Some 289 children are known to have died in the first half of 2023 while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, the United Nations said Friday.
The figure is double that recorded in the first six months of 2022, the UN children's agency UNICEF said, as it called for expanded safe, legal and accessible pathways for children to seek protection in Europe.
Verena Knaus, UNICEF's global lead on migration and displacement, said the true figures were likely to be higher as many shipwrecks in the central Mediterranean leave no survivors or go unrecorded.
"The number of children who have lost their lives while attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe has doubled in the first half of this year compared to the same period last year," she said.
"These deaths are absolutely preventable."
Knaus said that in the first six months of 2023, an estimated 11,600 children made the crossing — nearly twice as many as in the same period in 2022.
And in the first three months of 2023, around 3,300 children -- 71 per cent of all children arriving in Europe on the central Mediterranean route -- were recorded as unaccompanied or separated.
The figure is three times higher than in the same period last year.
Knaus said many in Europe, including people about to jet off to Mediterranean beaches for their summer holidays, seemed oblivious to the daily tragedies unfolding in the same waters.
"This is the real, shocking reality, but we seem to be quite comfortable with the fact that day in, day out, children lose their lives," she said.
"These children die, not just in front of our eyes but, it seems, with our eyes shut.
"Each child's life lost is a smile that will never be seen, is a dream cut short."
Knaus said that many children were making the journey unaccompanied over several months to reach the shores of Libya or Tunisia in North Africa, from countries like Guinea, Senegal, The Gambia, Syria and even Afghanistan.
Along the way, they can be exposed to detention, deprivation, torture, trafficking, violence, exploitation and rape, with girls particularly vulnerable.
The eventual boat journey from Libya or Tunisia to Europe typically costs around $7,000, UNICEF said.
"These children need to know they are not alone. World leaders must urgently act to demonstrate the undeniable worth of children's lives, moving beyond condolences to the resolute pursuit of effective solutions," said Knaus.