the county faced “unimaginable horrors”, including rape, slavery and extrajudicial killings.
Salvini’s strategy additionally prohibits European NGOs that save migrants at sea from reaching to Italian ports, forcing many organisations to suspend their work. The UN Refugee Agency warned in September that this had resulted in a rise of the rate of migrant deaths, even though the numbers trying to make the crossing has fallen; one in every 18 migrants now drowns or goes missing during the crossing.
“With the number of people arriving on European shores falling, this is no longer a test of whether Europe can manage the numbers, but whether Europe can muster the humanity to save lives,” UNHCR’s director of the bureau for Europe, Pascale Moreau said.