Migration to and from Libya has always been important, even before the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The current state of the country has not stopped the influx of migrants, most especially unaccompanied minors, in search of a better life.

According to a study released by the United Nations children’s agency (UNICEF), “Thousands of African children flee to Italy across the Mediterranean Sea facing abuse and violence in Libya and most of them go alone and unprepared for Europe.” The main entry points into Libya have not changed. Refugees and unaccompanied migrants from East Africa usually cross the Sudanese border south-east of Kufra, while those from West and Central Africa mostly arrive from Niger to the south of Sebha.

The study revealed how the majority of Africa’s child migrants leave home without their parents’ knowledge – often due to domestic violence or family disputes – and do not aim to go to Europe, but plan to find work in nearby countries. But due to the violence, harassment or aggression in the hands of adults at the detention camps in Libya, they are forced to extend their journeys to Europe.

Three-quarters of the migrant women and children interviewed by UNICEF said that they had to rely on smugglers and this has left many in debt under a ‘pay as you go’ arrangement. This has further made them vulnerable to abuse, abduction and trafficking.

At least 12,200 children arrived in Italy in the first half of the year, all but a few having travelled alone, UNICEF said.

“Concerns are growing about unaccompanied minors on the move, especially in Libya,” UNICEF spokesman, Patrick Rose said. More than 7 million children in West and Central Africa are on the move due to violence, poverty and climate change, making up over half of all migrants in the region.”

Afshan Khan, UNICEF’s director for Europe and Central Asia said: “What is striking about this study is it shows for the first time that there are overwhelmingly far more reasons that push children to leave their homes than have been previously understood, and fewer pull factors that lure them to Europe.”

Adding to the study, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) stated that at least 20,000 migrants are being detained in Libya. Many are extorted for money by smugglers and gangs, and rising numbers are traded – in what they call slave markets – for forced labour and sexual exploitation.

The state of the detention camps are deplorable as most of its occupants – being mostly women and children – suffer from various diseases and are left in unsanitary situations.

Also, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), also known as the UN Refugee Agency released a study of mixed refugee and migrant flows. Indicating that the profiles and nationalities of people arriving and leaving Libya have been evolving over the past few years. With a marked decrease in those originating in East Africa and an increase in those from West Africa, who now represent well over half of all arrivals to Europe through the Central Mediterranean route from Libya to Italy.

With an increased influx rate of unaccompanied minors from West Africa, UNICEF and other international bodies have called on all concerned parties to take necessary action and provide safe and legal pathways for children fleeing from armed conflict, persecution and violence, or seeking better opportunities.

It is time to stop the exploitation, abuse, and death of women and children on this route of misery. Women and children deserve to be protected from violence, exploitation and abuse along their journey. They should not have to put their lives in the hands of smugglers. They should be afforded safe and legal pathways to a better life.

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