September 21, 2023

Eleven children die every week trying to cross the Mediterranean, according to new UN figures

A child rescued from a dinghy off the Libyan coast welcomes peers aboard the Open Arms rescue boat of the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms

An estimated 11,600 children have made the dangerous crossing this year – Olmo Calvo/AP

According to new data from the United Nations, an average of 11 children drown every week trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

The findings reveal the tragic magnitude of Europe’s deepening refugee crisis, which killed an estimated 100 children last month after a fishing boat sank off southern Greece.

An estimated 11,600 children have made the perilous crossing this year and an estimated 289 have died or disappeared, according to UNICEF, the UN’s children’s agency.

Since 2018, 1,500 children have been killed or missing, the agency added.

Organized smuggling gangs charge thousands of pounds for the crossing, forcing hundreds of migrants onto dilapidated and unsafe boats, often before removing the engines and floating the ships.

Lisa Ward, an NHS paramedic who has worked on lifeboats in the Mediterranean, has witnessed firsthand the consequences of this exploitation.

“There are a lot of babies and children under the age of three or four,” she said. “During a rescue operation, I brought three drowned toddlers to me in half an hour. I managed to get one breath, but I couldn’t hold it. They all died. There were probably more [in the water]. The mothers were looking for their children.”

Migrants prepare to board the Ocean Viking ship sailing in international waters around Libya in the Mediterranean Sea

Hundreds of migrants are often forced onto dilapidated and unsafe boats – VINCENZO CIRCOSTA/AFP via Getty Images

Many shipwrecks crossing the Central Mediterranean leave no survivors or are not recorded, making the true number of child victims impossible to verify and likely much higher.

Most of the children leave Libya and Tunisia, having already traveled from countries in Africa and the Middle East.

“Some children would have traces of torture; electrical burns,” Ms Ward said. “Some would have urine burns, where people had urinated on the boat and the kids had been in it for days.

“On one rescue, the boat heeled over and everyone went into the water. Most of these people cannot swim. Male adults removed the children’s life jackets.”

‘Tackling human trafficking and smuggling networks’

The UN said a large proportion of children who make the journey across the Mediterranean do so alone.

In the first three months of 2023, about 3,300 children – 71 percent of all children who came to Europe via this route – were registered as unaccompanied or separated from their parents.

Girls traveling alone are particularly vulnerable and are “likely” to experience violence, UNICEF said.

“Cases of systematic rape are known and well documented. So it is not with a light heart that we say that these girls are at extreme risk before, during and after their travels,” Verena Knaus, UNICEF’s global leader on migration, told The Telegraph.

“In other cases, we come across unaccompanied girls who have paid the price for crossing a border with their bodies and are now giving birth to an unwanted child. We hear this is happening with smugglers, border guards and even search and rescue.”

Judith Sunderland, acting deputy director for Europe at Human Rights Watch, said: “No one deserves to drown at sea, but the thought of children – so many children – going under the waves is heartbreaking.”

She said, “Each of us should think beyond the statistics to imagine the children in our own lives facing that kind of death.”

“It is important to tackle human trafficking and smuggling networks because of the real harm they do to both children and adults, but the best way to minimize dangerous migration journeys is to create more safe and legal channels,” she added.

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