By Umberto Bacchi
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Only five child migrants who reached Italy and Greece without their parents were transferred to Britain in 2016, aid agencies said on Thursday, warning that many others risked falling prey to traffickers and smugglers.
More than 20,000 unaccompanied children who fled poverty and war zones arrived in Italy by sea this year, while at least 2,250 reached Greece, according to the U.N. children's agency UNICEF.
"If children do not have safe and legal routes to the UK they will continue to make perilous journeys and continue to fall into the hands of smugglers and traffickers," UNICEF UK's deputy executive director, Lily Caprani, said in a statement.
More than 4,700 migrants have died attempting treacherous sea journeys to Europe this year, the deadliest on record, and others perished attempting to enter Britain by jumping on lorries, trying to walk through the Channel Tunnel or swim across.
The Home Office (interior ministry) said it was working closely with Italian, Greek and other European authorities to bring vulnerable children to Britain.
More than 750 children were relocated from France after the "Jungle" migrant camp in the northern town of Calais was dismantled in October, it said.
"The government is committed to identifying unaccompanied asylum seeking children whose best interests are served by being transferred to the UK," the Home Office said in a statement.
European Union rules say Britain must take in unaccompanied children who have family ties in the country.
An amendment to British law, known as the Dubs amendment, states the most vulnerable minors who arrived in Europe before March 20 this year should also be admitted.
No children were transferred to Britain from Greece and Italy under the Dubs scheme in 2016, while only five arrived under EU rules, UNICEF and charity Save The Children said in a joint statement.
A UNICEF spokesperson said the figure was confirmed during a meeting the aid agencies held with Home Secretary Amber Rudd on Wednesday.
The agencies urged the government to extend the Dubs scheme to children arrived in Europe after the cut-off date and prioritize those with health issues, disabilities and mental health conditions, regardless of their age and nationality.
(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Astrid Zweynert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)