GENEVA - The U.N. children’s fund warned in a new report that increasing numbers of unaccompanied refugee and migrant children in Europe are at risk of exploitation and abuse. The report, titled Danger Every Step of the Way, was released in Geneva.
Last year, aid agencies focused their care and protection programs on refugee and migrant children arriving in Europe on the eastern Mediterranean; but, few people are arriving in Europe via that route since the closure of borders in the Balkans and a Turkey-EU agreement largely stemmed the migration flow.
So, concerns for the welfare of unaccompanied children have shifted to those arriving in Europe on the central Mediterranean route. UNICEF spokeswoman Sarah Crowe said this new trend is very worrying.
“Nine out of 10 refugee children arriving in Europe this year through Italy are unaccompanied. This is a very worrying number of children," she said. "... When all eyes have been focused on Greece, this has unfolded in a somewhat silent tragedy in the central Mediterranean.”
UNICEF reports more than 7,000 unaccompanied children have made the crossing from North Africa to Italy in the first five months of the year. This is twice as many as last year.
Children interviewed for this report described being forced into prostitution, exploited and trafficked every step of the way. Crowe said these children rely on smugglers in a system known as ‘pay as you go’ that opens them to exploitation.
Crowe told VOA 95 percent of the unaccompanied children are boys and most are between the ages of 15 and 17. She said they come largely from Somalia, Eritrea, the Gambia and lately from Egypt.
She added that boys as well as girls are often forced into prostitution to pay off their debts to smugglers.
With summer approaching, UNICEF warned the number of children arriving in Europe on the central Mediterranean route may just be the beginning. It noted 235,000 migrants currently are in Libya — tens of thousands of them unaccompanied children.
The agency said all unaccompanied children are entitled to protection. It said every country these children leave or cross or in which they seek asylum has a duty to protect them from the risks they face.