An average of two children died every day in the Mediterranean since the picture of two-year-old Alan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach resort, created a shockwave around the globe.
The exact number is 315 children who drowned or disappeared at sea during a five-month period between September 2, 2015 and February 2 of this year, according to data from the Missing Migrants Project.
The majority, 291, perished in the relatively short crossing between Turkey and Greece, the same Aegean seas where Alan and his five year-old brother Galip lost their lives, together with their 35-year-old mother Rehana and nine other people, including three children.
The dead and missing children represent about 23% of the 1,367 people who died during this five-month period in the Mediterranean. In the Aegean, that figure goes up to 31% – 291 children of 951 dead or disappeared.
And the toll is rising, with January becoming the deadliest on record after 359 people reported dead or missing. The grand majority, or 269, died between Turkey and Greece. That compares to 82 people who died in January 2015 in the whole of the Mediterranean and zero deaths in the Aegean during that month.
New Surge of People Crossing in Winter
The deaths reflect a new pattern of unprecedented crossings to Greece in winter. While only 1,694 people made the crossing in January of last year, this year that number soared to just over 60,500.
The reasons for this are varied. Refugees and migrants only started crossing in the tens of thousands per every month after May 2014. Before that, the central Mediterranean was by far Europe’s busiest entry point.
However, the rush to cross in spite of the inclement and unpredictable weather of the Aegean at this time of year is also driven by a sensation among asylum seekers currently in Turkey, that Europe could soon do something to shut the door.
“Many people fear that the window (of opportunity) will close soon and that smugglers here are peddling that rumour,” said 23-year-old Syrian refugee who asked to go only by her first name, Samira.
She lives in Izmir, one of Turkey’s most prolific smuggling hubs.
“I am staying put for now and so is my family but we know many people who are leaving. Just last week, our former neighbours in Homs, with whom we travelled to Turkey two years ago, decided to take the boat. They have five children, three girls and two boys, the youngest being just one. My father tried to convince them not to go but they wouldn’t listen, they kept saying that if they don’t go now, they will be stuck in Turkey and there is no future for their children here,” she said.
Children Making the Dangerous Crossing
More than one third of migrants making the treacherous sea crossing to Greece from Turkey are now children.
It’s a sharp rise from as recently as six months ago when 73% of the migration flow was male, and only one in 10 migrants was an accompanied child, according to the UN children’s rights agency, UNICEF. Now most are women and children.
“The implications of this surge in the proportion of children and women on the move are enormous – it means more are at risk at sea, especially now in the winter, and more need protection on land,” UNICEF’s special coordinator for the refugee and migrant crisis in Europe, Marie-Pierre Poirier, said in a statement.
Although the exact number of unaccompanied and separated children on the move is not known, 35,400 sought asylum in Sweden, mostly young Afghans, while Germany has more than 60,000 unaccompanied adolescents primarily from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
The UN agency emphasized that all children should be prioritised at every step of the way – they need to be fully informed of their rights to claim asylum and to family reunification in Europe. The best interests of each individual unaccompanied child should be examined before any actions are taken.
Moreover, the agency called for right of all children to family reunification to be upheld, particularly as children living and traveling without family support are in danger of abuse and exploitation by smugglers and traffickers.
On Sunday, Europol warned that unaccompanied minors were particularly vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and trafficking. It also reported that more than 10,000 unaccompanied children registered after arriving in Europe over the past 18 months to two years had disappeared from the system.