They risk detention, rape, forced labour, beatings or death. Yet, tens of thousands of children, many of them unaccompanied or separated, are making the dangerous refugee and migrant journey in the hope of finding safety or a better life in Europe. They are fleeing brutal violence, abject poverty, drought, forced early marriage, untold hardship or lack of prospects and hope in dozens of countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
From the brutal five-year conflict in Syria or the parched earth of Somalia, to rickety boats and squalid makeshift camps, every step of the journey is fraught with danger, all the more so for the nearly one in four children travelling without a parent or a guardian.1 The Central Mediterranean route In recent weeks, the crossing from North Africa to Italy has become the busiest. It is also the deadliest. The death toll rose to 2,427 between January 1 and June 5, 2016, as compared with 1,786 in the first six months of 2015.2
And the number of unaccompanied children making the notoriously dangerous Central Mediterranean crossing more than doubled to over 7,000 in the first five months of 2016 as compared with the same period in 2015, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Unaccompanied children made up over 92 per cent of the 7,567 children who crossed by sea to Italy between January 1 and May 31, 2016. In large part because of the huge risks and hardships involved, comparatively few families take this route, with adult men making up 70 per cent of the approximately 28,000 arrivals in that period.3 1 Eurostat data retrieved 7 June, 2016 2 IOM 7 June, 2016 3 IOM Mixed Migration flows in the Mediterranean and beyond, 19 May 2016 Smugglers typically cram people aboard unseaworthy fishing boats or rubber dinghies with unreliable engines and, often, insufficient fuel to reach Europe. There have been numerous reports of smugglers abandoning ship at the limits of Libyan territorial waters – casting their human cargo adrift – in order to avoid arrest by European security forces.
And, with the summer cross-Mediterranean migration season upon us, the numbers may well increase in the coming months. There are currently almost 235,000 refugees and migrants in Libya4 and some 956,000 in the Sahel countries,5 many – if not most – of them hoping to make their way to Europe. In the last week of May 2016 alone, a total of more than 16,500 were recorded as heading to Libya from Agadez, a major migrant thoroughfare in Niger.6
For many of the refugees and migrants, drowning is just one of the numerous risks they face along their journey, which can take them several thousand kilometres over mountains, across deserts, and through violence-torn regions. They risk dehydration, kidnapping, robbery, rape and extortion, as well as detention and beatings by the authorities or militias. ……..