Children drowning in the world’s inaction’ - UNICEF Geneva Palais briefing note on the increase in children taking the Central Mediterranean Sea migration route

This is a summary of what was said by UNICEF Global Lead on Migration and Displacement Verena Knaus – to whom quoted text may be attributed – at today's press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva

14 July 2023
A group of Gambian boys survey the ocean from the beach during an outing from a government hot spot–a reception center that doubles as a lodging station for unaccompanied minors in Pozzallo, Sicily, on May 17, 2016. They are frightened to swim, they said, after their harrowing boat journey from Libya.
UNICEF/UN020034/Gilbertson VII Photo
FILE Photo: A group of Gambian boys survey the ocean from the beach during an outing from a government hot spot–a reception center that doubles as a lodging station for unaccompanied minors in Pozzallo, Sicily, on May 17, 2016. They are frightened to swim, they said, after their harrowing boat journey from Libya.

GENEVA, 14 JULY 2023 – “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.

"Driven by conflict and climate change, more and more children are putting their lives at great risk while making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

"This year, 289 children have died at sea. 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.

"In the first six months of this year, we estimate 11,600 children made the crossing – again, 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.

"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.

"And yet, given these numbers and the silence surrounding so many of these preventable deaths, it does seem the world is willfully ignoring what is happening.

"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.

"This makes the Central Mediterranean Sea 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.

"In response to this escalating crisis, UNICEF is supporting countries in strengthening 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.

"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.

"But it’s not enough to mourn each young life lost, more must be done by the countries in the region – and the EU - to better protect 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.

"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.

"Each day that passes without an agreement on how to fairly and effectively share 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 per cent of all children arriving to 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 travelling alone are especially likely to experience violence before, during and after their journeys.

"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 resolute pursuit of effective solutions.”


Notes for editors:

Additional information in the press release - Eleven children die every week attempting to cross the Central Mediterranean Sea migration route – UNICEF

  • The data analysis referenced was produced by UNICEF using data on arrivals in Italy from UNHCR’s Operational Data Portal (as of 9 July 2023) and data on missing migrants on the Central Mediterranean Route from IOM’s Missing Migrants Project (as of 3 July 2023), accessed 10 July 2023
  • UNHCR reported 90,605 sea arrivals in Europe between January and 9 July 2023  via the Mediterranean Sea
  • Most of these arrivals, 69,599 or 77%, occurred through the Central Mediterranean Route. The Central Mediterranean Route (which refers to the sea journey from North Africa, mainly Tunisia and Libya, to Italy) is one of the most active and dangerous
  • For the 69,599 refugees and migrants that made the journey over the Central Mediterranean Route since January 2023, UNHCR reported a share of 16.7 per cent children - or around 11,600 children.
  • Numbers of missing children are estimated based on the total number of missing migrants and the demographics of arrivals on the same route
  • UNICEF is the Chair of the Secretariat of the International Data Alliance for Children on the Move (IDAC), leading global efforts to improve the availability and quality of data to improve outcomes for children on the move. Learn more here.

Media contacts

Tess Ingram
Tel: +1 934 867 7867
Georgina Diallo
UNICEF Europe and Central Asia
Tel: +1 917 238 1559


UNICEF works in some of the world’s toughest places, to reach the world’s most disadvantaged children. Across more than 190 countries and territories, we work for every child, everywhere, to build a better world for everyone.

Follow UNICEF on TwitterFacebook, Instagram and YouTube