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Refugee Girls Traveling on Their Own Face 'Extreme' Abuse and Exploitation

"It's becoming the norm for children to face these terrible risks on the route, and it's just unacceptable."

Sirin Kale

Sirin Kale

An 18-year-old Nigerian trafficking victim at a safe house on the outskirts of Taormina in Sicily. Photo © UNICEF/Gilbertson VII Photo

Sixteen-year-old Lovette left Nigeria in search of a new life in Europe.

She made it as far as Libya before she was arrested and detained for not having the right documentation. Lovette was fed only three times a week and housed in a cramped cell with many other women and girls. Guards would beat them if they complained. Eventually, with the help of her cellmates, she beat down the door, fled the prison, and boarded a boat to Italy.

But life isn't much safer for unaccompanied migrant women, even when they make it to the apparent safety of Europe. Nigerian trafficking networks operate in Italy, and are known to offer transport to vulnerable girls on a "pay as you go" basis. When they arrive in Italy, they are made to do low-paid, exploitative work to recoup their fare—or forced into sex work.

Lovette's story was outlined in a new report from UNICEF and International Organization for Migration. A survey of 11,000 young migrant and refugee children, it outlines the dangers they face attempting to cross into Europe, whether fleeing war and violence or simply in the hope of a better life.

Girls are less likely to travel alone than boys, although many girls can and do—leaving them much more susceptible to the risks of trafficking, sexual violence, and exploitation. According to the report, 64 percent of girls aged 14 to 17 attempt the perilous central Mediterranean route to reach Italy through Libya alone.

Read more: 'I Didn't Have Anywhere to Run': Migrant Women Are Facing a Rape Epidemic

"Girls are under-represented in our data," explains Sarah Crowe of UNICEF, "making a small proportion of the survey respondents. But women are far more likely to be trafficked." Crowe was recently in Sicily, where she saw a number of Nigerian girls being trafficked into Europe. 20 percent of all detected trafficking victims are girls, compared to eight percent of boys, and 72 percent of female trafficking victims have been sexually exploited.

Girls are also less likely to report exploitation, making it difficult to determine the true scale of the problem. "You see how much more likely they are to be exploited in a very extreme way," she goes on. "It's becoming the norm for children to face these terrible risks on the route, and it's just unacceptable."

I ask about the profile of the girls who attempt the crossing on their own. "There's usually a greater level of protection for the girls at home," Crowe explains. "They're less likely to have the freedom to just leave home. Some of them are escaping forced child marriage, so the girls have a very specific experience of migration, and they're amongst the very most vulnerable."

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Those with less education—both boys and girls—are also more likely to be exploited. "They don't have the tools or wherewithal to understand or know how to get out of a difficult situation."

Until the international community does more to address Europe's long-running migration crisis, it is likely that the exploitation of girls and boys alike will continue. And as EU authorities cut funding for aid agencies working to help refugees, there will be even less support available to many when they do make it to a place of relative safety.