“Thanks to God, we were lucky,” says Omar Karimi, an Afghan refugee, referring to his journey from the war-torn country to Germany. Mr. Karimi has heard stories about refugee families who were torn apart during their trip. He is now living in southern Germany with his wife and four children. “If I had lost my children, I wouldn’t have seen them ever again,” he said. “Many children have been lost this way. Criminal networks catch them.”
As Europe’s refugee crisis deepens, thousands of children have gone missing during the past few months with many feared lost to criminal gangs, prostitution networks and organ traders. As on January 2016, 10,000 unaccompanied minors were missing in Europe, according to Europol. Many of them have been separated from their families or were travelling on their own to Europe. In fact, many more children could have been gone.
“The estimate of 10,000 unaccompanied minors that we used in the past was just an example to raise awareness of this issue and to urge the authorities to act accordingly,” a Europol spokesperson said. According to the German federal police, almost 9,000 children are missing in Germany alone. Additionally, at least 5,000 minor asylum-seekers are lost in Italy, while 1,000 have vanished in Trelleborg, a single town in Sweden.
According to Missing Children Europe, 91% of the children who arrived on the continent on their own were boys, 51% of them were from Afghanistan. Almost 400,000 minors requested asylum in Europe in 2015, reports Eurostat. Nevertheless, questions about the whereabouts of the missing children are few and far between, relegated to the background noise of public fear of refugees. This has given criminal traffickers a free hand to exploit children.
Since the beginning of the refugee crisis, a new criminal infrastructure has been built around immigration. The mafias seek cover behind a xenophobic political zeitgeist. As Hilde Vautmans, a European Parliament member from the Alliance for Liberals and Democrats in Europe, stated: “When a dog is missing, people post emergency messages on Facebook. But when we are faced with the biggest number of displaced children since the Second World War, we all get lost in the myriad of institutions. It’s a disgrace.”
According to Italian social workers, both male and female minor refugees from Nigeria have become victims of sexual abuse. UNICEF concluded that similar events were taking place in the Calais refugee camp in France. Another illegal business that is booming is organ trading. Recent investigations in Italy showed that people who could not afford their flight were forced to sell organs. An Egyptian crime network has hunted those people who already sold their organs and killed them. Most of these corpses vanished in the ocean. Italian authorities already arrested 38 persons, mainly from Eritrea and Ethiopia. The key witness in the case stated that most of the customers who buy the organs are wealthy Europeans and Russians.
It is beyond debate that the crisis of missing refugee children is driven by growing criminal networks. But for many refugees, this is just a part of the story. “We all know what countries like France, the U.K. or Germany have done over the years. They have been generating refugees. The governments of these countries are responsible for catastrophic wars and crises abroad, in countries like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and several African states where many refugees come from,” said Mr. Karimi, the Afghan refugee. “For that reason, they have to take responsibility.”
Emran Feroz is a freelance journalist based in Stuttgart, Germany.