EU police issue warning on lost child refugees
More than 10,000 child refugees are missing in the EU, with authorities fearing criminal gangs may be exploiting a large number for sex work and slave labour.
The EU's police agency Europol on Sunday (31 January) told British newspaper The Observer that thousands vanished after having been registered with state authorities.
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"It's not unreasonable to say that we're looking at 10,000-plus children," Europol chief of staff Brian Donald told the paper.
The Europol figure spans the last 18 to 24 months and estimates around 27 percent of the 1 million arrivals last year were unaccompanied minors. Europol has around 900 intelligence analysts and police liaison officers.
Evidence has also emerged of a criminal "infrastructure" to exploit the large inflow of asylum seekers and migrants.
"Not all of them will be criminally exploited; some might have been passed on to family members. We just don’t know where they are, what they’re doing or whom they are with," Donald said.
At least 5,000 children were missing in Italy and another 1,000 in Sweden, he noted.
Europol said some long-established human trafficking gangs are now expanding into the smuggling business.
The distinction is important because moves are being made at the EU Council, representing member states, to criminalise humanitarian assistance if someone helps to smuggle a refugee to safety, according to the London-based civil liberties group Statewatch.
Unlike trafficking, smuggling does not entail exploitation, coercion, or violation of human rights.
EU law allows member states to exempt humanitarian assistance as a criminal violation when someone is smuggled.
A majority of refugees and asylum seekers are relying on smuggling networks to enter the EU because of a perceived lack of legal ways to gain access.
While some may fall into the hands of gangs, others are being helped by humanitarian organisations and volunteers.
But a draft internal Council document, dated 26 January 2016, noted smuggling and trafficking could be "often interlinked" and that "migrant smuggling has become an increasingly violent form of crime".
Statewatch quoted the minutes of a UN refugee agency (UNHCR) meeting held last week in Greece that suggested volunteers and NGOs would have to register in a police database, as part of a crackdown on smuggling and a push to ensure migrants register at so-called hotspot zones.
"Information was shared about the new coordination board being formed by the Greek government, to set out a new process for registration of NGOs and volunteers on Lesbos," the UNCHR minutes say.