More than nine out of 10 refugee and migrant children arriving in Europe through Italy this year are travelling alone, the UN children's agency Unicef said on Tuesday, warning of "appalling" risks children face while escaping conflict and poverty.
In the first five months of 2016, more than 7,000 unaccompanied children made the crossing from North Africa to Italy, following a route that in recent weeks has become the busiest and the deadliest for migrants to Europe, Unicef said.
The children rely on human smugglers, often under a “pay as you go system”, making them prone to exploitation and abuse including rape, forced labour, beatings and death, Unicef said.
It said Italian social workers told the agency some boys and girls were sexually assaulted and forced into prostitution in Libya, while some of the girls arriving in Italy were pregnant as a result of rape.
“If you try to run they shoot you and you die. If you stop working, they beat you. It was just like the slave trade,” 16-year-old Aimamo told Unicef.
“Once I was just resting for five minutes, and a man beat me with a cane. After working, they lock you inside,” he said, describing conditions on the farm in Libya where he worked for two months with his brother to pay the smugglers.
The number of unaccompanied children travelling from North Africa to Italy so far in 2016 was more than double that of the same period in 2015, Unicef said, adding that it could not pinpoint one reason why the numbers had spiked.
Christopher Tidey, a Unicef spokesman, said girls from Nigeria told him they fled to Europe to escape early marriage, while a boy from Somalia said his family sent him away after militant group al-Shabaab threatened to recruit him.
"Extreme poverty is a major motivator as well," Mr Tidey told the Reuters by phone from Germany.
“I met a number of boys from countries like Gambia who made the trip basically because their families were so poor that the older ones were being sent to Europe effectively to try and earn money to send back home.”
As calmer summer weather begins, European officials who struck a deal with Turkey to block crossings to Greece have been scrambling for ways to shut down flows on the other major sea route into the EU from Libya.
Between January 1st and June 5th this year, more than 2,800 deaths were recorded in the whole of the Mediterranean, the vast majority on the dangerous central Mediterranean route from North Africa, compared with 3,770 in 2015, said Unicef.
It said 235,000 migrants were currently in Libya, tens of thousands of them lone children, many trying to make it to Northern France in hope of eventually reaching Britain.
Unicef said many children had fallen between the cracks of overstretched asylum systems and their cases should be a priority.
“All too often children are held behind bars - in detention facilities or in police custody - because of a lack of space in child protection centres and limited capacity for identifying alternative solutions,” it said.
UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has decried a “worrying rise” in detentions of migrants in Greece and Italy and urged authorities to find alternatives to confining children while asylum requests are processed.
Authorities in some countries take up to two years to evaluate a child’s request for asylum, and processes to reunify families can be equally slow, Unicef said. Once in Europe, migrants and refugees are often housed in sports halls, former military barracks or other temporary shelters, sometimes without access to schooling and psychological support, it said.
Some have faced xenophobic attacks, hate speech and stigmatisation, it said, citing 45 arson attacks on refugee shelters in Germany during the first half of this year.