The number of migrant and refugee children traveling alone has gone up five times since 2010

A migrant from Benin City, Nigeria, at a safe house for victims of child trafficking in Taormina, Sicily, Italy.
A migrant from Benin City, Nigeria, at a safe house for victims of child trafficking in Taormina, Sicily, Italy.
Image: Ashley Gilbertson/UNICEF/VII Photo
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Since the European Union signed an agreement with Turkey to limit the flow of refugees coming into Greece in March of 2016, the number of arrivals has decreased dramatically. In 2015, over a million people crossed into Europe. In 2016, that number was down to about 350,000, almost half of whom crossed before the border agreement.

So far, just over 55,000 migrants have reached Europe this year. But while the overall number is going down, more and more people are arriving every year along the Central Mediterranean sea route, which brings migrants into Italy by way of Libya. This journey is far more dangerous than the route from Turkey to Greece, and results in death between 2% and 5% of the time, depending on the season.

Also increasing is the number of children traveling alone: 92% of all minors who arrived in Italy in 2016 were traveling alone, up from 75% from 2015. And this is not simply a European phenomenon. More and more children are migrating unaccompanied all over the world, and the number has gone up exponentially since 2010, according to a new UNICEF report.

Between 2015 and 2016, 170,000 unaccompanied children applied for asylum in Europe, and 100,000 were apprehended at the Mexico-US border. Some of this increase can be attributed to better data collection for unaccompanied minors, but even accounting for data disparities, a spokesperson for UNICEF tells Quartz that the trend is deeply worrisome.

While there is no one reason for the rise, a significant factor is protracted conflicts going on in places like Syria and South Sudan, which are causing continued displacement (particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East). Meanwhile, more children who have been separated from their families are traveling alone in the hopes of reuniting with them.

According to the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child as well as the 2016 New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants, children are to be protected regardless of their immigration status, and migrant children are supposed to receive education within months of their arrival in a new country. Additionally, countries are mandated to help young asylum seekers reunite with their families.

In reality however, UNICEF notes, bureaucracy constantly gets in the way. Children are often left in limbo as reunification requests are processed, with as many as 24,600 children currently waiting to be relocated in Greece, Bulgaria, Hungary, and the Western Balkans. Reunification can take between 10 months and two years, during which time children often suffer from the profound psychological consequences of living in uncertainty.

What’s worse, children are at particularly high risk of falling prey to human trafficking. UNICEF says there is no conclusive data regarding the size of the global human trafficking population, but between 2012 and 2014 alone, 60,000 victims were identified. About a fourth of these victims were children.