Human traffickers capitalise on ‘chaos’ at Europe’s migrant hotspots

Refugees walk in the snow at the Moria refugees camp on Lesbos Island, Greece, 9 January 2017. [Stratis Balaska/EPA]

Human traffickers are capitalising on widespread chaos at migrant reception centres across southern Europe to transport their victims undetected and lure other migrants into forced labour, a European security watchdog said yesterday (31 January).

Migrants waiting for their asylum claims to be processed or stranded at borders in countries including Greece and Italy are falling into the hands of traffickers, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said in a report.

Refugee hotspots in Italy and Greece ‘not yet adequate’, say EU auditors

The EU’s emergency response to the 2015 refugee crisis, by creating arrival ‘hotspots’ in Greece and Italy, has left reception centres that are “not yet adequate”, according to a damning new report by the EU Court of Auditors.

A lack of proper accommodation, limited funds and support services, and overstretched staff at reception centres means trafficking victims are slipping through the net, the OSCE said.

“The focus is on responding to humanitarian needs – trying to feed, shelter and register migrants at chaotic hotspots,” said Claudio Formisano of the OSCE’s anti-trafficking office.

“Human trafficking is not on the radar … or it is not a priority,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone.

Hundreds of thousands of migrants have reached Europe by boat in recent years, most fleeing conflict in the Middle East and poverty in Africa. Smugglers and traffickers are profiting as countries struggle to cope with the influx, campaigners say.

Italy in 2016 introduced laws to tackle the exploitation of workers in its agriculture industry amid reports of migrants being taken from reception centres and made to work illegally.

Authorities in Europe are focused on tackling smuggling rather than human trafficking – meaning many migrants who have been smuggled are penalised for immigration offences while trafficking victims go unnoticed, according to the OSCE report.

Smuggling and trafficking are often conflated, but a key difference is that traffickers deceive people to exploit them, from forced labour to sex work.

“The presence of unidentified and unprotected victims of human trafficking allows criminal activities to flourish … and so potentially turning a humanitarian emergency into a security crisis,” the OSCE report said.

Efforts to spot and protect victims of trafficking are often too narrow – concentrated on women who may have been trafficked for sex work, and overlooking men and children, Formisano said.

EU countries urged to step up action against ‘modern slavery’

The European Commission has called on member states to enhance exchange of information and help conduct more effective investigations on rising human trafficking inside the EU, officials told EURACTIV.com.

“In Italy, most migrants are from Africa and the focus is on Nigerian women who are being sex trafficked,” he said.

“Other victims may be falling through the cracks.”

Oxfam exposes ‘great abuse’ in EU’s approach to migration

Oxfam’s Brussels office has published a report saying that the European Union’s migration policy needs “an urgent shift in direction” in order to respect the EU’s founding values of human rights, in a lobbying effort ahead of the 19-20 October EU summit.

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