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12 May 2016

Traffickers v smugglers: the refugee crisis is changing how migrants are moved

How an industry of exploitation is responding to mass migration.

By James Nickerson James Nickerson

The government’s decision to accept unaccompanied refugee children from Europe is little cause for celebration. Whatever number it takes will hardly scratch the surface of a new trafficking challenge posed by the migrant crisis.

According to Eurostat, nearly 90,000 unaccompanied children applied for asylum in the EU last year, of which 10,000 are estimated by Europol to be missing and at risk of being trafficked.

It’s not just the scale of the crisis that’s brought new challenges, however, but the way in which people are trafficked. “There are two different scenarios. One is regular trafficking that has been happening for decades,” Dragan Nastic, Unicef UK’s senior policy adviser, says.

“This has nothing to do with the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. It is usually arranged and planned from the beginning in the country of origin. In the UK, the main forms of exploitation are sexual for girls, mainly from Nigeria, and Vietnamese boys who are trafficked to work on cannabis farms. Albania is another major country of origin.”

But the refugee crisis has brought an additional dimension to trafficking. People end up in a vulnerable situation because of the uncertainties and dangers of the journey itself and the vulnerability they are exposed to later on.

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“Even though there may never be a plan for them to be trafficked for the purpose of exploitation, they could end up in that situation mainly because they are exposed to risks criminals see as an opportunity,” Nastic says.

A misconception in this tragedy is that smuggling and trafficking are synonymous. “Technically, people-smuggling involves a transaction and the illegal movement of people across borders, at which point the transaction ends,” Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Trafficking International, says.

Trafficking is the moving of people for the purposes of exploitation and forced labour, and so exploitation is central to it and it can happen without people ever having crossed a border.

So in contrast to traditional trafficking, there are currently desperate migrants from the Middle East and Africa consenting, and often paying, people-smugglers to bring them to Europe, at which point they are left vulnerable to trafficking gangs.

What’s more troubling is “there are clear concerns around the degree to which smuggling gangs have control over refugee migration – including to the UK – which accentuates prospects that some refugees will find themselves in the hands of traffickers,” an Amnesty International spokesperson tells me.

McQuade explains further: “There are reports of some of the former people smugglers branching out into trafficking: some of the gangs organising the illegal migration across the Mediterranean have now hooked up with criminal gangs in Europe who are taking people into forced labour.”

It’s a lucrative business, which is why Europol estimates that there are nearly 30,000 across Europe who are currently suspected of being involved in people-trafficking. And they’re sophisticated, often with people-trafficking as part of a wider portfolio of organised crime.

But while the gangs prey on any vulnerability, another cause of this trafficking is that, according to anti-trafficking response co-ordinator at the Salvation Army Andy Wileman, “once the migrants arrive in Europe they are extremely vulnerable people, and there’s a fundamental breakdown of support and infrastructure to help them, so they’re living in streets and squares in the middle of villages in Greece or Southern Italy”.

In the context of the migrant crisis, as opposed to traditional trafficking, “the initial risk of trafficking was brought about by a failure of European policy in not having safe and legal routes of migration into Europe”, McQuade tells me.

He adds:

“A significant portion of that problem was there was frankly a number of shirking nations – including the UK – in Europe who held back the idea of a much more consistent and equitable migration policy to deal with the crisis in the Middle East.

“The last time Europe faced anything like this was in the aftermath of the Second World War in terms of scale of movement- we’re not seeing the same kind of coordinated sensible response back. This has been an utter failure of EU policy.”

Recent EU measures and the failure to create a cohesive migrant policy is causing a number of people, including children, to become stranded in Europe, heightening the risk of exploitation, abuse and trafficking. Nastic says: “A lot of people now vulnerable will end up victims of trafficking. The number trafficked will definitely increase, there is no doubt about that. And there’s certainly a risk these vulnerable people could end up in the UK.”

Indeed, Europol predicts that the the group of people vulnerable for labour or sexual exploitation is increasing and it is expected these types of exploitation will increase in coming years.

And Wileman believes the number of trafficking victims from the Middle East and North Africa will increase. “If you look at what’s happening in Aleppo at the moment, and when the better weather comes with the summer, there’ll be another wave an influx from that part of world, putting even more people at risk.”

So while one needs to conceive of a way to end wars in the Middle East, it’s vital to establish safe migrant routes through Europe and immediate protection to those trapped in unsafe locations.

But as EU’s relocation programme last year has stalled, countries still avoid taking their fair share of refugees. And, as a direct consequence of the EU’s piecemeal approach, they remain stranded, alone and vulnerable to gangs hungry for a profit.

If you suspect someone of being trafficked, call the Salvation Army’s 24-hour referral helpline on 0300 3038151.