Human rights groups in Italy have warned that thousands of unaccompanied migrant children are at risk of falling back into the hands of smugglers or being exploited to work long hours for little pay, despite legislation aimed at protecting them.

“They [the children] are the most vulnerable elements of this big phenomenon called migration,” said Kostas Moschochoritis, head of humanitarian group Intersos, which operates the shelter for unaccompanied minors in Rome.

The shelter has hosted 4,000 unaccompanied minors since 2011, and just opened a new shelter with more beds on the outskirts of the capital.

“More than 5,000 minors have left the communities where they had been living this year,” Raffaela Milano, a director at Save the Children in Italy, was quoted as saying by the Reuters news agency. “Of these, it’s inevitable that some are exploited.”

“We have the stereotype in Europe that they are adults because they have been through so much. It’s not true. They are still kids,” Milano added.

In a separate report, The Guardian noted that a key pillar of the Italian government’s effort to stem the politically toxic issue of people crossing the Mediterranean from Libya to southern Italy is in danger of collapse as a result of a bloody power struggle in the key Libyan port of Sabratha, the epicentre of human trafficking to Italy.

While Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni had hailed an 80% drop in the number of migrants reaching Italy in July and August, the number suddenly started rising again last month.

The strategy to stem the flow of people from Libya was largely masterminded by the Italian interior minister Marco Minniti. It’s a plan viewed by the governing Democratic party (PD) as critical to its fortunes in elections next spring.

The Italians had reportedly reached an understanding with militia to clamp down on smuggling in Sabratha, a town 70km west of Tripoli that is the smugglers’ main port of departure.

According to The Guardian, there were reports of a clandestine deal struck by the interior minister with a powerful 500-strong smuggling gang in Sabratha, the Amu brigade, led by Abu Dabbashi, also known as the Uncle.

The Dabbashi clan, controlling three main detention camps for migrants in the area, reportedly agreed to shelve its profitable business in return for political status and cash.

But the deal appears to have sparked a wider power struggle in the city, notably between Dabbashi on one side and the counter Isis-operations room and rival al-Wabi militia on the other. Ironically, all the groups are on the payroll of ministries of Libya’s UN-backed government in Tripoli.

Meanwhile, the Italian government insists it has only given aid to the UN-backed government in Tripoli or to the Sabratha council, but not directly to any militia.