UNICEF warns of physical, sexual 'abuse & exploitation' for child refugees en route to Europe

At least nine out of 10 child refugees arriving in Europe through Italy this year are unaccompanied, UNICEF says in a new report. The organization told RT that minors go through “various forms of abuse and exploitation” on their perilous way to Europe.

UNICEF said in its report, entitled ‘Danger Every Step of the Way’, that “some 7,009 unaccompanied children made the crossing from North Africa to Italy in the first five months of 2016, twice as many as last year.” Most of them are forced to rely on human smugglers, often under the so-called ‘pay-as-you-go’ system, according to UNICEF.

“They come on an extraordinarily arduous journey. Sometimes it takes months and even years for them to reach Europe,” UNICEF spokesperson Sarah Crowe told RT.

“And the stories that they have told us are really quite striking. The children have gone through various forms of abuse and exploitation at the hands of smugglers and traffickers very often.”

“If you try to run they shoot you and you die. If you stop working, they beat you. It was just like the slave trade,” Aimamo, 16, told UNICEF, describing the farm in Libya where he and his twin brother worked for two months to pay the smugglers. The brothers said that when they arrived in Libya after a risky journey through Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger they were arrested and beaten before one of the smugglers secured their release.

Victims of trafficking

Some children end up being sexually abused and exploited, with Italian social workers telling UNICEF that an unspecified number of girls and boys had been assaulted and forced into prostitution while in Libya. It turned out that some girls were pregnant when they arrived in Italy, having been raped.

“There is concern over a sharp increase in Nigerian women and girls leaving Libya for Italy, with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimating 80 percent of them are victims of trafficking," the authors of the report noted.

A total of 2,809 deaths were recorded in the Mediterranean Sea in the first five months of the year, many of them children, as compared with 3,770 for the whole of last year, UNICEF said.

But the latest numbers of children on the Central Mediterranean route may be “just the tip of the iceberg,” UNICEF said, adding that “another 235,000 migrants are currently in Libya, tens of thousands of them unaccompanied children.”

“Because of the illicit nature of human smuggling operations, there are no reliable figures to show how many of the refugees and migrants die, disappear into forced labor or prostitution, or linger in detention," the UN's children organization noted in the report.

Asylum systems 'overstretched, slow, uneven'

It said that many children, especially those who are unaccompanied or separated, have “fallen between the cracks of asylum systems that are overstretched, slow and uneven."

"All too often children are held behind bars – in detention facilities or in police custody – because of a lack of space in child protection centers and limited capacity for identifying alternative solutions. Procedures to determine a child’s asylum request are typically complex and lengthy – up to two years in some countries – and processes for family reunification can be equally slow."

At least 10,000 unaccompanied child refugees have disappeared after arriving in Europe, the EU police agency Europol said in January. Europol’s chief of staff Brian Donald told the Observer that 5,000 children had disappeared in Italy alone, and another 1,000 were unaccounted for in Sweden. 

“Our message is really, no matter where these children come from, and no matter who they are – if they are under 18 they are children first and foremost, and must be treated as such. The key response that is needed at a time like this is to stop the very push factors, the reasons why young people, children find themselves taking such arduous journeys,” a UNICEF spokesperson told RT.

Europe is currently facing its worst refugee crisis since World War II. Last year alone some 1.8 million asylum-seekers entered the European Union fleeing war and poverty in Middle-Eastern countries, according to data from the European Union border agency Frontex.

In an effort to tackle the biggest migrant crisis in decades, the EU and Ankara signed the migrant deal in March, according to which Turkey would take back refugees seeking asylum in the EU in exchange for a multi-billion-euro aid package and some political concessions, including the visa-free regime. Many fear that following the deal with Ankara, the central Mediterranean route to Italy may become the main one for migrants.

Amnesty International has accused Turkey of illegally forcing thousands of refugees to go back to war-torn Syria, including unaccompanied children. One of the cases uncovered by the human rights watchdog involved three young children, forced back into Syria without their parents.

“The inhumanity and scale of the returns is truly shocking; Turkey should stop them immediately,” Amnesty International's John Dalhuisen said in a statement in April. According to Amnesty, forced returns of refugees from Turkey to Syria expose the "fatal flaws in a refugee deal signed between Turkey and the European Union."