More than three quarters of child refugees trying to reach Europe are facing “appalling” levels of human rights abuses along the central Mediterranean route, a new study has revealed.
Of nearly 1,600 child refugees aged 14-17 who came to Italy through the Mediterranean during the second half of 2016, 77 per cent reported direct experiences of abuse, exploitation and practices which may amount to human trafficking.
Survey results from early 2017, based on the testimonies of some 22,000 refugees, indicate that the situation might be worsening – with 91 per cent of children reporting such experiences.
The report, co-produced by Unicef, the International Office for Migration (IOM) and the UN Migration Agency, shows that children and young people on the move are nearly twice as likely to experience exploitation and trafficking than adults aged 25 years and above on the eastern Mediterranean route.
One 17-year-old Nigerian girl reported being raped and held prisoner in a house in Tripoli, before being threatened once she sought help. An Afghan boy, 16, reported being forced to work on a farm in Libya, where he was “beaten with a cane” if he stopped working, to pay his smugglers.
Children and youths travelling alone or over longer periods, as well as those possessing lower levels of education, were also found to be highly vulnerable to exploitation at the hands of traffickers and criminal groups over the course of their journeys.
According to the report the central Mediterranean route is particularly dangerous, with most of the refugees passing through Libya, which remains riven with lawlessness, militias and criminality.
It comes amid a surge in the number of youngsters pursuing routes to Europe in recent years, with at least 300,000 unaccompanied and separated children moving across borders having registered in 80 countries last year – a near fivefold increase from 66,000 in 2010–2011.
Unaccompanied and separated children made up 92 per cent of all under-18s arriving in Italy via the central Mediterranean Sea passage from North Africa in 2016, and the figure remained at this level through the first two months of 2017 – up from 75 per cent the year before.
Most of these children came from Eritrea, the Gambia, Nigeria, Egypt and Guinea. Ninety-two 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.
The children indicated that they had been held against their will or forced to work – or had agreed to work for pay, and then were not paid. A smaller number told researchers they had been offered arranged marriage or cash for blood, organs or body parts.
Smugglers may offer refugees, including children moving on their own, a “pay as you go” deal – asking for no money up front, but later demanding sums children may not be able to pay. Children may subsequently be forced to work off their “debts” under conditions akin to contemporary forms of slavery and under threats of violence.
Speaking to researchers at a shelter in Italy, 16-year-old Aimamo, an unaccompanied child from the Gambia, described being forced into months of gruelling manual labour by traffickers following his arrival in Libya.
“If you try to run, they shoot you. If you stop working, they beat you. We were just like slaves. At the end of the day, they just lock you inside,” he said.
Another youngster, 17-year-old Mary* from Nigeria, told of how she left her country to escape a life with no prospects, but found herself being sexually exploited at the hands of a man who had promised to help her.
The man threatened to hand her over to someone else and leave her in Libya, then raped her. She was then held prisoner in a house in Tripoli with several other girls and young women, deprived of food and with no one to contact for help. “I wanted to get away, but I couldn’t – I had no money, no phone. I didn’t even know where I was to escape,” she said.
Karim, 16, from Afghanistan, ran out of money while on his way to Europe, so to fund his journey he spent eight months making T-shirts and pants for a textile manufacturer in Istanbul, Turkey.
It was “backbreaking work”, the report states, requiring him to lift crates weighing 40-50 kg. He worked 14- to 15-hour days six days a week until he earned the 3,000 euros he needed to move on.
The findings reveal there are racial trends in the exploitation of unaccompanied minors, with those originating from sub-Saharan Africa being considerably more at risk. Racism is likely a major underlying factor behind this discrepancy, according to researchers.
Children from sub-Saharan Africa were more than four times more likely to experience exploitation and trafficking than those from other parts of the world along the Eastern Mediterranean route – at 65 per cent compared with 15 per cent.
The discrepancy also exists along the central Mediterranean route, with 83 per cent of sub-Saharan African children subject to exploitation or trafficking, compared with 56 per cent of others.
The report has prompted renewed calls for all concerned parties − countries of origin, transit and destination, the African Union, the EU, international and national organisations with support from the donor community – to prioritise a series of actions.
These include establishing safe and regular pathways for children on the move, strengthening services to protect refugee children, finding alternatives to the detention of children on the move, working across borders to combat trafficking and exploitation, and combating xenophobia, racism and discrimination against all refugees.
In light of the findings, Afshan Khan, Unicef Regional Director and Special Coordinator for the Refugee and Migrant Crisis in Europe, urged EU leaders to establish protections for child refugees.
“The stark reality is that it is now standard practice that children moving through the Mediterranean are abused, trafficked, beaten and discriminated against,” he said.
“EU leaders should put in place lasting solutions that include safe and legal migration pathways, establishing protection corridors and finding alternatives to the detention of migrant children.”
Eugenio Ambrosi, IOM’s Regional Director for the EU, Norway and Switzerland, said: “For people who leave their countries to escape violence, instability or poverty, the factors pushing them to migrate are severe and they make perilous journeys knowing that they may be forced to pay with their dignity, their wellbeing or even their lives.
“Without the establishment of more regular migration pathways, other measures will be relatively ineffective. We must also re-invigorate a rights-based approach to migration, improving mechanisms to identify and protect the most vulnerable throughout the migration process, regardless of their legal status.”
Lily Caprani, Deputy Executive Director of Unicef UK, said Britain has a “crucial” role to play, saying: “This is a global problem but the UK has a crucial role to play in preventing such dangerous and traumatising journeys in the first place.
“If we are serious about protecting these children, the UK must change its own family reunion rules so that children do not have to attempt to reach Europe to be reunited with loved ones. This simple move could save lives, and avoid children falling into the hand of traffickers and smugglers.”
*Name changed to protect girl’s identity
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