Every 30 minutes, a vulnerable migrant child is exploited on his or her journey to safety in Europe.
Whether it’s human traffickers or criminal gangs, these unaccompanied children are exposed to countless dangers while attempting the hazardous trip.
A UNICEF report found that 77% of the young people who travelled to Europe via the Central Mediterranean route reported exploitation.
With over 25,000 unaccompanied children arriving in Italy in 2016, more than 20,000 of those will have faced trafficking or exploitation during the year — meaning at least one child every 30 minutes.
Shocked by these findings, UNICEF UK is calling for children who have been orphaned in war zones to be reunited with any family members they have in the UK.
Actor Michael Sheen, an ambassador for UNICEF UK, said: “Our government can fix the rules so that it is no longer necessary for those children with close family in the UK to journey into Europe before being allowed to reach the protection and love that is waiting for them.”
He continued: “By recognising what our close family really is and reflecting that in the Home Office’s rules, a child could be brought to safety faster and without the need for these deadly journeys.”
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At the moment, refugee and migrant children have to reach Europe before they can apply to enter the UK to be reunited with a family member already living here.
That leaves them exposed to dangers including traffickers, gangs, and drowning during the sea crossing.
UNICEF campaigners are also concerned about what Brexit will mean for these unaccompanied migrant and refugee children.
Currently, EU family reunification law means that unaccompanied minors can reunite with family members who are able to care for them — including a parent, an uncle or aunt, grandparents, or older siblings — in a host country.
That’s because they are currently covered by the EU’s “Dublin III” regulation, which includes a wide definition of what it means to be a “close relative”. Under current UK law, however, an unaccompanied minor can only be reunited with their parents.
Once the UK leaves the EU, the “Dublin III” regulation will no longer necessarily apply to these children. Under current UK law, they would only be able to find safety in the UK if they have a parent already living here.
“We have seen what the UK’s leadership and compassion can do for the world’s most vulnerable children,” said UNICEF UK’s deputy executive director Lily Caprani. “Last year, 700 unaccompanied children used the Dublin process to be reunited with family in the UK — the majority of whom joined close family but not parents.”
“It is this route and lifeline that refugee children could lose in the face of Brexit unless the government acts now. Not doing so will left the traffickers and smugglers win,” she continued. “This simple change to our rules does not need protracted negotiation with the European Union. Doing it could give children their childhoods back.”
UNICEF UK’s campaign follows calls last month from its executive director Mike Penrose for the UK to overhaul its immigration law relating to children fleeing conflict.
The Refugee Council has also recommended that the government expands the criteria for qualifying family members for reunification, in a report from February 2017.
The Home Office said its approach was to resettle whole families. But added that unaccompanied children may currently be eligible to enter the UK under the vulnerable children’s resettlement scheme.
It told the BBC that it was too early to speculate on arrangements post-Brexit. But plans for what the post-Brexit immigration system would look like will be revealed in a white paper this year, according to the government.
“The UK has a long and proud tradition of providing protection to those who need it and in the last year alone we have provided refuge or other forms of leave to more than 9,000 children,” said a Home Office spokesman in August. “Approximately half of the 8,500 Syrians resettled in the UK so far are children — part of our commitment to resettling 20,000 people affected by the Syrian conflict by 2020.”
The Central Mediterranean route is among the deadliest migration routes in the world for children. Last year, 4,579 people died, according to UNICEF figures, and it is estimated that at least 700 children were among the dead.