New York, 14 July 2023 – At least 289 children are estimated to have died or gone missing this year trying to cross the dangerous Central Mediterranean Sea migration route from North Africa to Europe, according to UNICEF. This equates to eleven children dying or disappearing every week in search of safety, peace and better opportunities.
Since 2018, UNICEF estimates that nearly 1,500 children have died or gone missing while trying to cross the Central Mediterranean Sea. According to the IOM’s Missing Migrants Project documents, this number is 1 in 5 of the 8,274 people who died or went missing en route.
Many shipwrecks crossing the central Mediterranean Sea survive or remain unrecorded, making it practically impossible to verify the true number of child casualties and likely to be very high. In recent months, children and babies have been among those who have lost their lives on this route, along other routes across the Mediterranean and on the Atlantic route from West Africa, including recent disasters off the coast of Greece and Spain’s Canary Islands.
“Too many children board boats along the Mediterranean coast in an effort to find safety, reunite with family and seek more hopeful futures, losing their lives or going missing along the way,” said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell. “This is a clear signal that more needs to be done to strengthen efforts to save lives at sea, as well as create safe and legal routes for children to seek refuge. Ultimately, more needs to be done to address the root causes of children putting their lives at risk.
UNICEF estimates that 11,600 children – an average of 428 children per week – have reached Italy’s shores from North Africa since January 2023. This is a two-fold increase compared to the same period in 2022, despite serious risks to children. Most of the children depart from Libya and Tunisia, having already made dangerous journeys from countries in Africa and the Middle East.
In the first three months of 2023, 3,300 children – 71 percent of children arriving in Europe this way – were recorded as unaccompanied or separated from parents or legal guardians, making them more vulnerable to violence, exploitation and abuse. Girls traveling alone are more likely to experience violence before, during and after their trip.
The Central Mediterranean has become one of the most dangerous routes for children to travel. However, the risk of death at sea is only one of the many tragedies these children face – from threats or experiences of violence, lack of educational or future opportunities, raids, immigration detention or separation from family. Limited pathways for children to travel safely, lack of access to protection in en route countries, and inadequate and slow search and rescue operations exacerbate these risks.
Consistent with their obligations under international law and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, UNICEF calls on governments to better protect vulnerable children at sea and in countries of origin, transit and destination by:
- Protect the rights and best interests of children in accordance with obligations under national and international law
- Providing children with safe and legal pathways to immigrate and seek asylum, including expanded family reunification and refugee resettlement quotas
- Strengthen coordination in search and rescue operations and ensure rapid descent to safe locations
- Strengthen national child protection systems to include and protect children at risk of exploitation and violence, especially unaccompanied children.
- Improve the prospects of travelers, children and adolescents in countries of origin by addressing conflict and climate risks and expanding social protection coverage and opportunities to learn and earn.
- Ensuring children have access to information to make safe and informed choices about their options and crossing risks
- All refugee and migrant children are educated and have access to health and other essential services
UNICEF calls on the EU to ensure that the above is reflected in the EU Agreement on Migration and Asylum under negotiation.
UNICEF continues its work to support countries in strengthening national child care, social protection, migration and asylum systems.
Notes to editors
- The data analysis referred to in this press release was produced by UNICEF using data on Italian arrivals from UNHCR. Operational data portal (up to 9 July 2023) and data on migrants missing on the Central Mediterranean route from IOM Missing Migrants Project (up to 3 July 2023), accessed 10 July 2023
- UNHCR reported 90,605 sea arrivals in Europe via the Mediterranean Sea between January and July 9, 2023.
- The majority of these arrivals, 69,599 or 77%, occurred via the central Mediterranean route. The Central Mediterranean route (which refers to sea travel from North Africa and mainly Tunisia and Libya to Italy) is one of the most active and dangerous.
- Of the 69,599 refugees and migrants who traveled the central Mediterranean route since January 2023, UNHCR reported 16.7 percent were children – or about 11,600 children.
- The number of missing children is calculated based on the total number of missing migrants and the demographics of those arriving on the same route.
- UNICEF chairs the Secretariat of the International Data Alliance for Children on the Move (IDAC), leading global efforts to improve the availability and quality of data to improve outcomes for children on the move. Learn more Here.