By Gabriela Baczynska
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Migrant children reaching Europe are exposed to sexual abuse and forced labor and lack access to education or healthcare, with some put in detention centers in a violation of their rights, the watchdog Council of Europe said on Wednesday.
Children are among the most vulnerable of the 1.6 million refugees and migrants who reached Europe via the Mediterranean in 2014-16, fleeing the war in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, as well as conflicts and poverty in Africa.
As the European Union seeks to stem immigration and increasingly curbs the rights of people who seek entry, human rights groups have sounded the alarm that this crackdown risks aggravating the distress of the newcomers, especially children.
"Many children and families across Europe live in abysmal conditions," the Council of Europe said in a report. "Many live in precarious and difficult situations within Europe, vulnerable to neglect and violence."
Some 385,000 people younger than 18 years old applied for asylum for the first time in the EU last year, according to the bloc's statistics office Eurostat. In 2015, around 96,500 unaccompanied children sought formal protection in the bloc.
"Unaccompanied children are not always identified, registered and provided with a guardian. Without a guardian and suitable care, such children may be exposed to serious protection risks, such as sexual exploitation, and are more likely to go missing," the report said.
"Practical measures such as gender-separate sanitary facilities, better lighting and child-friendly spaces not only make a huge difference for children's well-being, but may also eliminate risks of sexual abuse."
It named child labor and an increasing number of forced early marriages as other serious risks for migrant and refugee children, who are also given insufficient access to healthcare, education, integration policies and basic legal information.
It also criticized detention of minors, days after the EU's executive in Brussels encouraged member states to consider doing that more to prevent those whose asylum bids have been rejected from running away before they are deported.
"Migrant and refugee children are detained and many are separated from a parent who is placed in immigration detention. A lack of alternatives to detention is one of the most damaging structural problems affecting children, which urgently needs to be addressed," the report said.
The Council of Europe said it would strive to end "this violation of children's rights".
The call for ensuring better care for children in migrant camps is a tall order for countries like Greece or Italy, which have struggled to ensure basic care and security standards amid high arrivals on their Mediterranean shores.
The report was based on CoE field grips to migrant centers in Greece, Macedonia, Turkey, France and Italy, among others.
(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; editing by Mark Heinrich)