The Situation Report on Criminal networks involved in the Trafficking and Exploitation of Underage Victims in the European Union was released by European police agency Europol for the EU’s Anti-Trafficking Day on Oct. 18.
For the first time on such a scale, the report provides an in-depth picture of the features of criminal networks involved in one of the most ominous crimes of all – the abuse of vulnerable children. For the purpose of the report, operational intelligence from almost 600 contributions involving trafficked underage victims was used, all of which were reported to Europol by the member states between 2015 and 2017.
According to UNICEF, thousands of minors continue to be trafficked and exploited in Europe to generate profits for criminal networks, accounting for over 20 percent of all identified victims of trafficking. Europol increasingly receives information on trafficking networks operating across member states, taking advantage of the vulnerability of children to sexually exploit them and to abuse them in labour exploitation. Other criminal groups place victims on the streets to beg for money, force them to commit various types of crimes including acts of terrorism, sell them through illegal adoption schemes and defraud the welfare state.
Many of these smuggling networks are poly-criminal and engage in other criminal activities, including document fraud, property crime, drug trafficking, excise fraud, and trafficking of counterfeit goods.
Children are trafficked from around the world into the EU. The majority of non-EU networks reported to Europol involved Nigerian organized crime groups, which are trafficking young girls to be sexually exploited. Other non-EU operators include Vietnamese organized crime groups, South American trafficking networks, and traffickers targeting victims of worsening social conditions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Syria.
Apart from the significant use of forged documents and aliases by both suspects and victims, the smuggling network members also regularly change SIM cards purchased in different countries and use numerous phone operators. Other common means of countering police investigations are traditional religious threats to scare victims and their families in order to instill general fear and reticence against reporting the criminal activity.
Europol’s Executive Director Catherine De Bolle said the report will allow all European Union countries to better support future investigative actions at both national and EU-level against trafficking of children.
One of the most serious aspects highlighted in the report is the role of the family, with Europol receiving regular notifications of children being sold to criminal networks by their families. In some cases they engage directly in the trafficking and exploitation of their own children.
In many trafficking incidents in South America, the children and their families were lured through advertisements posted online, in newspapers and on social media platforms. One case reported to Europol concerned a Colombian trafficking network targeting young boys who were then trafficked to the United States, South America and the EU for sexual exploitation in clandestine prostitution circles. The victims were even forced to undergo surgery in order to achieve a feminine appearance. Traffickers forced these victims to pay smuggling fees of EUR 3,000 per person, which were partially used by the network to purchase flight tickets and forged documents.
Female suspects play a key role in the trafficking and exploitation of minors across all regions, much more than in criminal networks that are trafficking adult victims. Children in migration and unaccompanied minors are at higher risk of trafficking and exploitation. Although the scale of trafficking of unaccompanied minors remains unknown, a future increase is expected.
Most of the cases reported to Europol involve networks escorting non-EU minor victims across the entire route from their country of origin to the place of exploitation, frequently with the involvement of smuggling networks. Smuggling of minor victims through the external borders and across member states usually entails the use of forged travel documents.
Criminal profits are mainly redirected to the country of origin of the key suspect, in small amounts via money transfer services and in larger sums using criminal money couriers and mules.