More than 300,000 children traveled alone as refugees or migrants in 2015 and 2016 – a fivefold increase from 2010 – UNICEF officials said today, reflecting a surge in the number of people fleeing conflict and poverty.
UNICEF officials hope that the data will move the seven leading economies to adopt measures at the G7 Summit in Italy that would protect refugee and migrant children. Meanwhile, the U.S. is putting pressure on the Italian government to drop the topic of migration from the G7 meeting later this month.
Sources familiar with the advanced negotiations for the final G7 communique told Humanosphere that the U.S. is pushing for a shorter final document that does not address the migration crisis. Last year’s meeting produced a 32-page communique that addressed a series of global issues. Trump administration officials are pushing for a much shorter version, as few as three pages, at a time when the White House is fighting in federal courts to enforce an executive order limiting travel and refugee resettlement from six predominantly Muslim countries.
Sources said that the Italians may capitulate to the U.S. demands in order to enable negotiations on higher-priority issues. Even though it was the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean that drove the decision to hold the meeting in Italy.
More than 45,000 people have arrived in Italy since the start of the year and 1,229 died attempting to cross, both figures are higher than the first five months of 2016. Fatalities are expected to increase over the summer months, when crossings tend to increase. UNICEF, for its part, is urging the leaders to keep the issue on the table, and adopt a six-point plan that would protect all refugees and migrants.
“One child moving alone is one too many, and yet today, there are a staggering number of children doing just that – we as adults are failing to protect them,”UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Justin Forsyth said in a statement. “Ruthless smugglers and traffickers are exploiting their vulnerability for personal gain, helping children to cross borders, only to sell them into slavery and forced prostitution. It is unconscionable that we are not adequately defending children from these predators.”
The 300,000 figure comes from the roughly 200,000 children who applied alone for asylum in more than 80 countries. The remaining 100,000 children are those who were apprehended attempting to cross the border between the U.S. and Mexico. UNICEF officials said it is likely that more children at traveling alone than its official count. Forsyth called the estimate “just the tip of the iceberg.”
One concern is trafficking. Children make up roughly 28 percent of trafficking victims globally and up to 20 percent of the smugglers moving unaccompanied children across borders are linked to trafficking networks, according to UNICEF. Traffickers take advantage of the desperate situation of children attempting to travel alone, making it easier to exploit them.
For example, more than three-quarters of the 1,600 children between 14 and 17 years old who arrived in Italy using the Central Mediterranean route said they were forced to work or held against their will at some point during their journey. A 16-year-old boy from Afghanistan told UNICEF he was forced to work making T-shirts in Turkey after running out of money. He endured 14-hours of labor for six days a week until he earned the 3,000 euros he needed to continue to Europe.
“These children need a real commitment from governments around the world to ensure their safety throughout their journeys,” Forsyth said. “Leaders gathering next week at the G7 should lead this effort.”
UNICEF’s list of actions includes ending the detention of children; doing more to keep families together; ensuring children have access to health care; addressing the underlying causes of the migrant and refugee crisis; and fighting xenophobia, discrimination and marginalization. The last point may be a contentious one for the U.S. as critics of the travel ban say it is a policy that targets Muslims.