Kabra, Merhawi and Filmon are just three of the estimated 15,000 refugee children who have arrived in Sicily in the last year - hundreds of them forced into slavery and prostitution

Kabra, Merhawi and Filmon have endured unknown hardship getting to Europe
John Alevroyiannis / Sunday People

Behind these children’s smiles lies more pain and suffering than most people endure in a lifetime.

All alone, each fled hunger and ­poverty in Eritrea, East Africa, for a perilous 2,000-mile journey by foot, bus and boat hoping for a better life in Europe.

Kabra, a 14-year-old girl and boys Merhawi, 12, and Filmon, 11 – raised as Catholics – ran the risk of execution crossing Islam-dominated Sudan ­because of theirreligious beliefs.

They were even temporarily enslaved by callous gangs and forced to work for them.

Then they joined 700 other ­desperate refugees on a ­dangerously overloaded boat for the terrifying two-day trip from Libya to Trapani in Sicily. A ­journey that has already claimed hundreds of lives this year.

When they did finally ­arrive in Europe, far from feeling ­elated they were too scared to speak to anyone except each other for days.

They are so traumatised they are still too frightened to say if their parents are dead or alive.

The trio are effectively ­orphans with little idea what the future holds for them.

But, for now at least, they are safe. They are being cared for at a ­children’s home just outside Palermo and waiting to be given ID documents to let them stay in Europe.

But Kabra, Merhawi and Filmon are just three of the estimated 15,000 refugee children who have arrived in Sicily, Italy, alone after fleeing war, starvation and poverty in the past 12 months.

John Alevroyiannis / Sunday People
The apartments where the children stay at the charity-run children's home

Biagio Sciortino, vice-director of the home run by the Casa del Giovani charity , said: “Thousands of refugee children are being looked after here, but they are just the tip of the iceberg.

“Many don’t even make it to this point as they are being taken away by African criminal gangs before we can get to them.

“They are treated like pieces of meat travelling round to get to their final destination. They have no idea what to expect when they finally get there and they have to face a terrible ordeal along the way.”

John Alevroyiannis / Sunday People
The boys can enjoy life as children thanks to the charity

The families of kids like Kabra, Merhawi and Filmon have to pay smugglers $3,000 (£2,260) to get a child to Italy.

Biagio told the Sunday People : “As well as promising to pay the cash when their loved one reaches Europe, the family also has to give up another family member to be used for prostitution in the meantime as an insurance.

“It is often the child’s mother or an older sibling.

“They sacrifice themselves for their children to be able to leave the country.

“By the time a child is 15, it is likely they will die from either war, hunger or poverty.”

John Alevroyiannis / Sunday People
The boys during a day out at the seaside. But many migrnts have perished in the Med

Thousands of other children go missing as soon as they arrive in Italy.

It is feared many end up ­being trafficked into Europe’s sex trade by controlling African gangs.

At the nearby Di Cristina Children’s Hospital in Palermo, doctors have treated more than 800 refugee children in the past 12 months – including over 100 kids who have arrived in Sicily alone after seeing their parents die on the journey.

Hospital director Giorgio Trizzino said: “I would appeal for the British government for help because at the moment the burden is being left solely with the authorities here and we are struggling to cope.”