Of the 7,567 migrants below the age of 18 who have arrived in Italy since January, some 7,009 of them – 92 percent – were travelling alone, according to a recent report by United Nation's children's agency, Unicef. That figure is double the number of unaccompanied minors who arrived during the first five months of 2015.
According to the report, youngsters making the perilous crossing to Italy alone face greater dangers than adults, often suffering sexual abuse and being forced into labour or prostitution by traffickers once they arrive on Italy's shores.
“It's a silent and desperate situation, yet there are hundreds and thousands more ready to risk everything to make the crossing,” explained Marie-Pierre Poirier, Unicef regional director for central and eastern Europe.
“We need to protect these children from those who wish to make a profit from exploiting their dreams.”
Driving the high number of child arrivals is an increase in the number of “pay-as-you-go” deals on offer.These deals allow cashless children and teenagers to spend months working for traffickers before they are given passage to Europe on unseaworthy vessels.
“It was just like the slave trade,” said 16 year-old Aimamo from Gambia, who worked for two months in Libya before crossing the Mediterranean.
“If you try to run they shoot you and you die, if you stop working they beat you.”