Aid groups fear many unaccompanied minors are falling prey to sex traffickers.
An estimated 1 million asylum-seekers flooded Europe last year from Syria, the Middle East, and North Africa, leaving the continent reeling as it struggles to address issues of humanitarian aid, viable resettlement policies, and legal documentation. But even as Europe bolts its borders, thousands of refugees are slipping out of sight.
In recent months, police in northern Greece have reported a rise in organized human trafficking activity, with smugglers targeting the migrant community stuck in villages like Idomeni, on the Greek-Macedonian border.
In May, Greece cleared out a makeshift migrant camp in Idomeni, leaving more than 8,400 refugees doubly displaced. In the aftermath of the camp closure, trafficking activity increased significantly, according to border guards, national police, and a division of Greek security forces interviewed by the Associated Press.
Greece is home to more than 57,000 refugees divided between about 60 government-run shelters. Physicians working in Idomeni say the conditions are squalid, with insufficient sanitation or medical care.
“Europe has the capacity to deal with this,” Dr. Tomislav Gijatiz of Doctors Without Borders told The New York Times. “Typically, camps are set up in Third World countries because there is no capacity there. These camps are purely the result of policy decisions.”
For undocumented migrants in Greece, it is easy to disappear. Local police say traffickers use increasingly elite tactics: motorcycle spotters, police informants, and maps of dead spots in border surveillance.
Police recently arrested 29 suspects in connection with two trafficking rings in northern Greece. The alleged smugglers moved at least 600 migrants during several months, using a sophisticated fleet of taxis, scout vehicles, and code language. One gang received an insider tip from a Greek police officer on gaps in the night vision border surveillance network.
“At least six [Greek] taxi drivers were involved in the smuggling rings, charging a regular fare while knowingly participating in the illegal activity,” said George Pantelakos of the Greek Police Brigade.
Capitalizing on desperation, smuggling rings are demanding higher fees to move migrants north across Europe. In the first six months of this year, trafficking fees across the continent skyrocketed, with the rate to cross a single border in 2016 equaling the rate of an entire war zone exodus in 2015, according to a Europol analysis of anti-smuggling operation data.
Despite the inflation, many refugees agree to pay the sum, promising to work to pay back traffickers. But most migrants have limited options for employment. Human rights groups are increasingly concerned that refugees in Europe—particularly children—are in danger of being forced into sex slavery and drug trafficking.
Of the 96,000 refugee children who arrived in Europe last year, 10,000 are missing—invisible to official agencies—according to a European Union report released in May. These children may have reconnected with family without registering with the government wherever they ended up. But rights groups fear many, alone and defenseless, have instead been spirited away by human traffickers.
“Unaccompanied minors from regions of conflict are by far the most vulnerable population,” said Mariyana Berket of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
— by Anna K. Poole