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'Thrice as many migrants died in the Mediterranean this summer', UNICEF

'Thrice as many migrants died in the Mediterranean this summer', UNICEF
Migrants on the deck of an Italian coastguard vessel as they are taken to the island of Lampedusa after being rescued at sea, September 15, 2023.   -  
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Cecilia Fabiano/LaPresse


A "graveyard for children". Three times as many migrants have died or disappeared this summer trying to cross the Mediterranean, warned UNICEF on Friday, in the midst of diplomatic negotiations on the European side on the migration issue.

Between June and August, at least 990 people were shipwrecked in the central Mediterranean, the world's most dangerous sea route linking North Africa to Europe, three times more than the 334 migrants who lost their lives over the same period in 2022, according to a count by the UN children's agency.

Since January 2023, at least 289 children have died during these crossings, Nicolo dell'Arciprete, UNICEF's coordinator for Italy, told a press conference in Rome on Friday.

The agency told AFP in Paris that 11,600 "unaccompanied minors" had attempted to reach Italy between January and mid-September 2023 aboard makeshift boats, 60% more than over the same period last year (7,200).

"The Mediterranean has become a graveyard for children and their future. The tragic toll of children who have died seeking asylum and safety in Europe is the result of political choices and a faulty migration system", said Regina De Dominicis, who coordinates the issue for UNICEF.

In total, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees summed up Thursday at a Security Council meeting devoted to the crisis in the Mediterranean, this brings the number of dead or missing migrants to over 2,500 between January 1 and September 24, 2023, an increase of 50% over one year.

Determining age

The spectacular images of the mid-September arrivals on the small Italian island of Lampedusa have put the burning issue of European cooperation in managing migratory flows back on the agenda.

With 8,500 people landing on the island in three days, more than its entire population, the arrivals sparked a local crisis in Lampedusa and a political storm in Italy, which has since multiplied its emergency and firm measures.

The latest example: Giorgia Meloni's government, at the head of a right-wing and far-right coalition, approved a draft decree in the Council of Ministers on Wednesday evening, opening up the possibility of placing unaccompanied minors over the age of 16 in adult facilities, and subjecting them to medical examinations to determine their age.

Although the draft has yet to be approved by Parliament, where the ultra-conservative government has an absolute majority, the text authorizes "anthropometric measurements" and examinations such as X-rays to determine the age of young migrants. The aim: "It will no longer be possible to lie about your true age" to escape possible deportation, warned Giorgia Meloni on her Facebook page.

A "worrying" provision, alarmed Andrea Iacomini, spokesperson for UNICEF in Italy, speaking to AFP.

War, violence, poverty

On the European scene, the situation in the Mediterranean has rekindled discussions in Brussels on the migration pact, which has been mired in dissension since the European Commission presented it in 2020.

The European reform project provides for a strengthening of external borders and a solidarity mechanism between the twenty-seven Member States for the care of asylum seekers.

The leaders of the EU's nine Mediterranean countries are due to meet again this Friday in Malta to agree on their positions on this issue.

"The adoption of a Europe-wide response to support children and families is "absolutely necessary to prevent more children from suffering", said Regina De Dominicis of UNICEF.

According to the UN agency, it is "war, conflict, violence and poverty" that drive children "to flee their home countries alone".

After the risks of "exploitation and abuse at every stage" of exile, and of shipwreck at sea, those who reach European shores are first "detained" in centres before being transferred to "generally closed" reception structures, deplores UNICEF. The agency counts 21,700 unaccompanied children in these centres in Italy, compared with 17,700 a year ago.

In this respect, the latest Italian tightening of the screws is particularly worrying: "We can't put them with adults", warns Andrea Iacomini in Italy.

Three times as many migrants died in the Mediterranean this summer