Noting that the number of children arriving in Italy by themselves via the sea in 2016 more than doubled over the previous year, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) today called for urgent and special measures to protect them from trafficking, exploitation and abuse.
“These figures indicate an alarming trend of an increasing number of highly vulnerable children risking their lives to get to Europe,” said Lucio Melandri, the Senior Emergency Manager at UNICEF.
“Current systems in place are failing to protect [them as they] find themselves alone in a [completely] unfamiliar environment,” he added, calling for a coordinated European response, given that the children are on the move.
“Apart from addressing the factors that are forcing children to travel alone, a comprehensive protection, monitoring system needs to be developed to protect them,” he stressed.
In 2016, some 25,800 unaccompanied or separated children arrived in the European country – compared to the 12,360 who arrived in 2015. These children, arriving by themselves, also accounted for a staggering 91 per cent of all the 28,200 children who reached Italy’s shores last year as refugees or migrants.
A majority among of such arrivals were from Eritrea, Egypt, Gambia and Nigeria.
Adding to the complex challenges, the Central Mediterranean route from North Africa to Italy also has an incredibly high ratio of unaccompanied and separated children among the refugees and migrants. Compared to other routes, only 17 per cent of the child refugees and migrants who arrived to Greece by sea in 2016, came without adult family members or guardians.
“The presence of so many unaccompanied or separated children along the central Mediterranean route is unprecedented,” said Mr. Melandri. “It is obviously clear that we have a serious and growing problem on our hands.”
According to UNICEF, though most of the children were boys aged 15-17 years, younger children and girls were also among the arrivals. Girls are at a particular risk of sexual exploitation and abuse, including commercial sexual exploitation by criminal gangs.
It further stated that several of the girls who were interviewed by its staff earlier this year in Palermo, the capital of the Italian island of Sicily, reported that they were forced into prostitution in Libya as a means to ‘pay off’ the cost of the boat travel across the Mediterranean.
Most of the boys spoke of being forced into manual labour.
In addition to protecting child refugees and migrants – particularly unaccompanied children – from exploitation and violence, UNICEF urged stopping the detention of refugee or migrant children; keeping families together; providing quality, learning, healthcare and other related services to all refugee and migrant children; addressing underlying causes of large-scale movements; and combatting xenophobia, discrimination and marginalization.