At least 7,000 unaccompanied migrant children have arrived in Italy from North Africa in the first five months of 2016, according to United Nations Children's Emergency Fund (Unicef) estimates. In a report titled, Danger Every Step Of The Way, the UN refugee agency has highlighted the hazards these minors face including rape, physical harassment and child labour, at the hands of human traffickers, while escaping war and poverty.
The report states that around 2,809 deaths were recorded in the Mediterranean between 1 January and 5 June 2016, as compared to 3,770 deaths in 2015 – most of the victims are children.
According to Unicef, unaccompanied minors escaping conflict areas often end up in the hands of human smugglers, who work under a system termed "pay as you go", which Unicef said "opens them [children] to exploitation".
"If you try to run they shoot you and you die. If you stop working, they beat you. It was just like the slave trade," a 16-year-old named only as Aimamo, said of the farm in Libya where he and his twin brother worked for two months to pay the smugglers to flee to Europe.
"Once I was just resting for five minutes, and a man beat me with a cane. After working, they lock you inside," he added.
Moreover, the report said that girls in Libya were forced into prostitution so that they could pay to reach Europe. Italian social workers found that many young girls were already pregnant when they arrived in the country.
"It is a silent and desperate situation – out of sight and out of mind. Yet tens of thousands of children face danger every day and hundreds of thousands more are prepared to risk everything," Marie-Pierre Poirier, Unicef special coordinator for the refugee and migrant crisis in Europe said. "We urgently need to protect these children from all types of abuse and exploitation by those taking advantage of the situation to exploit their dreams."
However, another report to be released by Unicef on Thursday (16 June), highlights the exploitation of refugee children in northern France. Children in refugee camps of Calais and Dunkirk are sexually exploited and are forced to do illegal work by traffickers.
Based on six months of extensive research and interviews of refugee children, Unicef found that they continue to face harassments on a daily basis while living at refugee camps. The report also details the struggle these children face while trying to reunite with their family and friends.
"The worst part of my journey was being in Calais because most people there were subjected to violence and humiliation," another 16-year-old, who reached from Daraa (Syria) said. He and his brother lived at one of the refugee camps for seven months.
He added: "Every day people would try to find ways of leaving. My friends and I tried to get on a train to get away – I saw two friends die under that train."
Lily Caprani, deputy executive director at Unicef UKsaid: "The government has said that unaccompanied children should be brought to the UK if they have family here, yet these children's cases are moving far too slowly. It's time for the government to turn its promise into a reality now, and get these children to their families.
"The children in Calais are the nearest and most visible cases of children who are fleeing conflict and making dangerous journeys in search of safety, yet have a legal right to live in safety with their families in the UK.
"I've met some of the unaccompanied children in Calais and have seen the terrible conditions they are living in. By taking immediate action for these children, the government can take a crucial first step to show it is serious about its recent commitments to refugee children," she added.