The tragedy of young migrants in austerity-hit Greece
Today marks the UN World Day against Human Trafficking. This modern-day slavery spins an estimated $32-billion industry worldwide, exploiting 20.9 million global trafficking victims, 1.2 million of whom are children. A report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) noted sexual exploitation as the most commonly identified form of human trafficking, at 79%.
In the European Union (EU), 80% of trafficking victims are female, with 20% of both male and female victims being children under the age of 18. Research at Bristol University published as ‘Child Slavery Now’ (2010) estimates that 200,000 children have been trafficked across Europe. Victims of human trafficking are poor, isolated and marginalized. They are frequently from broken families and countries of origin which are failing to provide children with the necessary care and support. Traffickers are experts in targeting and grooming such disenfranchised young people before selling them into a life of exploitation and abuse.
No group is more isolated than rootless, undocumented migrants fleeing conflict and poverty, risking everything for a better life and a safety net in a developed country. But instead, they can fall permanently into the grip of predators. The economic crisis in Greece, financially crippling Greek citizens, means migrants and trafficked peoples are pushed even further to the bottom of the pile.
Greece’s migrant crisis, its overwhelmed porous borders and overstretched services, is the perfect environment for traffickers. Every day 1,000 migrants cross the Mediterranean for the Greek islands in a desperate bid to reach north Europe. More than 77,000 migrants, fleeing war in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea and Somalia, have sailed to Greece in dangerous, cramped boats in the first half of 2015 alone and are now languishing in makeshift, squalid camps.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported a large number of children travelling alone to Greece; last year 1,100 were registered as unaccompanied or without family members. The real figure is most likely much higher as many children travelling alone claim to be 18 to avoid prolonged detention.
HRW’s advocacy director Jo Becker commented, ‘The least that neighbouring countries and the EU should do is to make sure they aren’t abused or denied their rights when they arrive.’
Yet in the midst of a financial crisis, Greece lacks the funds, services and infrastructure to ensure protection of young migrants, and NGOs have been slow in offering support. The Greek migration minister recently announced planned UN-run refugee camps, but these plans are yet to be implemented.
Worryingly, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has reported refugees alleging that police are being violent and pushing them back into the hands of traffickers.
Unscrupulous traffickers will be ready to exploit migrants’ aspirations to reach wealthier European countries. Counter-trafficking campaigner Gaz Kishere has been fighting trafficking for 6 years. He worked with international charity Love 146 for most of those and is the CEO of Cross Border Initiatives (CBI), founded in 2009 to prevent trafficking of young people across Europe.
Gaz has met with Greek counter-trafficking authorities and state-care agencies and holds regular meetings with Hercules Moskoff, the National Greek Rapporteur to the EU on Human Trafficking.
Greece had a problem with human trafficking before the financial crisis hit.
Gaz explained that ‘Greek brothels are full of migrant girls, usually from Romania, sometimes Bulgaria and Nigeria. Amongst these are a considerable number who are brought in by pimps on false papers stating they are 18, but girls as young as 14 are in forced prostitution. Many will have come in response to jobs that never existed. There is a licensing system in place for girls to work legally in brothels to ensure they have health checks and are of legal age. It has been a great many months since any of these were issued.’
CBI worked with counter-trafficking agencies in airport or seaport areas such as Patras, where unaccompanied minors arrive and traffickers pick them up. One Greek agency is rescuing and protecting 40 new arrivals every month.
Gaz was shocked at what authorities uncovered.
‘It’s not always about the sex industry. I was in one port town where authorities found 2 healthy young boys from North Africa hidden in the boot of a car, along with a rolled towel with surgical instruments and an ice box. The boys were unwitting donors for organ-trafficking clients.’
The arrival of scores of migrants in Greece has further impacted the changing face of the trafficking mafia. There is less need to recruit abroad when a trafficker can simply recruit the vulnerable children on arrival through the promise of bogus jobs or coercion.
A 2001 study by the University of Pennsylvania found that a runaway child is propositioned within the first 72 hours on the streets. Transfer this scenario to an overstretched Greek town where hundreds of migrant children are sleeping in disused buildings with no local law enforcement protection, and the danger to these children is clear.
Even if children are rescued by Greek social services, there are often no facilities for the authorities to keep the children safe and rehabilitated. Gaz recalls a time when he was with an agency responsible for children’s state care provision in Athens.
‘They informed me that 1,000 children are placed into care annually, but there’s just 300 available beds. I asked what happened to the other 700 and my question was met with a shrug of the shoulders. In short, the system is broken – underfunded and overwhelmed.’
NGO evidence shows that abused and traumatized children need the protection, recovery and rehabilitation of specialized care.
‘The only safe houses for trafficked people in Greece are set up for care, rehabilitation and repatriation designed for adults. Trafficked children are in overcrowded homes with migrant adults alongside them – not the kind of environment for traumatized children to receive adequate care. There are some good children’s homes, but again, financed by donors outside of Greece and usually full.’
Gaz was welcomed by Greek politicians to begin working in Greece due to innovative approaches to prevention in Moldova and Romania. One strategy was the production of a youth culture magazine as a vehicle for investing in vulnerable young people and disclosing strategies used by pimps and traffickers in the grooming of victims. Often the first person in the trafficking chain is known to the victim: a boyfriend or family member.
CBI believes Greece’s economic collapse is edging it closer to the conditions of poorer countries and wants to launch a magazine for Greek teenagers. Gaz recalls one girl in Moldova who said the magazine encouraged her to fight back.
‘She wrote to us saying that after she read the magazine she fought with her stepfather about him sending her to her uncle for work abroad – she knew it was trafficking and sought help.’
Wages in Greece have fallen drastically and half of young people are unemployed, which leaves little prospects for migrants. The National Centre for Social Research in Greece (EKKE) reports that prostitution in Greece has soared by 150% since the financial crash. Women and girls in Greece are increasingly vulnerable to sexual exploitation. The failing economy also has an impact on those already in prostitution. With the men who use these girls for sex having less money, more and more girls are resorting to unprotected sex to sustain the pimps’ expectations for income, and diagnoses of HIV have now risen by 200%.
The charity sector is also hugely impacted by economic hardships in Greece. CBI has been unable to progress with its plans to see a single online data system put in place to track children entering care and monitoring the care they receive. Gaz comments, ‘We have been unable to follow through on a strategy which saw state, NGO, faith groups and specialists in a room together. Agreeing such a system would increase the level of care.’
Gaz says that without a centralized system of monitoring and care for vulnerable children, children simply fall off the radar.
‘Migrant children need an increase in state care provision, whereas currently nearly all funding is reliant on the EU and is provided by NGOs. In addition, government agencies need training and education on how to distinguish trafficked and exploited children from those who are simply economic migrants or refugees, because they need different support.’
Meanwhile, in Britain CBI has helped develop intervention tools for police and the border force to help in the identification and rescue of children from exploitation and to provide proper care on arrival.
The EU has a responsibility of care across borders and is obliged to uphold these vulnerable children’s human rights, yet reports on the ground reveal a different picture. An EU Commission official issued this statement:
‘The EU has high standards for treatment of asylum-seekers and dedicated European strategies to fight against people trafficking and against child sexual abuse. The Qualifications Directive provides details of the protections granted after somebody is given refugee status.
The following rights can address the vulnerability issues which you refer to: the right to take up paid employment, access to the education system for minors and retraining for adults, access to medical care and other necessary care; particularly for persons with special needs (minors, victims of psychological, physical violence or trafficking), access to appropriate accommodation, programmes facilitating integration into the host society or to facilitating voluntary return to the country of origin.’
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.