Deadliest winter for refugee and migrant children crossing the Central Mediterranean, says UNICEF

03 February 2017

UNICEF/UN019996/Gilbertson VII

NEW YORK/GENEVA/BRUSSELS, 3 February, 2017 – A record number of refugee and migrant deaths in the Central Mediterranean over the past three months, including an estimated 190 children*, has prompted an urgent appeal from UNICEF to leaders of European Union member states meeting in Malta.

At least 1,354 migrants and refugees drowned in the period from November 2016 to end of January 2017 – with the majority of deaths occurring on the dangerous Central Mediterranean sea route between Libya and Italy where 1,191 people are reported to have perished.** This is almost 13 times the number of fatalities reported for this route over the same period in 2015-2016. With winter weather still gripping much of Europe, this route and others including from Egypt and elsewhere could become even more treacherous over the coming weeks.

The refugee and migrant crisis will be the focus of Friday’s summit meeting of 28 European Union member states in Valletta, Malta.

“The growing number of children lost at sea underscores the acute danger of the journey from North Africa to Italy, as well as the pressing need for governments on both sides of the Mediterranean to do more to keep them safe,” said UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Justin Forsyth. “The decisions taken at Friday’s summit could literally mean the difference between life and death for thousands of children transiting or stranded in Libya. They need urgent action now.”

UNICEF calls on the EU and its member states to commit to the following actions to protect uprooted children:

  • Prevent the exploitation and trafficking of children;
  • Adhere fully to the principle of ‘non-refoulement’ as sending children back into harm’s way or returning boats to Libya without a proper plan to protect them, would only add to their hardship;
  • Commit resources to the strengthening of child protection programmes in Libya;
  • Invest in reception and care centres in Libya; these centres should provide education and health services, and should never be used to detain children based on their migration status;
  • Invest in credible resettlement and family reunification programmes so that desperate refugees and migrants do not have to turn to smugglers and risk their lives.

UNICEF is operating along the migration routes, including in Libya, providing refugee and migrant children and families with child protection services, water and sanitation, education, health and hygiene support.

On Wednesday night, UNICEF and its partner Intersos were involved in the rescue of 754 people from the waters of the Central Mediterranean, including 148 unaccompanied children. Over the past few days, the Italian Coastguard has rescued 285 children with support from UNICEF and Intersos.

* The true number of child fatalities may never be known as many children on the move in 2016 were unaccompanied, with their deaths neither recorded nor reported. Assumptions have been made to generate an estimate but the real number can be different. 

** Sources: UNHCR and IOM


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