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|How the new Fagins are bringing child slavery to Britain
|Type of document:
|| United Kingdom
|Date of publication:
||08 June 2006
||How the new Fagins are bringing child slavery to Britain
By Olga Craig in Bucharest, Bojan Pancevski in Vienna and David Harrison
Two years ago, when she was 10, Dochka lost what was left of her innocence when she was sold to a band of child traffickers by her mother and aunt in Bulgaria. Bewildered and terrified, the little girl was transported to Austria, forced to learn the skills of a pickpocket and put to work.
In some ways Dochka, a bright and appealing child, was luckier than many of the thousands of girls aged between four and 14 who are being traded by Europe's latter-day "Fagins" - a swathe of millionaire businessmen both more violent and richer than the crafty East Ender who taught youngsters to "pick a pocket or two" in Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist.
Dochka was "lucky" in that her lame leg saved her from being sold onto paedophiles - their clients would not be interested in her for sex - and fortunate that she was a good enough thief to meet the €350 (£240) daily target set by her financially-astute owners.
In all, she was arrested 14 times by the police in Vienna, where she had been taken from her home in Pavlikeni, northern Bulgaria. Each time she was detained she gave a different name. As her police photographs show, the traffickers who would claim to be her "guardian" changed her hair to make their valuable asset less recognisable to the authorities.
Her ordeal finally ended four months ago when the police took Dochka to a specialist children's crisis centre in the Austrian capital. From there she was put in the care of Bulgarian social services, and now lives with her grandmother under strict monitoring by the welfare authorities. She is going to school for the first time in her life; her mother, who could have made as much as €10,000 by selling Dochka, has no control over her fate.
The United Nations estimates that 1.5million children under 16 are trafficked worldwide each year. Those from the furthest reaches of eastern Europe are most often put to work in Germany, Italy and Austria - last week, 41 people were arrested across the three countries after police smashed a trafficking ring - but Britain is likely to surge up the league of favoured destinations once Bulgaria and Romania join the European Union next year.
Britain is already a key territory for traffickers who procure children from as far away as Africa and the Far East, as well as eastern Europe and Lithuania. A 2004 report by a nine-charity coalition - including Unicef, Save the Children, Barnardo's and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children - identified suspected child trafficking victims in all but one of 33 London boroughs. They included a 10-year-old Ghanaian girl and an 11-year-old Nigerian who were subjected to domestic slavery, and a 13-year-old Vietnamese girl forced into prostitution.
Another report, published last year by Barnardo's, found that 12 local authorities in London had dealt with young foreigners forced into prostitution after apparently being trafficked to western Europe. Victoria, a Ugandan, was brought to Britain when she was barely 15 after witnessing the massacre of her family. A "family friend" ferried her to London, sold her to two men and disappeared.
When the men tried to rape her, Victoria fought back and fled. Living on the streets, and fearful of the police, she started selling sex to survive before finally turning to an NSPCC centre. Her future is uncertain: she faces deportation next year and fears that she will be targeted again by the traffickers in Uganda.
Christine Beddoe, the director of the nine-charity coalition End Child Prostitution, Pornography and Trafficking (Ecpat), says that Vietnamese children have been locked in cannabis factories set up in boarded-up suburban houses, their job to switch the lights on and off over the plants, and control the temperature. Chinese children, meanwhile, have been discovered working long hours in restaurants and "sweatshops". The scandal is not confined to the capital: Ecpat is also investigating cases in Manchester, Newcastle upon Tyne and Liverpool.
She said that many children knew of no other way of life. They are groomed for a life of crime by their parents, who make more money from the traffickers if they deliver them the "finished article".
According to social workers who have rescued child victims in Austria, some Roma communities punish families which refuse to rent their child to traffickers. Sanctions can range from ostracism and fines to violence or even murder. Other parents believe the traffickers' fiction that their children will enjoy a better way of life in the West, and will even send money home.
"The children have no choice," says Ms Beddoe. "They don't even realise they are being trafficked." In a strongly-worded consultation document currently sitting on ministers' desks at the Home Office, Ecpat has attacked the Government over the way that trafficked children are dealt with in the UK.
The centre in which Dochka found refuge has no counterpart in Britain. There is not a single safe house for trafficked children. Social workers, police officers and Customs officials receive no special training to spot or help victims.
The children are trained not to trust the authorities and are too terrified to flee their captors. Most come to the authorities' attention only when they escape from, or are kicked out by, their controllers and turn up at a charity office, or when they are picked up by police for stealing or prostitution.
