Hundreds of children lose lives on desperate sea journeys

Infants and children are among the 8,500 refugees and migrants who have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean since toddler Alan Kurdi drowned two years ago.

Hope*, 36, an asylum seeker from Nigeria, at the reception centre where she lives in Messina, Italy.
© UNHCR/Valentino Bellini

The swell whipped up and Hope* gathered her three young daughters close to her on the overcrowded dinghy. None were swimmers.

“Don't cry, Mama. Rescue ship is coming.” The words of comfort were 10-year-old Mercy’s* last.

As the rescue ship came into view, panic gripped the 130 Gambian and Nigerian passengers on the dinghy, drifting without power in the open Mediterranean. The men who could swim leapt into the sea, unbalancing the boat and causing it to flip over.

Clutching baby Faith* tightly, Hope was pitched into the water and became trapped underneath the dinghy. Five minutes later, a man’s hand reached into the darkness, grabbed her and hauled her up on to the rescue boat.

“My middle daughter was sitting there. I asked her, 'Where is the other one?'” said Hope, who was a kindergarten teacher in her native Nigeria. “But the emergency was for the baby that was not breathing. They took her on the big ship and tried to reanimate her but there was nothing to do.

"They took her on the big ship and tried to reanimate her but there was nothing to do."

“That's why I lost essential minutes where I could have searched for my eldest daughter, who was lost at sea. I told the rescue team another daughter was in the water. They went searching, but she had disappeared."

In September 2015, the image of the lifeless body of three-year-old Syrian Alan Kurdi prompted a massive surge of emotion that moved countless people worldwide to take action.

Nearly two years on, children like Hope’s daughters – aged just eight and 14 months – continue to drown in their hundreds as they make desperate attempts to cross the Mediterranean in search of safety, protection or a better life in Europe.

Since Alan's death on September 2, 2015, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, knows of at least 8,500 refugees and migrants who have died or gone missing trying to cross the Mediterranean alone, an unknown number of them children.

“Although the number of arrivals in Europe has drastically decreased since Alan’s death, people continue to attempt the journey and many have lost their lives in the process,” UNHCR said in a statement.

At the end of last year, a record 22.5 million refugees had been uprooted by war and persecution worldwide, more than half of them children.

UNHCR is highlighting the need for solutions and safer alternatives so that mothers such as Hope will stop risking their lives on desperate journeys, although she believes she had little choice.

Swept up in violence in Nigeria, her husband had already fled to Europe. Facing the same threats, Hope and her daughters followed on the dangerous trek north over the desert to Libya, before paying a smuggler to attempt the lethal crossing to Italy in a packed boat without life jackets, or even a satellite phone to call for help.

"If people see no hope and live in fear, they will continue to gamble their lives making desperate journeys.”

“When I decided to travel with my daughters, I had no other choice,” said Hope, who has applied for asylum in Italy and now lives at a reception centre in Messina with her one surviving daughter, Charity*.

“I could not return to my home as my husband’s enemies swore they would retaliate against his family. But I couldn’t stay in Libya either. The place had become too dangerous for the kids in the last year. I had to lock my daughters inside the flat when I was going out.”

UNHCR is clear that the international community needs to do more to stop the loss of young lives at sea.

“The urgent need for solutions for these children and others on the move remains – if people see no hope and live in fear, then they will continue to gamble their lives making desperate journeys,” UNHCR said.

“Political leaders need to work together to develop safer alternatives, to better inform those considering making the journey of the dangers they face, and most importantly to tackle the root causes of these movements, by resolving conflicts and creating real opportunities in countries of origin.”

*Names changed for protection reasons