UNICEF: Ten times more child refugees than a decade ago
The number of children seeking asylum in Europe has increased ten-fold since 2008 with many travelling unaccompanied, according to a new report by the United Nation’s Children Fund, UNICEF.
The “A Child is a Child” report found that 92 percent of children who took the dangerous sea passage from North Africa to Italy in 2016 and the first two months of 2017 were travelling alone, up from 75 percent in 2015.
UNICEF's chief lawyer in Sweden and programme officer, Christina Heilborn, told Swedish Radio that the majority of girls arriving in Italy had been sexually abused on the journey.
"This is about rape, abuse, and forced labour – and more and more children are reporting this," she said. "They tell horrific stories. Many of the children have also been locked up in containment, effectively imprisoned."
She cited the example of a 13-year-old girl she met in Sicily who had started selling herself for sex to survive after being raped and abused on her way to Europe.
"The smugglers are extremely dominant in the children's lives, even if it looks different depending on whether they are physically present or not. But there is always a threat hanging over them that there are debts to be paid back, and a fear that is very obvious."
Heilborn said that the changes in the asylum laws granting only temporary residence permits, which make it more difficult for families to be reunited, is forcing greater numbers of people to take dangerous journeys to join their relatives in Sweden.
"Unaccompanied youth and children are forced out onto the dangerous boats in the Mediterranean," she said.