Children intercepted aboard migrant boats in the Mediterranean Sea are being sent to overcrowded detention camps in Libya, the UN said.
Unicef issued the warning as 125 children, including 114 unaccompanied minors, were detained by Libyan authorities over the past week.
The Mediterranean route into Europe is one of the busiest and most dangerous used by traffickers to smuggle people fleeing poverty and war.
“The majority of those rescued are sent tao overcrowded detention centres in Libya under extremely difficult conditions and with no or limited access to water and health services. Nearly 1,100 children are in these centres,” Unicef said.
Unicef urged Libya to release the children and end immigration detention.
It painted a brutal picture of life for migrant children caught by Libyan authorities.
“Libya has 51,828 migrant children and an estimated 14,572 refugee children; most are unable to access services and are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse within the country,” Unicef said in a statement.
“Those in detention are cut off from clean water, electricity, education, health care and adequate sanitation facilities. Violence and exploitation are rampant.
“Despite these dangers, compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic, refugee and migrant children continue to risk their lives in search of safety and better life. Attempts to cross this sea route are likely to increase in the summer months ahead,” it said.
“We call on the Libyan authorities to release all children and end immigration detention.
“The detention of children in migration contexts is never in the best interest of children. We call on authorities in Europe on the central Mediterranean to support and receive migrants and refugees coming to their shores and to strengthen search and rescue mechanisms.”
Unicef said it was committed to helping governments across the region find safer alternatives to the dangerous sea crossing, and to make sure children were treated appropriately by national authorities.
Over the past decade Libya has become a key transit point for migrants fleeing Africa and the Middle East.
At least 350 people, including children and women, have drowned or gone missing in the central Mediterranean while trying to reach Europe this year.
Just last week, 130 Europe-bound migrants went missing off the Libyan coast, in the deadliest shipwreck so far this year.
The migration route has also caused political controversy in the destination nations, including Greece and Italy, where far-right parties scapegoat the incoming migrants.
Officials in popular landing places, such as Italy’s Lampedusa island, say the arrivals place strains on local authorities.