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UNICEF: Increase in Refugee Children Fleeing to Europe

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In this photo provided by the Italian Navy, migrants are approached by an Italian Navy dinghy boat in the Mediterranean sea, Aug. 22, 2015.
In this photo provided by the Italian Navy, migrants are approached by an Italian Navy dinghy boat in the Mediterranean sea, Aug. 22, 2015.

A large number of young refugees and migrants face many risks trying to reach Europe.

So says a new UNICEF report called “Danger Every Step of the Way.” It reports that more than 7,000 unaccompanied children traveled the central Mediterranean Sea to escape from North Africa to Italy this year. That is twice as many during the same period in 2015. Unaccompanied means they traveled without adult supervision.

The central Mediterranean travel path is full of risks and dangers, the report says.

Aimamo and his brother are 16 years old. Their journey from Gambia through Africa led them to a farm in Libya. There, they worked to pay smugglers.

“If you run, they shoot you and you die. If you stop working, they beat you,” Aimamo told UNICEF officials.

Social workers in Italy said some of the unaccompanied children became victims of sexual violence. The report says some girls had been raped and were pregnant when they arrived in Italy.

UNICEF officials say it is not clear how many refugees are killed, missing or detained during their travels. But the report says more than 90 percent of all refugee children are travelling without parents or guardians. UNICEF based its numbers on information from the International Organization for Migration.

The IOM reports of almost 3000 migrant deaths along the Mediterranean path reported from January to June this year. In all of 2015, a total of 3,770 refugees died on the same path. Many were children.

Youths' stories

The UNICEF report includes Peace’s story. She is a 17-year-old girl from Nigeria. Both her parents are dead. She was living with her aunt, who was very poor. The aunt forced Peace to marry a 40-year-old man.

Peace said, “This man took me to his house and made me his house girl.” She told UNICEF if she did not marry the man, her aunt would have poisoned her.

Peace decided to escape. She was going to travel alone. Smugglers took Peace across the Sahara Desert to Libya.

She reported seeing bodies of the dead as she crossed the desert. In Sabratha, Libya, she was held for weeks in a house without windows. She heard gunshots. She heard people fighting.

Peace said the Libyans in charge of her escape would not let her out of the house. She said there was no water, no extra clothes and little food.

Peace was able to travel by boat to Italy. She said some people fell off the ship and drowned. Others died on the ship.

“I wish my friend had told me how difficult this is. I would have continued suffering in Nigeria,” she said.

Peace is waiting for an asylum hearing in Italy. Almost 96,000 children traveling alone asked for asylum in Europe last year. There were a total of 1.4 million asylum requests, the UNICEF report says.

Protecting children

UNICEF has urged the European Union to make laws to protect young refugees.

Marie-Pierre Poirier is UNICEF’s special coordinator for the refugee and migrant crisis in Europe. She said children have every right to a better life.

Syrian refugee children pass time in a neighborhood of the city of Gaziantep, southeastern Turkey on May 16, 2016. (AP)
Syrian refugee children pass time in a neighborhood of the city of Gaziantep, southeastern Turkey on May 16, 2016. (AP)

She told VOA children are experiencing and escaping from wars. They travel far and long to reach safety. But they still need protection, education, health care and guidance, she said.

UNICEF also called for countries to stop the refugee crisis. The U.N. wants nations to find solutions for children in search of better lives.

I’m Dorothy Gundy.

Aline Barros wrote this story for VOA News. Jim Dresbach adapted it for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.

We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section or visit our Facebook page.

Words in This Story

auntn. the sister of your father or mother

smugglern. a person who moves someone or something from one country into another illegally and secretly

coordinator - n. a person who organizes people or groups so that they work together properly and well​

guardian- n. someone who takes care of another person or of another person's property

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