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‘Eleven children die every week’ attempting to cross the Central Mediterranean Sea migration route

So far in 2023, an estimated 11,600 children made the dangerous crossing, according to UNICEF. The majority were alone or separated from their parents.

At least 289 children are estimated to have died or disappeared this year attempting to cross the perilous Central Mediterranean Sea migration route from North Africa to Europe, according to UNICEF.

This equates to nearly eleven children dying or disappearing every week as they search for safety, peace and better opportunities.

The International Organization for Migration has declared the Mediterranean passage the world’s most perilous migration route.

Verena Knaus, UNICEF’s global lead on migration and displacement, said the true figures were likely to be higher as many shipwrecks in the central Mediterranean leave no survivors or go unrecorded.

“The number of children who have lost their lives while attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe has doubled in the first half of this year compared to the same period last year,” she said. “These deaths are absolutely preventable.”

Knaus said that in the first six months of 2023, an estimated 11,600 children made the crossing — nearly twice as many as in the same period in 2022.

And in the first three months of 2023, around 3,300 children — 71 percent of all children arriving in Europe on the central Mediterranean route — were recorded as unaccompanied or separated.

The figure is three times higher than in the same period last year.

January to March 2023 was also the deadliest first quarter for migrants crossing the central Mediterranean since 2017, with 441 lives lost attempting to reach Europe. The UN’s International Organization for Migration said delays in state-led search and rescue (SAR) operations were a factor in several fatal incidents in the perilous crossing from North Africa.

The IOM added that the 441 known deaths in the first three months of the year were likely an undercount of the true number.

“The persisting humanitarian crisis in the central Mediterranean is intolerable,” said IOM chief Antonio Vitorino.

“With more than 20,000 deaths recorded on this route since 2014, I fear that these deaths have been normalised,” he added.

In May, Frontex chief Hans Leijtens told AFP that migrant crossings through the Mediterranean had reached unprecedented levels as increasingly organised smuggling gangs are producing makeshift boats much more easily.

“I have never seen this before,” Frontex chief Hans Leijtens said in the interview, adding that the crossings through the route accounted for just over half the nearly 80,700 irregular entries into the EU so far this year.

“Especially from Tunisia, right now we see, compared with last year, it’s a 1,100 percent growth,” Leijtens said.

However, rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, have accused Frontex of being complicit in abuses of migrants in Libya by collaborating with the Libyan coast guard to intercept boats.

Leijtens said the agency did not cooperate in any way with Libya and denied claims that it abets pushbacks by informing them of the locations of boats in European search and rescue areas.

“We are — and that sounds a bit harsh — indifferent on who’s saving a life as long as they are saved,” he added.

With many in Europe about to jet off to Mediterranean beaches for their summer holidays, Knaus continued that people seemed oblivious to the daily tragedies unfolding in the same waters. “This is the real, shocking reality, but we seem to be quite comfortable with the fact that day in, day out, children lose their lives,” she said.

“These children die, not just in front of our eyes but, it seems, with our eyes shut. Each child’s life lost is a smile that will never be seen, is a dream cut short.”

Knaus said that many children were making the journey unaccompanied over several months to reach the shores of Libya or Tunisia in North Africa, from countries like Guinea, Senegal, The Gambia, Syria and even Afghanistan.

Along the way, they can be exposed to detention, deprivation, torture, trafficking, violence, exploitation and rape, with girls particularly vulnerable.

The eventual boat journey from Libya or Tunisia to Europe typically costs around $7,000, UNICEF said.

Last week, the EU signed a memorandum of understanding with Tunisia that provides 105 million euros in direct European aid to prevent the departure of migrant boats and combat smugglers.

The deal also provides for more illegal Tunisians to be repatriated, and for sub-Saharan African migrants in Tunisia to be sent back to their countries of origin.

“These children need to know they are not alone. World leaders must urgently act to demonstrate the undeniable worth of children’s lives, moving beyond condolences to the resolute pursuit of effective solutions,” said Knaus.

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