More than 280 child migrants died so far this year crossing Mediterranean

The Arabian Sea. File Photo. Source: Reuters

The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) has said that the number of children who have lost their lives while attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe has doubled in the first half of this year compared to the same period last year.

Verena Knaus, UNICEF’s global lead on migration and displacement, said due to conflicts and climate change, more children are putting “their lives at great risk while making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.”

According to Knaus, as many as 289 children have died while attempting to cross the sea during the first six months of this year.

“This is equivalent to about 11 children dying each week – far beyond what we hear in news headlines. This is nearly double the number of children dying at sea compared to last year – 150,” she said.

Knaus, meanwhile, stated that an estimated 11,600 children have managed to cross the Mediterranean during the first six months of the year, which shows “nearly twice as many as in the same period in 2022.”

“Making matters worse, these figures from the first six months of this year are likely to be underestimates. Many shipwrecks on the Central Mediterranean Sea crossing leave no survivors or go unrecorded, making the true number of child casualties practically impossible to verify,” she added.

“We cannot continue to ignore what is happening – stand by silently when nearly 300 children – an entire plane full of children – are dying in the waters between Europe and Africa in just six months,” she said.

“Children are dying not just in front of our eyes; they are dying while we seem to keep our eyes closed.  Hundreds of girls and boys are drowning in the world’s inaction,” Knaus added.

According to her, the Central Mediterranean Sea has been one of the deadliest migration routes in the world for children.

“In the last few weeks alone, we know children and even babies have been among those who have lost their lives while trying to cross the sea to reach Greece, Spain’s Canary Islands, or Italy,” Knaus said.

UNICEF meanwhile is responding to this escalating crisis by supporting countries to strengthen national child protection, social protection, and migration and asylum systems to ensure children are safe as they move. “We are also working with countries to provide support and inclusive services to all children, regardless of their or their parent’s legal status,” Knaus said.

“These deaths are preventable. They are as much driven by the complex emergencies, conflicts, and climate risks that drive children from their homes as by the lack of political and practical action to do what it takes to enable safe access to asylum and to protect the rights and lives of children wherever they come from and whatever their mode of travel,” she added.

UNICEF has also called on European countries to protect the lives of vulnerable children “at sea and in countries of origin, transit, and destination.”

“Governments must protect the rights and best interests of children in line with their obligations under national and international law. The rights enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child do not stop at borders or shores – they travel with children as they cross,” Knaus stressed.

“To prevent deaths at sea there need to be safe, legal, and accessible pathways for children to seek protection and reunite with family members. This means expanding opportunities to access family reunification in countries of origin or transit, refugee resettlement, or other humanitarian visas – – in much greater numbers than what is currently available.

“Countries must also strengthen coordination on search and rescue operations and ensure prompt disembarkation to places of safety. The duty to search and rescue a boat in distress is a fundamental rule in international maritime law. States and ships are obliged to assist regardless of circumstances or intentions.  And pushbacks at sea (or land borders) are violations of national, EU, and international law,” Knaus said.

“Each day that passes without an agreement on how to fairly and effectively share the responsibility to prevent deaths at sea is a day that puts more children in harm’s way.

“Finally, another staggering data point to note is the number of children UNICEF estimates that are making the crossing without their parents or guardians. In the first three months of 2023, 3,300 children – 71 percent of all children arriving in Europe via the Central Mediterranean Sea route – were recorded as unaccompanied or separated. This is three times higher than the number in the same period last year. Girls traveling alone are especially likely to experience violence before, during, and after their journeys,” she said.

“These children need to know they are not alone. World leaders must urgently act to demonstrate the undeniable worth of children’s lives … moving beyond condolences to the resolute pursuit of effective solutions.”