In 2015, a photo of a Syrian boy found dead on a beach in Turkey after attempting to reach Greece made headlines across the world. Since then, many more children have died during migration, but the true scale of these tragedies is unknown due to a severe lack of data.
Since IOM, the UN Migration Agency, began collecting data in 2014 through the Missing Migrants Project, it has recorded the deaths of more than 1,200 child migrants, nearly half of whom perished while attempting to cross the Mediterranean. This figure represents less than 5 per cent of the total number of migrant deaths recorded during this period by IOM.
The real figure is likely to be much higher, given that approximately 12.5 per cent of all migrants are under the age of 18, and the number of children migrating around the world has been increasing in recent years. For example, roughly one quarter of the approximately one million migrants who arrived by sea to Italy and Greece in 2015 were children, and, in the case of Italy, 72 per cent were unaccompanied.
The call to action released yesterday by UNICEF, IOM, UNHCR, Eurostat, and OECD highlights the lack of data essential for understanding how migration affects children and their families – and for designing policies and programmes to meet their needs. Data on children moving irregularly across borders, and those who have gone missing or lost their lives during their migratory journeys are particularly scarce.
“We are aware that there are a growing number of children on the move, and that many of these children face significant risks during their journeys,” said Frank Laczko, Director of IOM’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre, which hosts the Missing Migrants Project. “In only about 40 per cent of cases where we record a migrant death are we able to estimate the age of the person who died,” he said. “It is extremely difficult to find data disaggregated by age.”
Of the 1,202 deaths of child migrants recorded by the Missing Migrants Project, their age is provided in only 21 per cent of cases. Often, sources will only mention that the deceased person is a ‘child’ or ‘infant,’ which means that it is difficult to assess which child migrants are most vulnerable. Of the children whose age was provided, the average was just 8 years old at the time of their death. Fifty-eight of these children were infants under the age of 1, and 67 were between 1 and 5 years old.
Though the scarcity of data on child migrants means that it is impossible to say which migratory route is most dangerous for children, the available data indicate that crossing the Mediterranean, especially from Turkey to Greece, is particularly deadly. At least 396 migrants under the age of 18 died while crossing the Eastern Mediterranean since 2014, with a further 164 recorded on the Central Mediterranean route, and 16 on the Western Mediterranean route.
However, as less than 20 per cent of the more than 15,000 deaths recorded on these routes contain information on age, IOM’s recent Fatal Journeys report estimates that at least 1,300 children have died in the Mediterranean since 2014.
Worldwide, the Missing Migrants Project has recorded the deaths of 137 children migrating in Africa, 20 on the US-Mexico border, and 18 on land in Europe. By far the most deaths were due to drowning – 681 children have been lost while crossing a body of water, most of whom perished in the Mediterranean Sea or the Bay of Bengal. Sixty-eight children died due to vehicle accidents or suffocation during vehicular transport; 50 due to exposure to harsh environments during their journeys; 35 as a result of violence; and 23 due to illness and lack of access to medicine.
Some 803 of the children recorded in the Missing Migrants Project database were originally from Asia, including the Middle East, while another 171 of the dead were from African nations. Sixty-one were from the Americas, while the origin of the remaining 167 children could not be determined.
Gathering more and better-quality data on migrant children is extremely important at a time when states are discussing how best to achieve safer and more orderly migration. Finding better ways to measure and document child migrant deaths is also important given the inclusion of migration and age in the in the 2030 Global Agenda for Sustainable Development. According to this agenda, states have agreed to work towards promoting safe, orderly and regular migration, and to end preventable deaths of children.
Julia Black, Coordinator of the Missing Migrants Project, concluded, “We know that our data are incomplete. The truth is that the number of children who die during migration is much higher than what we know. Obtaining better data could help to reduce such tragedies in the future, as well as help families to identify their loved ones.”