Unaccompanied children arriving by sea to Italy doubles

13th January 2017

Special measures urgently needed to protect these vulnerable children from trafficking, exploitation and abuse

DUBLIN/LAMPEDUSA, ITALY 13 JANUARY 2017 Some 25,800 unaccompanied or separated children arrived to Italy by sea in 2016 – that’s more than double the 12,360 who arrived during the previous year. These children account for a staggering 91 per cent of all the 28,200 children who reached Italy’s shores in 2016 as refugees or migrants. This doesn’t take into consideration the far higher numbers of children who attempted to make the journey, but did not succeed.

“These figures indicate an alarming trend of an increasing number of highly vulnerable children risking their lives to get to Europe,” said Lucio Melandri, UNICEF Senior Emergency Manager. “Current systems in place are failing to protect these children who find themselves alone in a totally unfamiliar environment. Because they are on the move, a coordinated European response is needed to keep them safe.”

The majority of these unaccompanied or separated children who arrived this past year originated from just four countries: Eritrea, Egypt, the Gambia and Nigeria. While most of the children were boys aged 15 to 17 years, younger children and girls have also been among the new arrivals. Girls in particular are at risk of sexual exploitation and abuse, including commercial sexual exploitation by criminal gangs. Several girls interviewed by UNICEF staff earlier this year in Palermo reported being forced into prostitution in Libya as a means to ‘pay off’ the cost of the boat travel across the Mediterranean. Whilst many of the boys who arrive in Libya are forced into manual labour.    

The Central Mediterranean route from North Africa to Italy is unique for the incredibly high proportion of unaccompanied and separated children among the refugees and migrants. By comparison, only 17 per cent of the child refugees and migrants who arrived to Greece by sea in 2016 were unaccompanied by adult family members or guardians.

“The presence of so many unaccompanied or separated children along the Central Mediterranean route is unprecedented,” said Melandri. “And it is obviously clear that we have a serious and growing problem on our hands. Apart from addressing the factors that are forcing children to travel alone from their homes, a comprehensive protection, monitoring system needs to be developed to protect them.”

UNICEF continues to advocate for six specific actions that will protect and help displaced, refugee and migrant children:

UNICEF Ireland this week welcomed the fact that during its first meeting of 2017, Ministers discussed and approved the intake of 40 unaccompanied minors from the Calais camp in France to Ireland, where they will be placed in residential centres. This move comes as part of the Dáil decision December to accept 200 unaccompanied minors from Calais.

It comes just weeks after Tánaiste and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald travelled to refugee camps in Greece to tackle delays in the process of relocating refugees from there to Ireland, along with Minister for Children Katherine Zappone and officials from Tusla, the Child and Family Agency.

UNICEF Ireland believes the Government’s focus on the refugee and migrant crisis, and on the plight of unaccompanied minors in particular, shows leadership that is both timely and necessary. Still, we must do more as the crisis is growing at a faster rate than Europe is responding.



UNICEF promotes the rights and well-being of every child, in everything we do. Together with our partners, we work in 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special effort on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children, to the benefit of all children, everywhere. UNICEF has been operating for 70 years.

Follow us on Twitter and Facebook or visit www.unicef.ie

For more information, or for interviews, please contact:

Aedín Donnelly, Communications and Media Manager for UNICEF Ireland | aedin@unicef.ie Tel: +353 1 809 0281 | Mob: +353 85 1395272

Sarah Crowe, Spokesperson UNICEF Geneva +41 79 543 8029, scrowe@unicef.org

Christopher Tidey, UNICEF New York +1 917 340 3017, ctidey@unicef.org

Photo above: Eritrean refugees in Italy, 2016 © UNICEF/UN020047/Gilbertson VII Photo

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