GENEVA - The U.N. refugee agency estimates nearly 4,200 people have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean Sea since Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed ashore on a Turkish beach one year ago. During the first eight months of this year, the agency reports, more than 280,000 people have made the treacherous sea crossing to Europe.
The number of arrivals in Greece has practically dried up, following the implementation of a European Union-Turkey accord under which migrants are prevented from leaving Turkish shores. But the numbers leaving Libya for Italy remain high.
UNHCR spokesman William Spindler said Friday that the change in the migratory pattern had caused a spike in the number of casualties.
“So far this year, one person has died for every 42 crossings from North Africa to Italy, compared to one in every 52 last year," he said. "This makes 2016 to date the deadliest year on record in the central Mediterranean. The chances of dying on the Libya-to-Italy route are 10 times higher than when crossing from Turkey to Greece.”
Spindler said these dangers reinforce the urgent need to increase legal pathways for refugees to seek asylum in European countries. These, he said, could involve resettlement or private sponsorship, family reunification and student scholarship schemes.
Meanwhile, the U.N. Children’s Fund estimated that 500,000 refugee and migrant children had fallen prey to smugglers. The agency said people smuggling and human trafficking were now estimated to be worth up to $6 billion annually.
UNICEF spokeswoman Sarah Crowe told VOA that children, especially unaccompanied youngsters, who use smugglers to reach European countries of destination were very vulnerable to exploitation.
“It may mean that they have to pay off their debts in favors, in exploitative services, such as labor, sexual prostitution, sexual exploitation and so on," she said. "But sometimes, just out of desperation, they will fall into the hands of other criminals, organized crime, et cetera.”
To help protect refugee and migrant children, UNICEF is calling for greater efforts in tracking and documenting smuggling and trafficking networks that target children on the move.