GENEVA • Children now make up more than a third of the migrants making the perilous sea crossing from Turkey to Greece, the United Nations said as two more babies drowned off Europe's shores.
The figures released on Tuesday emerged as Europe struggles with its biggest migration crisis since World War II, with hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war, violence and poverty and risking life and limb to reach its shores.
"Children currently account for 36 per cent of those risking the treacherous sea crossing between Greece and Turkey," the UN children's agency Unicef said.
For the first time since the start of the migrant crisis in Europe, there are now more women and children crossing the border from Greece to Macedonia than men, spokesman Sarah Crowe said. "Children and women on the move now make up nearly 60 per cent."
It marks a significant shift since last year when figures from June showed 73 per cent of migrants were men and only one in 10 was under the age of 18, she said.
"The implications of this surge in the proportion of children and women on the move are enormous," said Ms Marie Pierre Poirier, Unicef's special coordinator for the refugee and migrant crisis in Europe. "It means more are at risk at sea, especially now in the winter, and more need protection on land."
Underlining her point, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said on Tuesday that one in every five of those who drowned last month while trying to sail from Turkey to Greece was a child, with minors accounting for 60 of the 272 deaths.
Last month's death toll raised to 330 the total number of children who died in those waters over the past five months, the IOM said.
The drownings continue a grim trend that accelerated last year when nearly 4,000 people died trying to reach Europe by sea. The worst month was December, when 82 children under the age of 18 died in the Eastern Mediterranean, many of them infants and toddlers, IOM figures show.
The bodies of two more babies were recovered by the Turkish Coast Guard in the Izmir province on Tuesday, along with the bodies of seven adults, just days after another 37 people drowned off another part of the coast.
Large numbers of minors have also arrived in Europe unaccompanied, leaving them vulnerable to abuse and trafficking.
Last month, almost 62,200 migrants and refugees entered Europe through Greece, most of them from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, the IOM said. Of that number, around a third - close to 20,000 - were unaccompanied minors.
On Sunday, the Europol police agency warned that young people arriving alone were particularly vulnerable to exploitation, saying that more than 10,000 unaccompanied children who were registered after arriving in Europe over the past 18 months to two years had disappeared.
Ms Crowe said European mechanisms for protecting children had not worked. This "is really a failure of child protection systems across the region".