Thousands of Syrian children risking death to reach safety of Europe

Save the Children tells EU leaders to ensure safer routes for refugees fleeing war

Mohammad *, 17, originally from Syria, at a reception centre in Milan. (Photo: Save the Children)
Mohammad *, 17, originally from Syria, at a reception centre in Milan. (Photo: Save the Children)
Syrian migrants disembarking from an Italian navy ship, before being transferred a reception centre in Siracusa, Sicily. Photo: Francesca Leonardi/Save the Children
Syrian migrants disembarking from an Italian navy ship, before being transferred a reception centre in Siracusa, Sicily. Photo: Francesca Leonardi/Save the Children
The story of Mohammed, separated from his Syrian family (Save the Children)

The number of Syrians clandestinely crossing the Mediterranean has risen dramatically since March, with thousands more families likely to attempt the dangerous passage this summer, as the “boat season” gets underway. 

Save the Children’s latest report, “The boat is safe” and other lies: why Syrian families are risking everything to reach Europe, tells the harrowing stories of families who survived the journey to Italy.

The sea passage is facilitated by people smugglers, charging families between US$1,500 and US$3,000 to travel on dilapidated and makeshift boats. The journey can take up to 15 days and survivors describe extreme conditions, frightening close calls, having no or very little food and water and desperate waits to be rescued when things go wrong. Not all are rescued in time.

“No child forced to flee violence and persecution should then have to risk his or her life on this perilous sea crossing,” says Justin Forsyth, CEO of Save the Children. “Today’s Summit on Migration Policy presents a unique opportunity to stop children drowning in a desperate attempt to reach safety. This is one of biggest moral challenges of our lifetime. 

Save the Children said that at least a sixth of those who attempt the sea journey to Italy – from Africa and elsewhere in the Mediterranean basin – are children: of the 41,200 migrants the Italian Navy rescued between January and May 2014, 6,700 were minors. Eritrean and Syrian children are the largest group arriving by sea.

By the end of May, Italian authorities had rescued over 3,800 children from the two countries, some of them very young – tragically highlighted when the Italian Navy recovered, amongst others, the bodies of a baby and a very young child when a boat capsized off the Libyan coast in May.

Eritrean children, also fleeing persecution in their home country, predominantly travel on their own, and are usually in their teens. The average age of Syrian children undertaking this journey is five who, for the vast majority, travelled with their parents. Both groups of minors need appropriate care.

The number of Syrian refugees crossing clandestinely into Italy started rising in July 2013, when more Syrians arrived in Italy than during the whole of 2012. This trend peaked last September, with more than 4,100 new Syrian arrivals, of whom more than 1,400 were children.

While numbers declined during the winter months, they have been going up consistently since April, when around 16,700 migrants were rescued in Italian waters, of whom over 2,300 were Syrians. Thousands of Syrian and other children are expected to follow suit throughout the summer months.

Save the Children is calling on EU leaders to strengthen search and rescue capacity in the Mediterranean; follow the German example and increase the number of Syrian refugees being resettled in Europe through legal channels; end child detention; and ensure other legal avenues to access international protection in the EU.

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