We must take action on the trafficking of refugee children

In January, Europol announced that some 10,000 refugee children were unaccounted for over the last 18-24 months, reflecting the realisation of one of the most persistent fears surrounding unaccompanied minors and their risk for human trafficking, but also highlighting one of the most vexatious aspects of Europe’s handling of the refugee crisis. With a million people entering Europe in 2015 and one quarter of them children, there’s a massive shifting population that’s also highly vulnerable, particularly considering the growing xenophobia in the European political landscape. This is an issue that requires action, but the solution may be complicated.

Europol relies on the numbers of refugees who register with government authorities, meaning that the 10,000 number is likely much lower than reality. Falling off the radar also doesn’t necessarily provide information about why a child is suddenly unreachable — it’s possible that she was reunited with parents, that she relocated somewhere else, or that she deliberately went underground to avoid deportation. Some, though, are most definitely being trafficked into forced labour, including in the sex industry, and there has been a significant uptick in human trafficking cases across Europe. Now, it’s not just smugglers being caught trying to sneak people over the border into Europe, but traffickers moving children across Europe and elsewhere.

Criminalising refugees has directly contributed to this problem. People fleeing persecution, war zones, abuse, violence, and other terrible circumstances are desperately seeking entry to Europe, but access is very tightly controlled and it’s getting tougher every day, leaving people stranded in camps along the border. By severely restricting the number of people admitted into Europe, the EU has bred a crisis in which people are desperate to get in via any means necessary, and that’s a recipe for chaotic disaster. Assuming that family members survive a crossing into Europe, they may have trouble staying together, including in cases where they’re apprehended by authorities for crossing without documentation. Minors may be separated from parents in a variety of settings, finding themselves alone in a hostile landscape where they don’t speak the language, and where they’re well aware that outing themselves to authorities could be a ticket to a detention camp or eventual deportation.

So many children remain underground entirely, which makes them extremely vulnerable to exploitation. Whether they’re actively seeking separated family members or not, they’re navigating a world where they can’t assert their rights without alerting authorities to their presence — which means that untold numbers of children may be falling directly into trafficking situations without any opportunities at asylum in a European nation. Others do register with authorities — a ‘papers, please’ move designed to treat refugees like something to be barcoded, rather than as people — but people who are registered are not always easy to follow. Some don’t file updates when they move, sometimes in part because they want to get ahead of the authorities. Others, including children, simply fall through the cracks.

Italy, where around 5,000 children appear to be missing, is the posterchild of this problem. While many people associate Greece with the heart of the refugee issue as the narrowing bottleneck of EU restrictions forces more and more asylum-seekers to Lesbos and neighbouring islands, Italy originally saw tremendous amounts of traffic as North African migrants attempted to find safety on its shores, and these refugees are still arriving, though in smaller numbers. Italy also played host to Lampedusa, a notorious immigrant detention camp, along with other facilities — the hostile welcome in Italy drove many people to seek refuge from the authorities in the hopes that they would be able to stay on Italian soil.

While it’s possible those 5,000 children are safely ensconced with family members or friends, living happily in the community, or relocating to other areas, that’s unlikely. Given the escalating number of trafficking cases in Europe and the growing number of victims involved, it’s clear that aggressive anti-immigrant attitudes are contributing to the problem of missing children. In a more welcoming landscape, it would be possible to look out for child welfare because children wouldn’t be too terrified to come out in the open, and they would be more confident about seeking help. A landscape where a child refugee can approach resettlement agencies for assistance with finding a new home or reuniting with family members is one in which it’s much more difficult to engage in child trafficking.

The response to problems like this is often increased criminalisation: More aggressive regulation of the refugee population, child trafficking sweeps, tough monitoring of unaccompanied minors on European soil. This isn’t going to work, though, because it hasn’t in the past — asking people to register only works when people feel safe doing so, and monitoring people is only effective when people don’t feel like they’re being criminalised, when they don’t live in constant fear that welfare checkups will result in a one-way ticket out of Europe or an indefinite holding period in a detention facility. Without these kinds of protection, there’s always going to be a profitable market for traffickers to exploit, and they will, no matter how much law enforcement cracks down on their activities. To tackle the issue, Europeans need to reform their attitudes towards immigration, particularly with respect to refugees. A marginalised population will always remain vulnerable. An empowered one will be able to advocate for and defend itself.

Image: Refugee Camp, Tracy Hunter, Flickr