The EU’s criminal intelligence agency warns pan-European gangs are targeting minors for sex work and slavery.
A migrant child walks from the Macedonian border into Serbia, near the village of Miratovac. Photograph: Darko Vojinovic/AP.
At least 10,000 unaccompanied child refugees have disappeared after arriving in Europe, according to the EU’s criminal intelligence agency. Many are feared to have fallen into the hands of organised trafficking syndicates.
In the first attempt by law enforcement agencies to quantify one of the mostworrying aspects of the migrant crisis, Europol’s chief of staff told the Observerthat thousands of vulnerable minors had vanished after registering with state authorities.
Brian Donald said 5,000 children had disappeared in Italy alone, while another 1,000 were unaccounted for in Sweden. He warned that a sophisticated pan-European “criminal infrastructure” was now targeting refugees. “It’s not unreasonable to say that we’re looking at 10,000-plus children. 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.”
The plight of unaccompanied child refugees has emerged as one of the most pressing issues in the migrant crisis. Last week it was announced that Britain would accept more unaccompanied minors from Syria and other conflict zones. According to Save the Children, an estimated 26,000 unaccompanied children entered Europe last year. Europol, which has a 900-strong force of intelligence analysts and police liaison officers, believes 27% of the million arrivals in Europe last year were minors.
“Whether they are registered or not, we’re talking about 270,000 children. Not all of those are unaccompanied, but we also have evidence that a large proportion might be,” said Donald, indicating that the 10,000 figure is likely to be a conservative estimate of the actual number of unaccompanied minors who have disappeared since entering Europe.
In October, officials in Trelleborg, southern Sweden, revealed that some 1,000 unaccompanied refugee children who had arrived in the port town over the previous month had gone missing. On Tuesday a separate report, again from Sweden, warned that many unaccompanied refugees vanished and that there was “very little information about what happens after the disappearance”.
“An entire criminal infrastructure has developed over the past 18 months around exploiting the migrant flow”