Sunday, January 15, 2017
According to a press release from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), more than 90% of children reaching Italy's shores after crossing the Mediterranean Sea have been separated from their families or are unaccompanied. The number of children arriving in Italy by themselves via the sea in 2016 more than doubled over the previous year, from 12,360 to 25,800. The majority were from Eritrea, Egypt, Gambia and Nigeria. UNICEF is calling 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.
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. UNICEF further stated that several of the girls who were interviewed by its staff earlier this year in Palermo, 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 labor.
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 combating xenophobia, discrimination and marginalization.