Facing abuse and violence in Libya, thousands of African children flee to Italy across the Mediterranean Sea, most of them alone and unprepared for Europe, the United Nations children’s agency (UNICEF) said on Tuesday.
The majority of Africa’s child migrants leave home without their parents’ knowledge – often due to domestic violence or family disputes – and do not aim to go to Europe, but plan to find work in nearby countries, a UNICEF study found.
Yet hundreds of refugee and migrant children told UNICEF in Italy that being kidnapped, arrested and held in prison in Libya, as well as witnessing violence towards other migrants, had compelled them to take the risky sea crossing to Europe.
At least 12,200 children arrived in Italy in the first half of the year, all but a few having travelled alone, UNICEF said.
“Concerns are growing about unaccompanied children on the move, especially in Libya,” said UNICEF spokesman Patrick Rose.
The voyage from Libya across the Mediterranean to Italy – often on flimsy boats run by people smugglers – has become the main route to Europe for migrants from Africa after a European Union crackdown last year on sea crossings from Turkey.
At least 20,000 migrants are being detained in Libya, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Many are extorted for money by smugglers and gangs, and rising numbers are traded – in what they call slave markets – for forced labour and sexual exploitation, the IOM says.
“The situation for migrants (in Libya) is very dangerous … there is an extreme level of violence at the hands of kidnappers,” Rose told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
The UNICEF study, based on interviews with 850 children aged 15 to 17, found that less than half of those who arrived in Italy intended to go to Europe, and that many of their journeys were fragmented and sometimes lasted longer than two years.
More than 7 million children in West and Central Africa are on the move due to violence, poverty and climate change, making up over half of all migrants in the region, according to UNICEF.
Yet most head to other African nations, and only one in five attempt the perilous journey to Europe, the U.N. agency says.
“What is striking about this study is it shows for the first time that there are overwhelmingly far more reasons that push children to leave their homes, than have been previously understood, and fewer pull factors that lure them to Europe,” said Afshan Khan, UNICEF director for Europe and Central Asia.