Thousands of migrant and refugee children routinely face abuse, exploitation and detention as they make the journey along the central Mediterranean migration route to Europe, according to a new report from the United Nations Children’s Fund.
The children, most of whom are fleeing war and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, travel north into Libya and across the sea to Italy, and are subjected to sexual violence, extortion and abduction along the way, the children’s rights agency said.
Last year, more than 180,000 refugees and migrants, including more than 25,000 mostly unaccompanied children, arrived in Italy via the central Mediterranean route, UNICEF said. The most dangerous part of the route is a 621-mile trek from the southern border of Libya’s desert to its Mediterranean coast, combined with the 310-mile sea passage to Sicily, UNICEF said. Smugglers, traffickers and predators control passage.
At least 4,579 people died attempting to make the crossing, including an estimated 700 children, the agency said.
The report published Tuesday and titled “A Deadly Journey for Children: The Central Mediterranean Migrant Route,” is based on a survey conducted in Libya by the International Organization for Cooperation and Emergency Aid, a UNICEF partner, with support from the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University. A sample of 122 participants — 82 women and 40 children representing almost a dozen mostly sub-Saharan African nations — was interviewed and provided the agency with “ a window into the scale of the challenge,” UNICEF said.
“What’s striking is that the report shows the risks are not just in one place along the journey,” said Christopher Tidey, a New York-based spokesman for UNICEF. “It’s fairly consistent dangers. It’s not just the boats crossing. It’s the overland journey that is incredibly risky as well.”
The report comes at a time when the Trump administration is seeking to restrict the intake of refugees to the United States and has used the flood of migrants to Europe as part of what the president’s critics describe as an anti-immigrant rallying cry.
Among the UNICEF report’s key findings were the responses from three-quarters of the migrant children who said they had experienced violence, harassment or aggression at the hands of adults, with girls reporting higher incidents of abuse than boys. Nearly half the women interviewed reported suffering sexual violence or abuse during the journey, and several children said they did not have access to adequate food while traversing the desert to Libya.
In addition, most children and women said they had to rely on smugglers “leaving many in debt under ‘pay as you go’ arrangements and vulnerable to abuse, abduction and trafficking,” the report said.
“We know that if refugees and migrants don’t have a safe and legal pathway to migration, then desperate people will turn to smugglers and traffickers … who know that these people have no choice and they are easy to prey upon,” Tidey said.
In Libya, where security is precarious, women and children also reported harsh and overcrowded conditions, including lack of nutritious food and adequate shelter in detention centers run by both government and armed militias, according to the report.
Most of those surveyed said they were expected to work for extended periods in Libya to pay for the next leg of their journey, which would be back home or to destinations in Europe.
And making it to Europe does not guarantee safety, rights advocates said. A report last year from Europol, the European Union’s intelligence agency, found that at least 10,000 refugee children were unaccounted for after arriving in Europe. Many were feared to have fallen prey to organized human trafficking networks and forced labor.
Critics of liberal migration policies charge that parents are responsible for putting their children in harm’s way. In 2015, a candidate of the U.K. Independence Party, a "Euroskeptic" right-wing populist political party, provoked outrage when he criticized the parents of a Syrian boy who washed up dead on a beach after failing to survive the Mediterranean crossing from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos, describing them as being "greedy for the good life in Europe."
But children’s advocates said such actions speak to the desperation parents must feel.
“You have to think that, given the risks, people would not make that decision for their children unless they felt they really did not have a choice,” Tidey said, referring to the migrants braving the central Mediterranean migration route.
UNICEF is urging governments and the European Union to adopt an agenda that protects child refugees and migrants from exploitation and violence, ends the detention of children who are migrating or seeking refugee status, and provides them with access to education and healthcare, among other measures.
The children’s rights agency is working with authorities and communities in Libya to clamp down on smuggling and trafficking, ensure that refugee and migrant children are kept safe and have access to services, according to officials.
“But it’s beyond Europe,” Tidey said. “When borders are closed, then people will do what they need to do. That’s when the risks just skyrocket. “