With rising numbers of child deaths at sea, UN urges safety measures for those fleeing conflict

Greek volunteer life-guards help a young child out of a boat that reached the shores of Lesbos, having crossed the Aegean sea from Turkey. Photo: UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis

19 February 2016 – Two children have drowned every day on average since September 2015 as their families try to cross the eastern Mediterranean, and the number is growing, three United Nations humanitarian agencies said today, calling for enhancing the safety of those escaping conflict and despair.

In a joint statement, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) warned that since this past September, when the tragic death of toddler Aylan Kurdi captured the world's attention, more than 340 children – many of them babies and toddlers – have drowned in the eastern Mediterranean. The total number may be even greater become some bodies have been lost at sea.

“We cannot turn our faces away from the tragedy of so many innocent young lives and futures lost – or fail to address the dangers so many more children are facing,” said UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake. “We may not have the ability now to end the desperation that causes so many people to try to cross the sea, but countries can and must cooperate to make such dangerous journeys safer. No one puts a child in a boat if a safer option is available.”

The stretch of the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece is among the deadliest routes in the world for refugees and migrants, the agencies noted. The winter's rough seas, overloading, and the poor quality of boats and lifesaving equipment increase the risk of capsizing, making the journey significantly more dangerous.

“These tragic deaths in the Mediterranean are unbearable and must stop,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi.

“Clearly, more efforts are needed to combat smuggling and trafficking. Also, as many of the children and adults who have died were trying to join relatives in Europe, organizing ways for people to travel legally and safely, through resettlement and family reunion programmes for example, should be an absolute priority if we want to reduce the death toll,” he added.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called for a high-level meeting on global responsibility-sharing through legal pathways for admission of Syrian refugees, to take place in Geneva on 30 March.

With children now accounting for 36 per cent of those on the move, the chance of them drowning on the Aegean Sea crossing from Turkey to Greece has grown proportionately. During the first six weeks of 2016, 410 people drowned out of the 80,000 crossing the eastern Mediterranean. This amounts to a 35-fold increase year-on-year from 2015, the agencies said.

“Counting lives is not enough. We must act,” said William Lacy Swing, IOM's Director General. “This is not only a Mediterranean problem, or even a European one. It is a humanitarian catastrophe in the making that demands the entire world's engagement.”


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