In less than one year, two children have drowned every day on average while on the perilous journey from their homes in conflict zones to Europe.
Since September, more than 340 children — many just infants and toddlers — have drowned in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, according to a new report by the United Nations refugee agency.
UNHCR began tracking the numbers after a photo of 3-year-old Syrian boy Alan Kurdi, found dead on a tourist beach in Turkey after the boat he was on capsized, went viral. The image put a human face to the devastating and ongoing refugee crisis.
Kurdi is just one of hundreds. There was 7-year-old Houda, from Afghanistan, who fled Kabul with her family amid death threats. But when she and her family boarded a tightly cramped boat in the middle of the night, Houda disappeared and her parents died. Houda’s teenaged brother and sister, Aziz and Aisha, lived to tell her story.
“I was impressed by the resilience and the courage of Aziz and Aisha since we met them at the port where they were brought by the Coast Guard vessel which rescued them that terrible night,” Marco Procaccini, who runs UNHCR in Kos, said. “Despite going through the worst we can ever imagine for a child, they remained always polite and kind.”
The two children hope to be reunited with what is left of their family, including a brother currently living in Germany.
“These tragic deaths in the Mediterranean are unbearable and must stop,” U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi told UNHCR. “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 programs for example, should be an absolute priority if we want to reduce the death toll.”
Most deaths have occurred in the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece due to the winter’s rough seas. Without enhanced safety, and more countries stepping in to help mitigate the loss of life, organizations including UNHCR and UNICEF estimate that the number of child deaths will only increase.
At the end of March, the U.N. secretary-general hopes to have a meeting on global responsibility in Geneva to help find legal pathways for Syrian refugees to find safety in other countries.