Migrant and refugee children and youth trying to reach Europe face appalling levels of human rights violations, with 77 per cent of those travelling along the Central Mediterranean route facing abuse, exploitation, and human trafficking, a report published by international bodies said on Tuesday.
"All migrants and refugees are at high risk," explained UNICEF and the UN Migration Agency (IOM), "but children and youth on the move are far more likely to experience exploitation and trafficking than adults aged 25 years and above."
The report is based on the testimonies of some 22,000 migrants and refugees, including 11,000 children and youth, interviewed by IOM.
Aimamo, 16 and from Gambia, said that he was forced into months of gruelling manual labour by traffickers upon his arrival in Libya. "If you try to run, they shoot you," he told IOM. "If you stop working, they beat you. We were just like slaves. At the end of the day, they just lock you inside."
This is the stark reality that is now standard practice, UNICEF's Regional Director and Special Coordinator for the Refugee and Migrant Crisis in Europe pointed out. "Children moving through the Mediterranean are abused, trafficked, beaten and discriminated against," added Afshan Khan. "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."
According to Eugenio Ambrosi, IOM's Regional Director for the EU, Norway and Switzerland, "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." That is why it is essential for Europe to act. "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."
According to the report, the Central Mediterranean route is particularly dangerous, with most of the migrants and refugees passing through Libya which remains riven with lawlessness, militias and criminality. It also noted that young people pay between $1,000-5,000 for the journey and often arrive in Europe in debt, which exposes them to further risks.
The report calls on all concerned parties to prioritise a series of actions to solve this crisis, including the establishment of safe and regular pathways for children on the move and strengthening services to protect migrant and refugee children whether in their countries of origin, transit or destination.
Among the proposed measures, the report also called for finding alternatives to the detention of children on the move; working across borders to combat trafficking and exploitation; and combatting xenophobia, racism and discrimination against all migrants and refugees.