More than 9 out of 10 refugee and migrant children arriving in Europe this year through Italy are unaccompanied, prompting UNICEF to warn of the growing threats of abuse, exploitation and death facing them.
In a report, Danger Every Step of the Way, released Tuesday, UNICEF says that 7,009 unaccompanied children made the crossing from North Africa to Italy in the first five months of the year, twice as many as last year.
The report documents the appalling risks adolescents take in their flight to escape conflict, despair and poverty.
A total of 2,809 deaths were recorded in the Mediterranean between January 1 and June 5, 2016, as compared with 3,770 for the whole of last year. The vast majority were on the Central Mediterranean route – and many were children.
Unaccompanied children generally rely on human smugglers, often under a system of ‘pay as you go’, which opens them to exploitation.
“If you try to run they shoot you and you die. If you stop working, they beat you. It was just like the slave trade,” Aimamo, 16, said of the farm in Libya where he and his twin brother worked for two months to pay the smugglers. “Once I was just resting for five minutes, and a man beat me with a cane. After working, they lock you inside.”
Some are sexually abused and exploited. Italian social workers told UNICEF that both girls and boys were sexually assaulted and forced into prostitution while in Libya, and that some of the girls were pregnant when they arrived in Italy, having been raped.
However because of the illicit nature of human smuggling operations, there are no reliable figures to show how many of the refugees and migrants die, disappear into forced labour or prostitution, or linger in detention.
“It is a silent and desperate situation- out of sight and out of mind. Yet tens of thousands of children face danger every day and hundreds of thousands more are prepared to risk everything,” said Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF Special Coordinator for the Refugee and Migrant crisis in Europe.
“We urgently need to protect these children from all types of abuse and exploitation by those taking advantage of the situation to exploit their dreams”.
With summer upon the Mediterranean, the latest numbers of children on the Central Mediterranean route may well be just the tip of the iceberg, according to UNICEF. Another 235,000 migrants are currently in Libya, tens of thousands of them unaccompanied children.
Photo courtesy: UNICEF