Organized criminal gangs are targeting young asylum seekers making their way across Europe and forcing them into prostitution and slave labor, according to the chief of staff for Europol, the EU's law enforcement agency.
Brian Donald told an international conference on human trafficking in Madrid over the weekend that children traveling alone or in groups without adults are particularly at risk, according to the Guardian newspaper.
Donald said that asylum seekers are being "identified for exploitation, especially those of a young age, young women, the unaccompanied." He said that those targeted would most likely be forced into prostitution and illegal labor.
Donald was addressing a conference held by the Santa Marta Group, which was set up by Pope Francis last year and is aimed at developing strategies to combat human trafficking.
Donald warned that there is a "tremendous amount of crossover" between gangs smuggling refugees across borders and gangs targeting people for forced labor and the sex trade. A third of organized crime groups who transport refugees and migrants across Europe are engaged in other criminal activities, including the drug trade, money laundering and people trafficking, he said.
"In the coming years, the phenomenon of migrants being exploited once they've reached the European Union will become more visible," Donald said. "We need to keep on top of the nexus between smuggling gangs and trafficking gangs. Modern, enterprising, organized criminal gangs go where the opportunity is high and the risk is low."
According to the children's charity UNICEF, 110,000 children sought asylum in Europe between January and July 2015—an average of more than 18,000 children every month. The figure marks an 80 percent increase from the same period in 2014. The figure does not take into account the number of children who never formally register for asylum.
Many of Europe's new children are boys ages 14 to 17, sent by their families who are too poor to pay smugglers for more than a single journey, according to Missing Children Europe, a group that helps missing and sexually-exploited children.
"There is a huge [number] of children arriving on their own in Europe right now," secretary general Delphine Moralis told Newsweek last month. The organization, which represents a network of 30 NGOs in 24 countries in Europe, says an estimated 50 percent of unaccompanied migrant children go missing from reception centers within the first 48 hours after their arrival, and many of these children are never found again. Sometimes this is because they have a specific migration plan in mind, but it can also be as a result of meeting traffickers outside of centers who lure them away with false promises.
A recent New York Times article documenting unaccompanied minors at one refugee center in Passau, on the Bavarian border, found children who had been raped en route to Germany, and a 16-year-old Somali girl who had been the victim of sadistic sexual violence in Bulgaria and Serbia. Some of the children were escaping recruitment as child soldiers or suicide bombers; one had been left traumatized after witnessing his father beheaded in front of him in Syria.
Many of the children arriving in Europe are fleeing the ongoing war in Syria. More than four million Syrians—half of them children—have fled the country since the conflict started nearly five years ago, according to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA).Try Newsweek: Subscription offers