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289 teenagers died crossing Mediterranean Sea in 6 months – UNICEF

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289 teenagers died crossing Mediterranean Sea in 6 months – UNICEF

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says no fewer than 289 boys and girls died while crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe in the first half of the 2023.

This number, according to UNICEF, doubled the number compared to the same period in 2022.

The UN agency responsible for providing humanitarian and developmental aid to children worldwide said the figure was equivalent to about 11 children dying each week.

Ms Vera Knaus, the agency’s Global Lead on Migration and Displacement, told journalists on Friday in Geneva that the figure was far beyond what was reported in news.

“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 said.

Conflict and climate change were forcing increasing numbers of children to embark on the dangerous sea journey from North Africa to Europe.

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

However, the agency warned that the true number of child casualties was likely to be higher as many shipwrecks in the Central Mediterranean left  no survivors or were  unrecorded.

Knaus said it appeared the world was “willfully ignoring what is happening”, given the numbers and the silence surrounding many of these preventable deaths.

“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 said, noting that the Central Mediterranean is among the deadliest migration routes for children.

UNICEF further estimated that many children were 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.

In response to the escalating crisis, UNICEF is supporting countries in strengthening child protection, social protection and migration and asylum systems.

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Staff are also working with governments to provide support and inclusive services to all children, regardless of their legal status, or that of their parents.

“These deaths are preventable.

“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, 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 said.

She also stressed 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.

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

Knaus said the duty to rescue a boat in distress remained a fundamental rule in international maritime law, and push backs at sea or land borders were violations of national, EU and international law.  

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