A Syrian child with eye cancer was flown into Italy for treatment Thursday, becoming the first to benefit from a new humanitarian corridor hoping to stop desperate refugees from attempting an often deadly Mediterranean crossing to Europe.
"So happy because we come to Italy, from Syria... by humanitarian corridor, direct to Rome!", Yasmine Al Hourani, mother of Falek, a seven-year-old girl, said in halting English at Rome's Fiumicino airport.
Falek, one eye covered with a patch, stood shyly beside her brother, six-year-old Hussein, who clutched a toy rabbit as their mother described the relief at finally making it out of the garage they had been living in in Tripoli, northern Lebanon.
The family, including electrician father Suleyman, fled Syria two years ago as shells fell on their home city of Homs. But they had resisted the idea of a boat crossing, with over 60 children drowning in the Mediterranean so far this year.
They were picked to be the first to be flown out of Lebanon to Italy as part of a new project co-organised by the Sant'Egidio Catholic community, the Federation of Evangelical Churches and the Valdese Evangelical Church.
"The little girl is seven years old, she has eye cancer and needs urgent care if she's not to lose the other eye too," Daniela Pompei, head of immigration for the Sant'Egidio Catholic community, told AFP.
- 'Project could be extended' -
She said the "experimental humanitarian corridor", based on a sponsorship system, could be extended to the rest of Europe if successful. It will be presented to Europe's Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos next month.
"It's something not only Italy but Europe really needs at the moment, to bring refugees here safely and also guarantee the safety of host countries," she said, referring to fears Islamist jihadists could be among the refugees journeying to Europe via boat.
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The costs -- of hospitality, legal aid and Italian lessons for example -- will be covered by the non-profit organisations behind the project, drawing mainly on religious donations, while families will be housed initially with volunteers.
"Taking people out of the hands of (human) traffickers is a success in our opinion. Let's hope it works well. The next group should be flown in in a few days time and then the programme will slowly pick up speed," Pompei said.
The Al Hourani family flew in on humanitarian visas to the Italian capital, where they immediately filed a request for asylum. Their fingerprints were taken before they were allowed to cross into Italy.
- Helping the most vulnerable -
Yasmine Al Hourani was so excited to have arrived in the Eternal city she broke into song in Italian, showing off the vocabulary she had learned while waiting for her new life to start.
The programme is aimed at the most vulnerable members of asylum-seeking groups -- from single mothers to pregnant women, handicapped people and sick children -- and should see 1,000 people of various nationalities brought to safety in Italy over the next two years, Sant'Egidio said.
Two offices, in Beirut and Tangier in Morocco, were opened before Christmas to begin selecting candidates, with some 80 families already waiting in the Lebanonese capital for a passage to Italy.
There are plans for a third office to be opened in Ethiopia in six months if the programme is successful.
The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) warned Tuesday that over a third of migrants crossing the Mediterranean between Turkey and Greece are children, with at least 60 youngsters dying during the crossing since the beginning of January.