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  • A child refugee at a detention center in Libya.

    A child refugee at a detention center in Libya. | Photo: UNICEF

Published 1 March 2017

Based on interviews with refugees trapped in Libya, UNICEF urges countries to open borders to families fleeing Western-backed violence and poverty.

A new report released Tuesday by UNICEF documents the "routine sexual violence, exploitation, abuse and detention" faced by the women and children forced to make the harrowing journey along the Central Mediterranean migration route from North Africa to Italy.

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The report — "A Deadly Journey for Children: The Central Mediterranean Migrant Route" — found that three-quarters of the interviewed child refugees reported violence and harassment during their attempt to seek asylum in Europe, and almost half of the women and children reported surviving sexual abuse.

"The Central Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe is among the world’s deadliest and most dangerous migrant routes for children and women," said Afshan Khan, UNICEF Regional Director and Special Coordinator for the Refugee and Migrant Crisis in Europe. "The route is mostly controlled by smugglers, traffickers and other people seeking to prey upon desperate children and women who are simply seeking refuge or a better life. We need safe and legal pathways and safeguards to protect migrating children that keep them safe and keep predators at bay," she added.

The report is based on interviews conducted in refugee centers in Libya, where hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers are fleeing multiple armed conflicts — many of them fueled by Western foreign policy — in North and Sub-Saharan Africa.

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At the time of the survey, 256,000 migrants were recorded in Libya, including 30,803 women and 23,102 children – a third of whom were unaccompanied. The real figures, however, are believed to be at least three times higher.

"What's striking is that the report shows the risks are not just in one place along the journey," said Christopher Tidey, a spokesman for UNICEF. "It's fairly consistent dangers. It's not just the boats crossing. It's the overland journey that is incredibly risky as well."

Last year, at least 4,579 people died attempting to cross the Mediterranean from Libya, including at least 700 children. The International Organization for Migration reports that already this year, 485 migrants have died while trying to make the crossing to Europe.

The UNICEF report urged governments both in Europe and around the world to address the root causes for the massive forced migration crisis, including "measures to combat xenophobia, discrimination and marginalization" in destination countries.

"When borders are closed, then people will do what they need to do," Tidey told the LA Times. "That's when the risks just skyrocket."

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