Refugees undertaking 'more dangerous' journeys to Europe - UN

UNICEF warns that many women and children suffer sexual violence and exploitation when trying to reach Europe

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A wooden boat used by refugees to leave Libya drifts abandoned after a rescue operation to save migrants on the Mediterranean sea. Image: Santi Palacios / AP/Press Association Images

A new UN report has warned that refugees & migrants are taking more 'diversified and dangerous' journeys to Europe following the introduction of increased border restrictions.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) follows the 'closure' of the Western Balkan route to Europe, and the controversial deal reached between the EU and Turkey last year.

The agency notes a 'drastic decrease' in the number of people travelling to Greece via the Eastern Mediterranean route, which has led to the Central Mediterranean becoming the main route for people trying to reach Europe.

According to the report, 181,436 people arrived in Italy in 2016 by sea - with a vast majority (90%) travelling by boat from Libya.

There has been an increase in the number of unaccompanied and separated children attempting to make the journey, with 25,000 arriving last year.

They represented 14% of arrivals to Italy in 2016, marking a doubling of 2015 figures.

Figures show that there was one death for every 40 people making the crossing to Italy, and the route resulted in 90% of the 5,096 refugees & migrants reported dead or missing at sea.

Meanwhile, stronger land borders have had a major impact on those travelling from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria - with the UNHCR suggesting "many rely on smugglers, taking high risks which resulted in several deaths in 2016". 

Vincent Cochetel, Director of UNHCR’s Europe Bureau, said: “This report clearly shows that the lack of accessible and safe pathways leads refugees and migrants to take enormous risks while attempting to reach Europe, including those simply trying to join family members."

The UN's children's agency UNICEF is also highlighting the plight of women & children who attempt to reach Europe, saying many suffer sexual violence, exploitation, abuse and detention along the Central Mediterranean route.

Afshan Khan, UNICEF Regional Director and Special Coordinator for the Refugee and Migrant Crisis in Europe, said: “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.