More than 7,000 unaccompanied children crossed from North Africa to Europe in the first five months of this year - twice as many as during the same period past year, according to the latest data from UNICEF.

A room at an unaccompanied minor shelter in Trabia, Italy. Rainbow is a government administered centre for unaccompanied boys that provides shelter, food, education and legal help for unaccompanied asylum seekers. PICTURE: © UNICEF/UN020052/Gilbertson VII Photo

The UN's child focused agency has released a report this week highlighting the risks such children face, noting that unaccompanied children generally rely on people smugglers, under a 'pay as you go' system, opening them to the risk of exploitation.

"It is a silent and desperate situation," said Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF's special coordinator for the refugee and migrant crisis in Europe. "We urgently need to protect these children from all types of abuse and exploitation by those taking advantage of this situation to exploit their dreams."

The report, Danger every step of the way, said the children, who are fleeing "brutal violence, abject poverty, drought, forced early marriage, untold hardships or lack of prospects and hope", come from dozens of countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. They face a range of risks on their flight including detention, rape, forced labour, beatings and even death.

The report quoted a number of children including 16-year-old Aimano, who was forced to work for two months on a farm in Libya to pay the smugglers. "If you try to run they shoot you and you die. If you stop working, they beat you. It was just like the slave trade."

Figures from the International Organization for Migration show that as many as 7,009 unaccompanied children made the crossing in the first five months of 2016. The made up more than 92 per cent of the 7,567 children who did so during that period.

The report said the fact the children are unaccompanied is, "in large part", because of the huge risks and hardships involved which means few families tackle the route (adult men made up 70 per cent of the estimated 28,000 arrivals who made the crossing during the first five months this year).

The report also noted that there is no clear way of accounting for all of the almost 96,000 unaccompanied minors who applied for asylum in Europe last year and said there are fears some may have fallen prey to criminal gangs.

UNICEF has released a seven-point plan for refugee and migrant children. It advocates children be protected against trafficking and exploitation, that children should never be locked up just because they are refugees and migrants, and that children must be given access to services such as health and education.

~ www.unicef.org