Record numbers of unaccompanied children arrive in Italy

18 October 2016


ROME/GENEVA, 18 October 2016 – Three newborn babies, two born on Italian Coastguard boats in the Central Mediterranean and one at port, are among the newest arrivals of refugee and migrant children in Italy, as numbers of children hit record levels, says UNICEF.

In the first nine months of 2016 more children arrived by sea in Italy than in all of last year. This year more than 90 per cent of the children travelled alone while in 2015 the unaccompanied accounted for 75 per cent. This year has also seen an increase of children from Egypt but most still come from West Africa.

From January to October 2016 it is estimated that more than 20,000 unaccompanied and separated children arrived by sea to Italy. This is already more than in 2015 when there were in total 16,500 child arrivals, of whom 12,300 were unaccompanied and separated children.*

According to a UNICEF team on the ground the situation of refugee and migrant children in Italy is increasingly desperate and the Italian child protection system is overstretched.

“Each week hundreds of children arrive here, every one of them has real burning needs – from the fragile newborn babies to the teenagers travelling alone who have no idea what to expect in a foreign land,” said Sabrina Avakian UNICEF child protection officer currently in Calabria, Italy to assess the needs of refugee and migrant children especially the new arrivals.

“Some of the children are deeply distressed from the journey, they witnessed drownings, some have terrible chemical burns from the fuel on the dinghies, the babies and their mothers need special care in breastfeeding, they all need proper protection and accommodation and it is just taking far too long for them.”

Tragically in the ongoing drama of life and death at sea, a Nigerian mother remains in a state of total shock after her two little boys, aged three and four, slipped from her arms and drowned on the deadly sea crossing from Libya. More than 3,100 people have drowned so far in 2016 in the Central Mediterranean, making it the most dangerous year on record. An unknown number of children have died at sea.

The three newborn Eritrean babies and their young mothers are said to be in good health, their births had been registered and they are being cared for by health workers in Catania.

On boats managed by the Italian Coastguards, UNICEF has set up child friendly spaces for small children while for teenagers, the UNICEF team, is helping with the psycho-social support to young boys and girls on their arrival. Together with partners such as UNHCR and the Italian social services, UNICEF is working to speed up the appointment of guardians and improve reception conditions. The high number of foreign children has led to significant delays – sometimes up to a year – in appointing guardians or providing legal support. 

Note to editors:

As of 12th October 144,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Italy, according to the Italian authorities. According to IOM and UNHCR estimates 20,000 unaccompanied and separated children arrived by sea.  The total number of all children is not yet established. This year unaccompanied and separated children have made up 91 per cent of all those arriving through Italy. In 2015 there were 16,478 child arrivals, of whom 12,360 (or 75 per cent) were unaccompanied and separated children.


Download broadcast quality photos and b-roll.
Read our latest blog on children on the move.


Media contacts

UNICEF Media Team
Tel: +1 212 303 7984


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

Follow UNICEF on Twitter and Facebook