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Vast majority leave home alone without parents’ knowledge; flee because of trouble at home

unaccompanied boy in Trabia, Sicily An unaccompanied boy looks across the beach in southern Italy. He lives in a government administered centre for unaccompanied boys that provides shelter, food, education and legal help in Trabia, Sicily.

(26 July 2017) Children on the move into Europe from Africa take the decision to leave home on their own and do not initially intend to go to Europe. For the majority the systematic trauma and abuse they witnessed or suffered in Libya caused them to flee to Europe and take the terrifying Central Mediterranean sea route, according to a new study (download right) commissioned by UNICEF and carried out by REACH. 

As many as 75 percent of the refugee and migrant children interviewed in Italy as part of the study, took the decision to embark on the journey alone. The journey itself can take a staggering two years or more for children. One of the key reasons children give for leaving home was violence at home but also deprivation and conflict. Child marriage was also reported as the main reason for leaving by 1 in 5 of all girls interviewed. Children’s journeys to Europe were often fragmented and their destination changed along the way.

“What is striking about this study is it shows for the first time that there are overwhelmingly far more reasons that push children to leave their homes, than has been previously understood, and fewer pull factors that lure them to Europe,” said Afshan Khan UNICEF Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia.

The aim of the study is to provide decision makers, partners and governments with evidence on what drives children to flee their countries and homes. The interviews were conducted in the two main gateways into Europe – Italy and Greece – with a total 850 children, between the ages of 15 and 17 years old.  

UNICEF Innocenti has recently begun a new research project Children and Migration: Rights and  resilience which emphasizes child rights-sensitive inquiry to explain the intricate dynamics not captured by more general research. The latest version of UNICEF Innocenti's Research Watch has also focused on child migration bringing together top world experts to discuss the research agenda for migrant and refugee children.

Refugee and migrant children in Italy unanimously reported their time in Libya as the most traumatising part of their journey on land. Almost half of them (47 per cent) reported to have been kidnapped for ransom in Libya, and one in four children (23 per cent) reported to have been arbitrarily arrested and held in prison without charges. The majority come from various countries in sub-Saharan Africa but some are from as far afield as Bangladesh.

“For those who did aim to come to the continent, the allure of Europe was the chance of furthering their education, respect for their rights and getting ahead in life. However once they reach Europe the reality is sadly quite different and their expectations are shattered,” said UNICEF’s Afshan Khan. 

Mohammad, 17, (left) from Kafuta, Gambia sits by a pond in a park in Pozzallo, Sicily, Italy, during a walk around town to take a break from their accommodations at the asylum seeker reception center, known as a Hot Spot.

In Greece the survey showed that one in three parents or caretakers said that seeking education for their children was the main reason they left their countries for Europe. However the survey of refugee and migrant children revealed that lengthy procedures and confusion about their rights have led to many children dropping out of the Italian and Greek reception systems, losing out on education and exposing them to high risks of abuse and exploitation.

Of the 12,239 children who arrived in Italy in the first six months of this year, 93 percent travelled alone.

As outlined in the study, the profiles of children arrived in Italy and Greece vary significantly. Children in Italy tend to have made the decision to migrate individually (75 per cent of interviewed children) and are mostly unaccompanied, boys, aged 16 to 17. In Greece, children tend to have taken a joint decision within their family and arrive with family members (91 per cent of interviewed children), at an almost equal level between boys and girls, and from all age groups. At the recent G20 and G7 summits, UNICEF urged governments to take action to protect child refugees and migrant as part of its six-point plan of Action for Children Uprooted which calls for the protection of every child uprooted by war, violence and poverty. The plan calls on governments to:

  1. Protect child refugees and migrants, particularly unaccompanied children, from exploitation and violence;
  2. End the detention of children seeking refugee status or migrating, by introducing a range of practical alternatives;
  3. Keep families together as the best way to protect children and give children legal status;
  4. Keep all refugee and migrant children learning and give them access to health and other quality services;
  5. Press for action on the underlying causes of large scale movements of refugees and migrants;
  6. Promote measures to combat xenophobia, discrimination and marginalization in countries of transit and destination.

(This press release was originally published on the www.unicef.org press centre)