A new UNICEF report says thousands of women and children who risk the dangerous central Mediterranean Sea crossing from North Africa to Italy to escape war and poverty are subject to violence, sexual exploitation and other forms of abuse.
A survey conducted late last year on conditions in Libya reveals what UNICEF describes as appalling levels of abuse along the migration route. At the time, 256,000 migrants were recorded in Libya, including more than 30,800 women and more than 23,000 children. The report notes that thousands of incarcerated women and children have been beaten, raped and starved in “living hellholes.”
Sexual, verbal abuse
Afshan Khan is the U.N. Children’s Fund regional director and special coordinator for the refugee and migrant crisis in Europe. Khan describes the conditions facing them.
“Nearly half of the women interviewed reported suffering sexual violations or abuse and most of the children and girls reported verbal or emotional abuse, and half had suffered physical beatings,” said Khan. “The women held in detention centers in western Libya reported very harsh conditions, poor nutrition and sanitation, overcrowding. And, most of the children and women said they expected to spend extended periods working in Libya to pay for the next leg of the journey.”
Smugglers charge anywhere between $100 and more than $2,100 for a sea crossing from Libya to Italy. Khan tells VOA migrants do not pay all the money up front, but pay on certain legs of the trip. One-third of the children making the trek from Libya are unaccompanied, but adds, the real figure could be at least three times higher.
“Now, again, the young girls I spoke to, many of them had gotten money for the initial leg and then were resorting to sex, transactional sex to pay for the rest of the legs going forward,” said Khan. “So, these girls are particularly vulnerable. There is a lot of trafficking for sexual exploitation and abuse.“
Khan says children, particularly young girls, often are brought to different countries as prostitutes by networks of criminal gangs. She notes boys also are caught up in these criminal networks and are forced to hustle on the streets or fall into prostitution.
In addition to abuse, the report notes many children die along the dangerous migratory route from North Africa to Europe. Last year, more than 4,500 people perished crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Libya to Italy, including at least 700 children. The stretch between the two countries has become the main crossing point for migrants seeking a better life in Europe.