By Umberto Bacchi
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A mother and her four-year-old daughter who were separated after fleeing the threat of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Ivory Coast may be reunited in Italy before Christmas after a stroke of luck allowed police to trace the woman, authorities said.
The girl, identified only as Oumoh, is one of at least 20,000 unaccompanied minors who have reached Italy this year from war-torn and poverty-stricken countries mainly in Africa and the Middle East.
She arrived on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa on Nov. 5 after being rescued from a rickety boat by the coastguard, police said.
"She was quite traumatized, and initially wouldn't speak or communicate," Marilena Cefala, the head of Lampedusa's reception center, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
Days later, another girl from Ivory Coast recognized a photo of Oumoh on Cefala's phone while playing with it, and was able to identify the child's 31-year-old mother.
The girl said she met Oumoh in Tunisia while waiting to travel to Italy.
After a quick Facebook search, Cefala was able to track down one of Oumoh's relatives in France to get her mother's phone number which Cefala passed on to the police.
"She (the mother) cried tears of joy when I told her that her daughter was safe and alive," police inspector Maria Volpe told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
Volpe said police were now waiting for a DNA test to confirm the story, before flying Oumoh's mother who remains in Tunisia to Sicily.
"I am anxious to see the mother embrace her child. I hope we can receive this present before Christmas," she said.
According to Volpe, Oumoh and her mother escaped Ivory Coast after Oumoh's father demanded the child undergo the most severe form of FGM, known as infibulation, in which the external genitalia are sliced off and the vaginal opening sewn up.
Upon arriving in Tunisia, Oumoh's mother entrusted the child to a friend and went back to Ivory Coast to collect some belongings.
Before Oumoh's mother was able to return, her friend left for Italy with the girl, but the two got separated before arriving in the country, police said.
More than 168,000 migrants have reached Italy by boat this year, exceeding 154,000 for the whole of 2015 and quickly approaching 2014's 170,000 record.
Italy has borne the brunt of new arrivals since the implementation in March of an agreement between the European Union and Turkey to curb the flow of migrants sailing for Greece.
(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi, Editing by Katie Nguyen)