Lives of migrant children 'in the hands of smugglers', Unicef warns
As more than 700 migrants are feared to have drowned crossing the Mediterranean Sea, Unicef has warned the lives of children "are in the hands of smugglers".
Hundreds of people are currently missing after three separate shipwrecks in the past week - marking what is thought to be one of the largest losses of life since April last year when an estimated 800 died as a single vessel sank.
Many of those who died attempting the dangerous crossing from Libya to Italy are believed to be unaccompanied minors, according to Unicef, the UN children's organisation.
Alongside the perilous journey in often unseaworthy vessels, the children's charity say youngsters aboard the boats have also faced "appalling abuses" and "exploitation".
Marie-Pierre Poirier, Unicef special co-ordinator for the European Refugee and Migrant Crisis, said: "The stories which I have personally heard from children making this journey are horrifying.
"No child should face them.
"Their lives are in the hands of smugglers who care for nothing other than the money they extort from them."
The charity has said it will shortly begin an operation with the Italian Government and partners to provide protection support.
With an average of 1,000 unaccompanied children arriving in Italy a month, Unicef believe this figure will spike in the coming months.
Ukip MEP Mike Hookem said more migrants will die "unless we stop the boats".
He added: "The season of migration into the EU has started as the weather becomes warmer and with these greater numbers will come more deaths.
"The huge numbers trying their luck with people trafficking gangs will not stop until they get the message they will be turned back."
He said the EU has "blood on its hands" by pretending that anyone coming to Italy or Greece on a boat is a refugee fleeing war.
And he said those paying thousands to smuggling gangs with the aim of getting to Britain are "funding terrorism".