updated 4/5/2009 12:35:35 PM ET 2009-04-05T16:35:35

Italian rail police discovered about two dozen ragged and hungry Afghan teenagers living at Roman train stations, including in the crawl space under sidewalk grates to keep warm, officials and news reports said Sunday.

The discovery shocked city officials and prompted new demands for improved social services for Rome's swelling ranks of illegal immigrants — particularly for minors who arrive in Italy without parents.

The Afghan teens, believed to be between 14 and 16 years old, reached Rome in recent days, news reports said. Afghan migrants often arrive in Italy after stowing away on trucks coming from Eastern Europe that cross the Adriatic on ferries.

Italian rail police discovered the teens during a routine inspection of the capital's three main train stations. The reports said the children were ragged, tired and malnourished.

Discovery called 'serious and shocking'
Mayor Gianni Alemanno called the discovery "serious and shocking" and said he has ordered an investigation to determine how the children ended up living in such conditions. He said he also tasked his social services deputy and municipal police to ensure such an episode never occurs again.

"We have to understand how such an incident happened in our city, what the causes are and the true conditions that these children were living in," Alemanno said in a statement late Saturday.

Footage from Sat 2000, the TV channel of the Italian bishops' conference, showed clothing and bottles strewn in the crawl spaces beneath sidewalk grates at Rome's Ostiense train station, where some of the children reportedly slept because it was warmer than in the open air.

The head of the rail police said he was appalled to find the children living in such conditions.

"My heart was shocked, in the way any father's would be if he saw 14-year-old kids sleeping in such a state, with manhole covers used as their beds," Rome daily La Repubblica quoted Carlo Casini as saying.

The children have been placed in the care of social services agencies.

One of the largest groups of young migrants
The number of unaccompanied Afghan minors has risen dramatically in Rome in recent years, and they now constitute one of the largest groups of young migrants in the capital, according to the Save the Children nonprofit agency.

In 2007, of the 1,152 minors in Rome who sought asylum, 264 were Afghan, the agency said. That was up from only 32 Afghan children seeking asylum in 2004.

Save the Children's Italy director, Valerio Neri, said young Afghans typically use Italy as a transit point, aiming to reach relatives in northern Europe.

Neri said the discovery showed that Italy's immigrant policy and reception facilities were woefully lacking.

Alemanno said Rome has long been complaining to the Interior Ministry about the uncontrolled influx of illegal migrants.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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