At least 10,000 unaccompanied children, who fled their home countries to seek asylum, are missing since arriving in Europe, according to the European Union’s criminal intelligence agency, Europol. Officials say organized crime plays a role in some cases.
Europol's chief of staff, Brian Donald, confirmed that the agency has received evidence that some unaccompanied minor refugees in Europe had been sexually exploited, and thousands of children who had registered upon arriving in Europe are now unaccounted for. In Germany and Hungary, "large numbers of criminals" have been caught exploiting refugees, he said.
“An entire [criminal] infrastructure has developed over the past 18 months around exploiting the migrant flow. There are prisons in Germany and Hungary where the vast majority of people arrested and placed there are in relation to criminal activity surrounding the migrant crisis,” said Mr. Donald in an interview with The Observer, noting that 5,000 children had disappeared in Italy alone, and in Sweden another 1,000 children were missing.
This was the first attempt by the international agency to tally the young lives missing in the refugee crisis over the last 18 to 24 months.
Donald said the agency found evidence to support a link between organized crime syndicates smuggling refugees into the EU and human traffickers exploiting those refugees for sex work and slavery.
“The ones who have been active in human smuggling are now appearing in our files in relation to migrant smuggling,” he told The Observer.
More than 1 million migrants came to Europe last year seeking asylum. Save the Children estimates that of the million, 26,000 were unaccompanied children. Europol believes 27 percent of the total arrivals in Europe last year were minors, most with relatives or guardians.
“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.
Europol's findings come at a conflicted time for European nations confronting the refugee crisis.
Last week, Britain said it would take in more unaccompanied minors from Syria and other nations in conflict, even as officials said that the number of asylum seekers that are children who have gone missing has doubled over the past year in the UK. Officials have also warned organized crime may play a role.
Last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel tempered Germany's support of asylum-seekers. Even as the nation has been working to integrate refugees, she said they would have to return to their countries once the conflict subsides. And Denmark passed a law allowing officials to confiscate valuables from incoming refugees to help offset the cost of asylum, according to lawmakers.
While these policies have sparked controversy, Europol's chief of staff Donald said the public should remain vigilant to help vulnerable populations. A practical approach to locating missing child refugees is to look for them "hiding in plain sight," he said.
“These kids are in the community, if they’re being abused it’s in the community. They’re not being spirited away and held in the middle of forests, though I suspect some might be, they’re in the community – they’re visible. As a population we need to be alert to this.”