Children forced into criminal activities such as organised begging and shoplifting are being traded as commodities with €20 000 price tags.
As part of its responsibility to monitor developments in the threat from organised crime and terrorism in Europe, Europol has identified an increasing trend in the exploitation of children by mobile organised crime groups in the European Union (EU). These groups of criminals tend to originate from South East Europe and move around the EU with the trafficked children who they work and trade with other criminal gangs.
The trafficking and exploitation of these children is a lucrative business, with the children being routinely sold between the different criminal gangs, and the ‘price’ based on the child’s money–earning potential. The average price paid for a trafficked child in the UK, for example, is €20 000 (source: UK Metropolitan Police). With an estimated annual income of up to €160 000 from a single trafficked child, one can see why there are around 1.2 million children being trafficked worldwide for criminal purposes (source: UNICEF). The number of victims being exploited by just one mobile organised crime gang can range from 10 to 100 minors.
The trafficked children, aged from just five years old, are systematically trained and forced into committing criminal activities such as pick-pocketing, organised begging, shoplifting and distraction burglary, as well as other street crimes like robbery and mugging. In addition, minors are also being trafficked for sexual exploitation. The severity of violence and intimidation used by these criminal groups to control and exploit the minors includes extreme forms of violence such as sexual abuse and torture. The children often come from impoverished families who are forced to hand over their children to the criminals to pay off debts. Some families are complicit in selling or renting out their children for money.
As well as exploiting children, many mobile organised criminal groups are involved in other crimes such as theft of cargo, vehicles and construction equipment, violent robberies and rip deals – where a vendor is tricked into accepting payment in large amounts of cash, which turns out to be counterfeit or just bundles of cut–up paper.
The level of sophistication associated with these groups is increasing as many are now investing in more permanent operating bases across the EU. The groups cooperate with brokers in key source regions, particularly South East Europe, to ensure a constant supply of children and, to reduce the risk of law enforcement detection, they sell or ‘rent out’ the minors to different criminal groups.
These gangs tend to have bases on the outskirts of large European cities from where children under their control are dispatched across the city to commit crimes. On arrest, these minors are fully aware that they are under the age of criminal responsibility. In addition, authorities are confronted with victims that are not in possession of identification documents, have a limited understanding of their resident country’s language, and refuse to provide information on the criminal group that is exploiting them, out of fear of reprisal.
To prevent victims from talking to the authorities, and condition them into returning to the group, they are intimidated with false stories. For example, they are told they will be tortured by police or that social workers will sell their organs. Not surprisingly, the children refuse to provide information on the organised crime group and frequently return back to the gang within 24 hours of their arrest and placement in a juvenile detention centre. On their return, they will often be transferred to another operating unit or mobile organised crime group based in a different part of the EU.
As a countermeasure to this criminal activity in the UK, London’s Metropolitan Police have been working closely as part of a Joint Investigation Team with Europol, Eurojust and the Romanian National Police. This successful operation has been in progress since 2008 and to date has led to the arrest of 126 individuals in the UK. Earlier, 28 children were rescued by the Metropolitan Police and the operation is still ongoing to identify further criminals and victims of the gangs. In 2010, the Romanian authorities arrested 26 individuals from one organised criminal network who are facing charges of trafficking and criminally exploiting 181 named children.
Drawing on its findings, the main recommendations of the Europol threat notice include:
- An EU–wide system to track–and–trace victims in response to the phenomenon that arrested minors are often transferred to another operating unit or mobile organised crime group based in a different part of the EU.
- A section in the Europol Platform of Experts on Mobile (Itinerant) organised crime groups dedicated to the exchange of best practices on the exploitation of minors. Due to the specific nature of this phenomenon (e.g. the age of the victims), this expert group should adopt a multi–agency approach that includes, for instance, social services.