People smuggling in Europe has expanded so dramatically in recent years that it is now comparable to the illegal drugs market, a report has warned.
Criminal networks offering services facilitating illegal movement within the EU has emerged as one of the most profitable and widespread activities for organised crime in Europe, according to the latest major crime report by EU's law enforcement agency.
Europol’s Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment warns the migrant smuggling business has become a “large, profitable and sophisticated criminal market, comparable to the European drug markets,“ as continuing conflicts and economic pressures in Africa and the Middle East continue to act as push factors for irregular migrants travelling to the EU.
Smuggling services and the trafficking of human beings generate the largest numbers of organised crime gangs and continue to generate the greatest profits among the various criminal markets, generating an estimated EUR 4.7 billion to EUR 5.7 billion at the height of the refugee crisis in 2015.
More than 510,000 illegal border crossings between border-crossing points at the external border of the EU were registered in 2016, with nearly all of the irregular migrants arriving in the EU along these routes using the services offered by criminal networks at some point during their journeys.
The report warns that existing migratory routes are often used by organised human trafficking gangs to exploit to traffic victims within the EU.
“While the migration crisis has not yet had a widespread impact on the trafficking of human beings for labour exploitation in the EU, some investigations show that traffickers are increasingly targeting irregular migrants and asylum seekers in the EU for exploitation,” the report states.
“Irregular migrants in the EU represent a large pool of potential victims susceptible to promises of work even if this entails exploitation.”
It adds that unaccompanied minors are at particular risk to these types of exploitation, highlighting the “significant increase” in the number of lone child refugees present in the EU as a result of the migration crisis and the fact that this group is “likely to be targeted by traffickers”.
The report comes a month after the UK Government announced the closure of the Dubs scheme, a measure intended to offer vulnerable unaccompanied minors a safe passage to the UK, in a move that was condemned by major charities and public figures who claimed it places lone refugee children at risk of falling victim to illegal smuggling and trafficking networks.
Responding to the findings, Debbie Beadle, head of youth development at ECPAT, a leading children’s rights organisation in the UK campaigning against child trafficking, warned that child refugees travelling to and within the EU are being “left to the whim” of adults, placing them at severe risk of exploitation.
Ms Beadle told The Independent: “Children are all the more vulnerable to these criminal networks. They cannot organise their own travel — adults are going to organise it for them and arrange their movement. They are therefore left to the whim and motivations of adults.
“Sometimes parents may pay for their child’s travel, but they can be tricked by criminals who then sell them onto exploitation. Often children fall prey to doing what adults tell them, ending up in situations where they are exposed to severe dangers.
“We see a lot of illegal routes into the UK being used. We’re seeing lots of children being smuggled into airports on false documents, or coming on the back of lorries. Because there’s a lack of cohesion and communication between police forces and local authorities we‘re seeing that these children are popping up all over the UK, often unbeknown to the state.“
Margot Bernard, of Calais-based charity Auberge des Migrants, told The Independent the scale of people smuggling networks in the area were growing again six months on from the demolition of the 'Jungle'.
“The conditions in France are a growing concern. There is a very strong Mafia network operating in the Dunkirk camp, which is of course very dangerous. In Calais, criminal networks are starting to retake control over certain areas,“ said Ms Bernard.
“People are on the streets and are particularly desperate; minors in particular are very vulnerable. They’ve been telling us they fear for their safety.
“It’s mostly smugglers who are trying to organise facilitating people’s journeys to the UK on lorries and then making them pay. The concern in that, particularly for children and people on their own, when they don’t have the money there are high risks of exploitation.”
A particular case highlighted in the report tells how in November 2016 a Spanish investigation supported by Europol resulted in the arrest of 16 suspected traffickers and the rescue of nine minors.
The criminal network, composed mainly of nationals from Bosnia and Herzegovina, traded the victims from one group to another for an estimated 5,000 euro each, according to the report.
More than 5,000 international organised crime groups are currently under investigation in the EU, state the findings, with a sharp increase in the proportion of gangs involved in more than one criminal activity — at 45 per cent now compared to 33 per cent in 2013.