More than 100 lone children rescued trying to cross Mediterranean

Unicef warns many child refugees and migrants picked up off the coast of Libya will be sent to ‘appalling’ detention centres

Fears are rising over the numbers of lone children risking their lives to reach Europe after 114 were pulled from the Mediterranean Sea in one day this week.

The unaccompanied minors were among 125 children rescued off the Libyan coast on Tuesday by the authorities, aid agencies said.

“The number is incredibly alarming – it is the most that have been picked up in a single day this year and certainly one of the highest we have ever recorded,” said Juliette Touma, Unicef’s regional chief of communications.

“We are especially concerned that in the coming months as temperatures rise and the weather improves we will see increasing numbers of people including unaccompanied minors trying to reach the safety of Europe for a better life.”

At least 350 people, including children, drowned or have been reported missing in the central Mediterranean since the start of the year.

The majority of youngsters picked up in the latest rescue are likely to be sent to overcrowded detention centres in Libya, leaving them stuck in a cycle of abuse, humanitarian agencies have warned.

An estimated 1,100 children remain in centres lacking clean water, basic hygiene and education, and where violence and exploitation is rife.

“Children should not be arrested and detained as migrants,” said Touma. “We have been following for many years the situation and have interviewed children who have told us about the appalling conditions.

“We are calling for the Libyan authorities to release all detained children under their custody.”

Libya hosts 51,828 migrant children and an estimated 14,572 refugee children, according to Unicef. Despite the dangers, and the coronavirus pandemic, there has been no decrease in the numbers seeking to reach Europe.

Those working on rescue missions in the central Mediterranean describe the stretch of water off Libya as being at times like an open morgue.

Last week, 130 migrants drowned after their flimsy dinghy capsized in a storm, with waves in the area off Tripoli reaching heights of six metres.

The volunteer-run Mediterranean hotline Alarm Phone said it had repeatedly relayed the GPS position of the boat in distress to the European and Libyan authorities on 21 April but no action was taken. The next day dozens of bodies could be seen in the sea.

The SOS Méditerranée’s ship, Ocean Viking – one of the few remaining NGO boats operating in the area – was searching for survivors and witnessed the aftermath.

Search and rescue coordinator Luisa Albera said: “We are heartbroken. We think of the lives that have been lost and of the families who might never have certainty as to what happened to their loved ones.’’

Behind the numbers are people with stories of loss, fear, desperation and hope for a better life.

Five days after the tragedy the Ocean Viking rescued 236 survivors including three unaccompanied children from Guinea who said they had paid smugglers 2,500 Libyan dinars (£400) each to make the perilous crossing.

For one, it was the third time he had tried to reach Europe after twice being intercepted by the Libyan coastguard.

Ibrahim, 15, said he had always dreamed of a good life in Europe. “In Guinea, my family doesn’t have any means. I was born into poverty, I don’t want to die in poverty.

“I decided to travel to Europe when I was a small child. Of course I knew going to Libya was dangerous but I didn’t have a choice. I sold my motorbike and hit the road.”

Migrants disembark from a Libyan coastguard ship in Tripoli, 29 April 2021.
Migrants disembark from a Libyan coastguard ship in Tripoli, 29 April 2021. Charities have condemned the ‘appalling conditions’ in Libya’s detention centres. Photograph: Xinhua/REX/Shutterstock

The group said during their time in Libya they worked in construction for a pittance, were beaten and insulted.

Risking their lives was worth the sacrifice, they said, if it meant the chance of a better life. They had tried to abandon their latest attempt after seeing the poor condition of the boat, but the smugglers forced them to board.

They are fortunate it was the NGO rescue boat and not the Libyan authorities that pulled them to safety. But their futures remain uncertain as they wait to find out where they will disembark.

Unicef has urged governments in the region to find safer routes to sea crossings and implement child-sensitive arrival procedures.

The agency said: “We call on authorities in Europe and the central Mediterranean to support and receive migrants and refugees coming to their shores and to strengthen search and rescue mechanisms.”


Hannah Summers and Emmanuelle Chaze

The GuardianTramp

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