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Children risk death fleeing North Africa, warn aid workers

Children as young as 12 are risking starvation, thirst and drowning as they flee North Africa unaccompanied in boats heading for Europe, charity workers warn.

About 120 children are at a camp on the Italian island of Lampedusa after making travelling alone in boats across the Mediterranean to flee political turmoil.

After days at sea, without food, water and shelter, they are arriving on the island cold, hungry and scared.

But these are the lucky ones. Many of the boats run into trouble that leaves them adrift at sea for days without food or water.

A boat carrying 600 people heading for the island was wrecked off the coast of Libya on Friday as the people on it tried to escape fighting in the north African country’s capital, Tripoli. At least two babies were among the 16 dead, the United Nations Refugee Council said.

Because they are smaller and weaker, children are at higher risk of malnutrition, cold and death by drowning. Many of those who do make it to Lampedusa are traumatised by their journey. Khaled, 16 told aid workers that his older brother drowned while they were crossing the sea from Tunisia.

“The journey lasted 18 hours and the sea was very rough,” he told Children’s charity, Save the Children. “My brother’s boat sank and 41 people drowned. Only five people survived. I thought my boat would be shipwrecked as well, but we were saved by a coastguard boat.”

 “One can only imagine the fear and desperation that drives children to take such grave risks to reach Europe,” said the charity’s Justin Forsyth. “Many of them are fleeing the most appalling violence, but sadly reaching the safety they crave is exposing them to even greater danger.”

Since the start of this month, about 2744 people fleeing the north African fighting have landed on the tourist island. Many of them have been taken to mainland Italy, but more than 300 are still at a holding camp. Nearly 1500 children travelling alone have been moved to Italy since the start of this year.

The UN refugee agency yesterday (Tuesday) spoke about the people from Libya who drowned at the weekend. It called for European countries to urgently improve its sea rescue capability.

"In addition, we appeal to ship masters for heightened vigilance and for continued adherence to the longstanding maritime obligation of aiding people in distress," the agency’s Melissa Fleming, told journalists in Geneva.

Hayley attribution