People smugglers are taking advantage of a record rise in the number of migrant children travelling alone, according to a new report from Unicef.
Across 80 countries in 2015-16, at least 300,000 lone migrant minors were recorded by the NGO, a rise of close to 500% on the 66,000 documented in 2010-2011.
The Mediterranean route was found to be one of the most dangerous for unaccompanied children, with more than 75% of the 1,600 14 to 17-year-olds who arrived in Italy over the study period reported as being held against their will or forced into work.
Ninety-two percent of children who arrived in Italy last year were unaccompanied, up from 75% in 2015.
Unicef Deputy Executive Director Justin Forsyth commented: “One child moving alone is one too many, and yet today, there are a staggering number of children doing just that – we as adults are failing to protect them.
“Ruthless smugglers and traffickers are exploiting their vulnerability for personal gain, helping children to cross borders, only to sell them into slavery and forced prostitution. It is unconscionable that we are not adequately defending children from these predators.”
The report found that unaccompanied migrant children are often forced to live on the streets in appalling conditions, selling sex and committing petty crime in order to pay people smugglers for their onward travel.
Girls face particular risks on migrant routes, often exposed to gender-based violence and sexual exploitation or sold into prostitution by smuggling gangs.
Unicef interviewed a number of lone child migrants for the report.
A 17-year-old girl who left Nigeria to travel to Europe explained how she was introduced to a man who said he could help her find work to earn the €25,000 she needed to pay people smugglers to reach her desired destination.
After promising to treat her well, the man held the girl hostage for months in Libya, where she was raped along with other girls she was travelling with.
“I wanted to get away, but I couldn’t – I had no money, no phone. I didn’t even know where I was to escape,” she said.
A report published last month by researchers at Harvard University revealed that lone child migrants who manage to reach Greece and other parts of Europe are routinely selling themselves to people traffickers.
Report authors Dr Vasileia Digidiki and Professor Jacqueline Bhabhathe found unaccompanied child migrants sell sex for an average of €15, which they noted would make it nearly impossible for them to save up enough money to fund their onward travel to Northern Europe.
Digidiki told the Guardian that the international community must do more to help lone child migrants in Europe.