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Migrant crisis: Nearly 300 children died trying to reach Europe in 2023

A report by UNICEF shows at least 289 children have lost their lives while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea which amounts to an average of 11 boys and girls dying each week. (Photo by Reuters)

At least 289 young boys and girls have died while crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe in the first half of 2023, a whopping two-fold surge compared to the same period last year, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported.

The figure is equivalent to nearly 11 children dying per week, “far beyond what we hear in news headlines,” said UNICEF’s senior policy advisor on migration and displacement, Vera Knaus, in the biweekly UN humanitarian briefing in Geneva on Friday.

It appears the world is “willfully ignoring what is happening”, given the numbers and the silence surrounding many of these preventable deaths, Knaus insisted.

“We cannot continue to ignore what is happening – stand by silently when nearly 300 children – an entire plane full of children - are dying in the waters between Europe and Africa in just six months,” she emphasized.

“Children are dying not just in front of our eyes; they are dying while we seem to keep our eyes closed.  Hundreds of girls and boys are drowning in the world’s inaction,” she pointed out, noting that the Central Mediterranean is among the deadliest migration routes for children.

An estimated 11,600 children have made the crossing during the first six months of the year – again nearly twice as many as in the same period in 2022, according to UNICEF.

The agency, however, warned that the true number of child casualties is likely to be higher as many shipwrecks in the Central Mediterranean leave no survivors or go unrecorded.

UNICEF further estimated that many children are making the crossing without their parents or guardians, with girls travelling alone especially vulnerable to violence throughout the journey.

During the first three months of the year, 3,300 unaccompanied or separated children arrived in Europe via the Central Mediterranean Sea route, or more than 70 per cent of the total.

“These deaths are preventable,” Knaus also stressed.  “They are as much driven by the complex emergencies, conflicts and climate risks that drive children from their homes as by the lack of political and practical action to do what it takes to enable safe access to asylum and to protect the rights and lives of children wherever they come from and whatever their mode of travel.”

Meanwhile, she added, countries in the region, and the European Union (EU), must do more to protect vulnerable children at sea but also in countries of origin, transit and destination.

She further underlined the need for safe, legal and accessible pathways for children to seek protection and reunite with their families, through expanding access to family reunification, refugee resettlement or other humanitarian visas.  

The UNICEF official went on to also insist that the duty to rescue a boat in distress is a fundamental rule in international maritime law, and pushbacks at sea or land borders are violations of national, EU and international law. 

Additionally, countries must step up coordination on search and rescue operations at sea and ensure prompt disembarkation to safe locations, she noted.

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