Refugee and migrant children and women are suffering widespread physical and sexual violence and abuse on perilous journeys from North Africa to Italy, the United Nations said Tuesday, urging action to protect these vulnerable groups from "predators".
"The Central Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe is among the world's deadliest and most dangerous migrant routes for children and women," said Afshan Khan, UNICEF regional director and special coordinator for the Refugee and Migrant Crisis in Europe.
"The route is mostly controlled by smugglers, traffickers and other people seeking to prey upon desperate children and women… We need safe and legal pathways and safeguards to protect migrating children that keep them safe and keep predators at bay."
Three-quarters of the refugee and migrant children interviewed in a recent UN survey said they had experienced violence, harassment or aggression at the hands of adults during their journey, while almost half of the women and children reported sexual abuse – often repeatedly and in multiple locations.
The survey revealed "appalling" levels of abuse along the migration route, the UN said.
It was carried out as part of a major report issued on Tuesday by the UN children's charity UNICEF, "A Deadly Journey for Children: The Central Mediterranean Migrant Route".
The report takes an in-depth look at the extreme risks facing refugee and migrant children as they make the perilous journey from sub-Saharan Africa into Libya and across the sea to Italy, the UN said.
Most children and women surveyed in Libya late 2016 indicated that they had paid smugglers at the beginning of their journey, leaving many in debt and vulnerable to abuse, abduction and trafficking, according to the report.
Women and children also described harsh and overcrowded conditions including lack of nutritious food and adequate shelter in Libyan detention centres – both those of the UN-backed unity government and those run by armed militias.
At the time of the survey, 256,000 migrants were recorded in Libya, including 30,803 women and 23,102 children – a third of whom were unaccompanied. The true figures, however, are believed to be at least three times higher, the UN said.
Last year at least 4,579 people died attempting to cross the Mediterranean from Libya, or 1 in every 40 of those who tried.
It is estimated that at least 700 of those who perished were children.
"Children should not be forced to put their lives in the hands of smugglers because there are simply no alternatives," said Khan.
He called for "a robust system of safe and legal passage for children on the move, whether refugees or migrants".
A UNICEF six-point plan to safeguard uprooted children includes keeping families together, protecting minors travelling alone, giving children in transit access to education, healthcare and other services.