By Asmau Ahmad
The United Nations Children’s Fund (FUND) has called on governments across the world to provide safe, legal pathways for children to migrate and seek asylum in line with obligations under international law and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Reacting to the report that 11 children die every week while crossing the Central Mediterranean, the UN agency, sought the protection of vulnerable children at sea, countries of origin, transit and destination countries.
According to UNICEF, at least, 289 children are estimated to have died or disappeared in 2023 while attempting to cross the perilous Central Mediterranean Sea migration route from North Africa to Europe.
The agency said this translates to 11 children dying or disappearing every week in search for safety, peace and better opportunities, and called on governments to improve prospects for children and adolescents in countries of origin and transit by addressing conflict, climate risks and expanding social protection coverage, and opportunities to learn and earn.
UNICEF also estimated that since 2018, about 1, 500 children have died or gone missing while attempting the Central Mediterranean Sea crossing, noting that the figure accounts for one in five of the 8, 274 people who have died or gone missing on the route, according to IOM’s Missing Migrant Project records.
The UN agency further estimated that 11,600 children – an average of 428 children a week – arrived on the shores of Italy from North Africa since January 2023, saying this is a two-fold increase compared to the same period in 2022, despite the grave risks involved for children.
Executive Director, UNICEF, Catherine Russell, said, “In attempts to find safety, reunite with family, and seek more hopeful futures, too many children are boarding boats on the shores of the Mediterranean, only to lose their lives or go missing on the way.
She said, “This is a clear sign that more must be done to create safe and legal pathways for children to access asylum while strengthening efforts to rescue lives at sea. Ultimately, much more must be done to address the root causes that make children risk their lives in the first place.
“The majority of children depart from Libya and Tunisia, having already made dangerous journeys from countries across Africa and the Middle East. In the first three months of 2023, 3,300 children – 71 per cent of all children arriving in Europe via this route – were recorded as unaccompanied or separated from parents or legal guardians, putting them at a greater risk of violence, exploitation and abuse.
“Girls travelling alone are likely to experience violence before, during and after their journeys. The Central Mediterranean Sea has become one of the most dangerous routes travelled by children.
“However, the risk of death at sea is just one of many tragedies these children face – from threats or experiences of violence, lack of educational or future opportunities, raids and immigration detention or separation from family.”
UNICEF noted that the associated risks are further compounded by limited pathways for children to move safely, lack of access to protection in countries along the way, and insufficient and slow search and rescue operations.
On ensuring access to information to make safe and informed choices on options and dangers associated with crossing, the UN agency wants all refugees and migrants to be children safe, and given access to health and other essential services.
UNICEF is also calling on the European Union to ensure that maximum protection for children is reflected in the EU Pact on Migration and Asylum, which is under negotiation.