They flee in the thousands from Syria’s civil war, ISIS, poverty, or persecution. They pile into flimsy boats and cross the dangerous waters of the Mediterranean. Thousands will drown. If they’re lucky, they make it to Greece. Over the past two years, 10,000 of these desperate migrants have vanished into thin air after surviving this dangerous journey.
The most vulnerable of this migrant population pouring into Europe are meeting another danger in the countries they hoped to find asylum: criminal gangs connected to human trafficking picking them off.
Many lost refugees could be children. And authorities fear they have been sold into sex work or slavery.
“We think it’s shocking that we are now learning that there are so many unaccompanied minors exposed to trafficking and other dangers,” the International Organization for Migration (IOM) spokesman Leonard Doyle, told the BBC. “That is another tragic twist in the latest story of migration to Europe and the need to protect vulnerable young people who find themselves at loose without friends in Europe and therefore vulnerable without proper mentoring and leadership.”
In Italy alone, 5,000 migrant children are missing and 1,000 others have vanished in Sweden, The Guardian reported. Among the one million who poured into Europe last year, 26,000 may have been unaccompanied children sent by their families to safety or were fleeing together.
Thousands of migrant children go missing after they register with state authorities. In Greece, where most of those who arrive by boat, the authorities aren’t consistently vigilant about registering and checking new arrivals. Many could’ve disappeared after landing there.
Europol’s chief of staff, Brian Donald, said “it’s not unreasonable to say that we’re looking at 10,000-plus children,” but not all of them will be “criminally exploited.” Some may be with family.
“We just don’t know where they are, what they’re doing or whom they are with.”
The European Union’s criminal intelligence agency has reason to believe some of these missing migrant children are being snatched and exploited. In fact, Donald said a sophisticated “criminal infrastructure” has grown up in the past 18 months, its focus the exploitation of migrants.
Prisons in Germany (where many migrants have headed) and Hungary (which they often pass through) are known countries with criminals caught exploiting refugees. In the most troubling piece of evidence, criminal gangs previously known for smuggling refugees and human trafficking are now crossing over into new crimes.
Evidence has given Europol reason to fear that the missing migrant children and youth are being taken and forced into sexual exploitation, slavery, and other illegal activity by these gangs. The estimate of 10,000 missing kids may be conservative.
Europol is now investigating the route refugees take through the Balkans, working with the organizations along the way that have noticed and expressed concern about the missing migrant children.
“Their concern is in relation to the number of unaccompanied minors. They’re asking for help in identifying how these missing migrant children are identified and then brought into the criminal infrastructure. They’re dealing with this on a daily basis, they’ve come to us because they see it as a big problem,” Donald said. “These kids are in the community, if they are being abused it’s in the community. They’re not being spirited away and held in the middle of forests, though I suspect some might be, they’re in the community – they’re visible.”
On Saturday, there was another reminder of just how dangerous the journey is from countries like Syria to supposedly safe haven in Europe. At least 39 migrants, among their number several children, drowned in the crossing of the Aegan Sea from Turkey to Greece. So far this year, 244 people have died making the same trip, out of roughly 55,000.
Australian lifeguard Simon Lewis recently recounted his heart-breaking week in the Aegean Sea, where he rescued 517 people but watched dozens die.
[Photo by Muhammed Muheisen/AP]