The tragic sinking of a migrant ship in the Mediterranean Sea last month shocked the world and drew much-needed attention to the plight of migrants fleeing North Africa and the Middle East. According to media reports, up to 900 people perished when the ship went down on April 19, making it one of the worst nautical disasters in recent memory.
"Unfortunately, we do not know the exact number of women and children that were killed," said Sarah Tyler, a representative of Save the Children, when contacted in Calabria, Italy, where she was assisting with the nongovernmental organization's relief efforts. Despite the magnitude of the tragedy, some people on social media have been unsympathetic, referring to the migrants as terrorists.
However, it's important to remember that many of those desperate people who make the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean Sea are children. "Over a six-day period, between April 11 to 16, 2015, 9,888 migrants arrived in 38 landings across Lampedusa, Sicily, Calabria and Apulia," said Tyler.
During that period, 810 children made the voyage, including 577 minors unaccompanied by guardians. "Many of the migrants arrive in Italy after a long journey through the Sahara or through Middle Eastern countries," said Michelle Hough of Caritas Internationalis, the humanitarian agency of the Roman Catholic Church. Some of the migrants are in very rough shape by the end of their harrowing journey.
"A number are kept imprisoned by traffickers for weeks or months until their families can send money for them to travel to Europe," said Hough, who is stationed in Rome. "The conditions are inhumane." "Migrants who've had a long journey across the desert and then the sea often are very dehydrated and have very sore skin because of the lack of water and too much sun from their trip," she said.
"They are exhausted after not sleeping properly for a long time and from being in a state of fear and alert." Dangerous journey The vessels used by smugglers and human traffickers aren't safe. "The rubber dinghies or rickety boats aren't designed to sail the Mediterranean for any stretch of time," said Tyler.
"Some of the migrants I've spoken to had never sailed before going across the Mediterranean and say they were terrified on the boat," said Hough. "The boats are often overloaded -- packed solid with migrants and aren't always seaworthy." According to the Caritas representative, the human traffickers separate the migrants into "different classes."
For example, migrants who can pay more are allowed to stay above decks during the voyage, "which is safer in the event of capsizing." However, "those with less money get locked in the hold -- which means they'll die if the boat capsizes," she said. "We have also heard stories of racism, with African migrants being placed in the holds and those coming from the Middle East are placed on deck," Tyler said.
"A Somali child who was interviewed by Save the Children survived the recent shipwreck and told us that the boats were overcrowded, the migrants didn't get food and water and they were packed in like sardines," Tyler said. "There were three levels to his boat and he was on the second one. Those on the level below him were locked in by key and were the first to drown.
"These boats are death traps and many boats break down and even begin to leak," Tyler continued. "We've heard that some children have done the trip twice because the boats have leaked and begun to take in water, forcing them to return to Libya." The journey across the Mediterranean is difficult and fraught with danger.
"Child migrants, and in particular unaccompanied children, are the most vulnerable among those attempting to migrate by sea to Europe," Tyler said. According to Save the Children, half of the migrant children who arrived in Italy were unaccompanied in 2014. However, so far in 2015, "the percentage has increased to 68%," said Tyler.
"Since the start of the year, more than 22,000 migrants have arrived in Italy," stated the Save the Children staffer. "Unaccompanied minors are primarily from Eritrea, Somalia and Gambia. Other countries of origin include Nigeria, Mali, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Sudan, Palestine and Afghanistan." Life is cheap on migrant vessels and murder is not uncommon.
"A young Somali boy in Lampedusa told us that the smugglers had pushed people off the boat if they 'felt like it,'" Tyler said. Last month, CNN reported that Muslim human traffickers threw Christian migrants overboard. "The journey itself is very dangerous, despite the migrant's religion," Tyler replied to a question about that incident. "The journey often involves crossing deserts and war zones before they even reach the treacherous sea crossing.
"En route, they face dehydration and malnutrition, kidnapping, detention and extortion, torture, child slavery, trafficking and sexual abuse -- often completely alone, without their families," she said. "One child has also told us he witnessed the beheading of 25 people." Children arrive in Europe "There are a number of children who are sent by families to Europe to join relatives or to earn money," Hough said.
"They are very afraid and vulnerable and at risk of labour, physical and sexual exploitation." When migrant children arrive in Europe, some are put into detention centres. "Caritas campaigns against the detention of child migrants," said Hough, "because the psychological effects are devastating." "There are a number of Caritas centres across Italy and Europe which take in children," Hough explained.
"Apart from giving them lodging and food, they give them a counsellor to support them psychologically, legal and bureaucratic help, educational opportunities and they teach them the language of the country where they are." Tyler pointed out that "if a child chooses to make a journey across two continents on their own to seek a better life, it is often because they are fleeing a desperate situation -- be it extreme poverty, persecution or conflict."
What happens to migrant children if they manage to survive the voyage to Europe? "Anyone under the age of 18 is a child, by law, and must be given protection, as is their fundamental right," Tyler stated. "These children are victims, not criminals." According to Save the Children, migrant children should not be allowed to languish in detention or refugee reception centres for more than 48 hours. In fact, the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child forbids such treatment of children.
"In Lampedusa, Sicily, Calabria and Apulia we work in reception centres to assess children's needs, whether they be health or psychosocial, and ensure that the children are aware of their rights," Tyler said of Save the Children's humanitarian work. "In Rome and Milan, we also have day and night centres where children are offered showers, clothes, food, medical support, legal advice and guidance on the asylum-seeking process."
Protecting migrant children who reach Europe should be a top priority for the international community. They are not terrorists and deserve compassionate assistance.
By Geoffrey P. Johnston. Follow Geoffrey on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston.