The UN’s children’s fund, Unicef, has said minors face shocking abuse in Libya and risk vanishing into crime and prostitution in Europe.
The Unicef report, published on Tuesday (28 February), said more and more children are arriving in Italy alone and required better protection to prevent them falling into the hands of criminals.
In one harrowing case, Unicef’s regional director Afshan Khan told reporters ahead of the report’s release that a 14-year old girl was forced to work as a prostitute in Libya for two years.
She then tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea with her mother, as part of a bigger group, but their boat overturned.
“Her mother didn’t survive and she was clinging to her mother’s body until the rescue team came,” said Khan.
Over 90 per cent of the 29,000 children that arrived in Italy last year came without a parent or other adult guardian.
Khan could not explain the increase in children travelling alone, but said that she met minors from Sierra Leone who had lost their parents to Ebola.
Others had been orphaned by the militant extremist group Boko Haram in Nigeria, she said.
Unicef noted that many children in Libya end up in one of its 34 detention centres, more than half of which are run by militia groups.
Stories of killings, beatings, rape, and forced labour were commonplace and some children had been detained for years.
Kamis, a nine-year old boy from Nigeria, said he spent five months at the Sabratha detention centre.
“They used to beat us every day. They beat babies, children, and adults,” Kamis is cited as saying in the report.
The EU is keen to improve detention conditions in Libya as part of a wider plan to discourage migrants from coming to Europe.
But progress is being held back by instability, with the UN and EU recognised government in Tripoli in limited control.
Unicef has no access to detention centres that are run by local warlords and their militias.
One official from Libya’s interior ministry said some armed groups were so dangerous that police were afraid to approach their migrant camps.
“We have no power over these prisons. We cannot even get close because of risk of being killed,” the Libyan official told researcher’s behind the Unicef report.
EU plan runs into militias
The Libyan central authorities are also a problem.
An internal European Commission report from January said women were afraid to report crimes to Libyan police in case the police murdered or raped them.
The EU wants the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) and the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) to help people in the militia-controlled areas.
But the UNHCR has refused to send in international staff for fear of abduction or worse.
Unicef estimated that there were at least 23,000 migrant children in Libya.
It said that not all of them wanted to reach the EU, but that those who did needed help to deal with psychological trauma.
Its report said bureaucratic delays in Italy and fear of deportation prompted many of them to vanish.
“There are about 8,000 kids in Italy who have fallen between the cracks and who are … out of the reach of protective services,” said Khan.
Missing children turn to crime
Some have ended up working as prostitutes at Rome’s central train station, she said.
Khan said that without proper support, more of them will end up in the hands of criminals or turn to crime to survive.
“We are going to end up dragging kids into criminality,” she said.
Unicef described the Central Mediterranean migrant route as a criminal enterprise that exploited women and children.
“The smugglers and traffickers are winning. This is what happens when there are no safe and legal alternatives [for claiming asylum in Europe],” Unicef’s deputy executive director Justin Forsyth said.
The problem of Europe’s missing children is much bigger than just Italy.
The EU police agency in The Hague, Europol, already in early 2015 estimated that 10,000 children had vanished off the map.
Italy said over 6,500 children went missing in the first 10 months of 2016. Germany said it had lost track of almost 9,000 minors.
Recent data compiled by the NGO Missing Children Europe says that eight unaccompanied children are reported missing every week in Sweden alone.
Slovenia estimates that 80 percent of its migrant children disappear.
Belgian liberal MEP Hilde Vautmans is hoping to raise the issue in a plenary debate at the European Parliament.
She said the Commission must be made to deliver on its promises of “action plans” to help Europe’s new and most vulnerable minority.
“We can’t accept that children sleep in the streets and are pushed back into the hands of smugglers,” she told this website last week.
Nikolaj Nielsen, EUobserver