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Nine out of 10 refugee children arrive in Italy on their own: UN

UNICEF child agency says number of minors crossing the Mediterranean unaccompanied has doubled this year to over 7,000
Refugee children pack toys before being moved to Cagliari in Sardinia (AFP)

The number of unaccompanied child refugees and migrants arriving from across the Mediterranean to Italy has doubled in the first five months of this year, according to a new UN child agency report.

The UNICEF report, entitled "Danger every step of the way", found that nine out of 10 minors arrived in Italy without parents or guardians, comprising 7,009 out of a total of 7,567 arrivals.

UNICEF cited figures that the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) reported earlier this month. IOM noted nearly half of them (3,274) came from Egypt, Gambia, Guinea, and the Ivory Coast, which together only accounted for some 500 of unaccompanied minor arrivals in 2015.

IOM counts anyone below the age of 18 as a minor.

"The reason we are seeing more [unaccompanied children] is not clear at this stage," UNICEF spokesperson Sarah Crowe told a news conference in Geneva on Tuesday.

The UNICEF report added that the death toll among all refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean rose to 2,427 between 1 January and 5 June 2016, as compared with 1,786 in the first six months of 2015.

Unaccompanied and separated children are at particular risk of abuse and exploitation, notably by the smugglers they rely on to get to Europe, UNICEF said.

"Just about every child who arrives on the Italian island of Lampedusa or in Sicily has a harrowing story to tell," the report said. 

Both boys and girls are subjected to sexual violence and forced into prostitution. Some of the girls are pregnant by the time they arrive on European shores.

"We should never forget that children on the move are first and foremost children, who bear no responsibility for their plight, and have every right to a better life," said Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF's special coordinator for Europe's migrant crisis.

Tens of thousands of children are in danger each day and hundreds of thousands more are ready to risk everything to make the journey, the agency said. 

And with the arrival of summer in Europe, the numbers of those risking the Mediterranean crossing from Africa and the Middle East are set to rise, it warned.

There are currently 235,000 refugees and migrants in Libya and some 956,000 in the Sahel countries, and "many – if not most – of them" are hoping to make their way to Europe, the UNICEF report said.

Unaccompanied children need special protection and attention, both from the countries they leave and those where they arrive, said Poirier.

"Children on the move have endured war, persecution, deprivation and terrible journeys," she said.

"Even when they have reached the relative safety of their destination, they still need protection, education, healthcare and counselling. We must be by their side."