Number of unaccompanied children has skyrocketed, says UNICEF report

The number of children moving on their own has skyrocketed. On the dangerous Central Mediterranean Sea passage from North Africa to Europe, 92 per cent of children who arrived in Italy in 2016 and the first two months of 2017 were unaccompanied, up from 75 per cent in 2015. At least 300,000 unaccompanied and separated children moving across borders were registered in 80 countries in 2015–2016 – a near fivefold increase from 66,000 in 2010–2011. The total number of unaccompanied and separated children on the move worldwide is likely much higher, said UNICEF’s report “One child is child” released on Thursday.

Specific reasons motivate children to undertake journeys alone. Many seek to reunite with family members already abroad. Others pursue their families’ aspirations for this generation to have a better life. Perceptions of the potential benefits of children moving, especially to certain destinations, filter through social networks. Other factors include family breakdown, domestic violence, child marriage and forced conscription.

Once children and families place their fates in the hands of smugglers, the transaction can readily take a turn towards abuse or exploitation – especially when children and families incur debts to pay smugglers’ fees. Europol estimates that 20 per cent of suspected smugglers on their radar have ties to human trafficking –they help children cross borders, only to sell them into exploitation, sometimes akin to contemporary forms of slavery. Some routes are particularly rife with risks. In a recent International Organization for Migration survey, over three-quarters of 1,600 children aged 14–17 who arrived in Italy via the Central Mediterranean route reported experiences such as being held against their will or being forced to work without pay at some point during their journeys – indications that they may have been trafficked or otherwise exploited.

On the Central Mediterranean route to Italy in 2015, unaccompanied and separated children made up 75 per cent of all children arriving in Italy by sea; this proportion rose to 92 per cent in 2016 and remained at that level through the first two months of 2017. Most of these children came from Eritrea, the Gambia, Nigeria, Egypt and Guinea. Around 200,000 unaccompanied and separated children applied for asylum in 2015 and 2016 in about 80 countries with available data while about 100,000 were apprehended at the border between Mexico and the United States during the same period. Taken together, these numbers – 300,000 children – demonstrate a dramatic rise, compared to the 66,000 recorded in 2010–2011. These numbers refer to only a subset of children moving across borders on their own. The total number of unaccompanied and separated children on the move worldwide is likely much higher, said UNICEF’s report.