By Steve Scherer
CALTAGIRONE, Italy (Reuters) - When police arrested Lamin Darboe's father two years ago, the 16-year-old had to quit his studies and work on his uncle's farm in Gambia. Desperate to go back to school, he stole his uncle's bull to pay his way to Europe.
"I sold his bull ... before he found out, I was gone," said Darboe, who still does not know how his father fell foul of the law. "I want to have a future, and become someone responsible in the future," he said at an old villa in the hilltop Sicilian town of Caltagirone that now shelters 50 minors.
Darboe is just one of thousands of migrants who have risked the deadly boat journey from North Africa to Italy this year, piling pressure on a shelter system that is bursting at the seams even before the expected summer spike in arrivals.
About 27,000 boat migrants have reached Italy since Jan. 1, slightly up on the same period last year and following a total 153,000 arrivals in 2015 and 170,000 in 2014.
The numbers are expected to rise this year because countries along the "Balkan route" - starting with a short boat ride from Turkey to Greece and continuing on land up to Austria - have shut their borders. That may cause more migrants to sail from Libya to Sicily, the closest part of Italy.
Many of the new arrivals move swiftly to wealthier northern Europe, although Austria has said it may shut down its main border crossing in the Alps to them. Already 113,000 are housed in Italy, some three-quarters of them in what are called "temporary" shelters.
The situation is acute for minors like Darboe, who Italian law requires be treated with extra care and be integrated quickly into the school system.
More than 2,700 unaccompanied minors arrived in Italy during the first three months of the year, the Interior Ministry says, a four-fold increase on the same period of 2015.
Italy is seeking to expand the shelter network to house a total 150,000 adults and minors this year, Mario Morcone, who manages Italy's immigration system, said last week.
But some regional governments do not want to take in more immigrants, he said.
"The shelter system is still inadequate," said Giovanna Di Benedetto, a spokeswoman for Save the Children in Sicily. "There are not enough places for everyone. So the network of shelters must be expanded and some of them must improve their standards."
Daniele Cutugno, a psychologist who manages the center where Darboe now lives, said red tape and a lack of central coordination for the shelters is slowing the asylum process and clogging up the system.
"There are many actors, but it seems like everyone has their own script," Cutugno said. "There needs to be greater coordination of who does what."
On Wednesday, the humanitarian group Terre des Hommes said it was "very concerned" about the unhygienic conditions in a "hotspot" in Pozzallo, a port on Sicily's southern coast, that is used to quickly identify migrants when they first touch European soil.
After four boatloads of migrants arrived in April, the Pozzallo hotspot has been hosting more than 300 migrants, half of them unaccompanied minors, it said.
One reason minors are not being sent northwards is due "to the absence of a unified system for all the minor communities" that makes it difficult to identify open beds in existing shelters elsewhere, the group said in a statement.
The challenge to house migrants will probably increase this summer, when calm sea conditions favor boat crossings.
Meanwhile the boys in the Sicilian shelter who have applied for asylum are studying Italian verb conjugations. They hope to move soon to a smaller 12-member "community" shelter and enrol in high school.
"I'm trying my best to learn the language, so when I go to school I'll understand," said Gambian Bubaccar Janneh, 17, who wants to get a degree in agriculture.
Darboe was also practicing Italian: "I want to be a biologist. That's what I want to be."
(Editing by Tom Heneghan)