Amid growing alarm that little is being done to help the victims, children's charities and police say the number of children rescued is only "the tip of the iceberg". "It is hard to believe that this is going on in Britain and other Western countries in the 21st century," says one senior Scotland Yard detective who specialises in trafficking cases. "But it is."
The ring broken up this week used mostly Roma children aged between seven and 14. Adults posing as relatives distributed them around Europe, keeping them in run-down flats where they were monitored by gang members and put to work on the streets. According to police in Vienna, each child had to bring in a minimum of €250 a day, incentivised by the threat of beatings and even mutilation. Gang members protected their profit margins by passing on the "failures" to paedophiles for €300 a day.
Norbert Ceipek, 54, is the head of the Augarten crisis centre in Vienna, where Dochka found refuge. "Even the good thieves and pickpockets end up in prostitution past the age of 14, because they cease to be useful as they can then be arrested by police," he says. "They usually work as prostitutes up to 18, when they get married and have children of their own. Those children face the same fate and the circle goes on.
"The children don't have any access to education and never get any real chance to fit into normal society. But you have to understand that most of the families, and even the children, do not feel they are being victimised.
"What is happening to them is the only thing they've known. The whole system of values is turned upside down: a child is appreciated and loved if it earns money by stealing, whereas sending it to school or integrating it into society is seen as a waste of time and money."
The youngest child at his centre was a five-year-old girl caught stealing in a department store. "Another little girl who was about 10 had a large chunk of skin on her upper arm burned off. The flesh was showing. She was in terrible pain but we only discovered the injury when a female social worker spotted it in the shower. The only thing I could get out of her was, 'I was punished for not doing my job'."
Mr Ceipek is working closely with projects in Romania and more recently in Bulgaria that will be run along similar lines to his centre in Vienna. "Here, we try to determine a child's identity or at least their nationality, and send them back to their home countries as soon as possible, having made sure they will be taken care of by local social services. I have a special agreement with the embassies to get provisional travel documents within 20 minutes. I have also worked out a special discount for their flights home.
"In Romania, there are 14 centres modelled on ours and we have trained their staff. Using information from the children, the authorities have broken up 49 smaller trafficking rings and even captured one of the top bosses, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison.
"Bulgaria will also build three centres like the one here. I demand a six-month monitoring period with social workers filing weekly reports to the authorities, who then report to me on a monthly basis. Only then can we make sure that they don't get trafficked again and again."
He echoed the British-based charities in criticising Europe's politicians for failing to tackle child trafficking. "Politicians both in countries of origin and in the West should recognise the full gravity of the problem," he said. "I've hardly received much more than a pat on the back from my own government's officials, who have the power to do much more."
Romanian officials calculate that a typical pimp operating 15 girls can earn about €7,500 a day if their trade is prostitution; slightly less if they are pickpockets and thieves. It adds up to an annual income of 2.7million euros. Many pimps operate in networks up to 50-strong, whose "group turnover" could total €135million.
Police in Bucharest have set up a specially-trained human trafficking department, securing the arrest of 300 "Fagins" in the past five years who have received jail sentences of up to 10 years. Children can testify against them via video link, though most are either too scared or have been too thoroughly trained by their captors to do so.
"They are trading in misery and we are determined to stamp them out," says Catalin Dragota, the deputy head of the organised crime department. He is stunned by the depravity of some children's treatment. Some are burnt or mutilated. "One 15-year-old girl was badly beaten by her network when she refused to do any more prostitution. They did not want her bruises to show so they tied her into a tub of iced water. They forgot about her and she suffered frostbite in her hands and feet."
He and Adrian Betrescu, the head of his information centre on human trafficking, head 150 officers, 40 of them women, trained to deal with child victims. Last year, they dealt with 365 Romanian minors sold as sex slaves in Italy. "If Romania joins the EU, Britain will become a target for these people," says Mr Dragota.
The Home Office says it is training immigration officers to recognise trafficking victims as they enter Britain. It is planning to set up a telephone "hotline" for people to call if they come across a suspected victim. This month it is due to publish the results of the consultation into the issue, when it will draw up an action plan. The charities want more to be done, including safe houses and an independent "rapporteur" who would oversee anti-trafficking efforts and report directly to Government, a system that currently operates in Holland.
They also want to see the introduction of a national strategy to tackle child trafficking, involving education officials and social services as well as the Home Office.
Although Romania's measures to deal with child victims are far more advanced than Britain's, its number of missing children has risen by 50 per cent in the past five years. Last year alone, some 348 children "disappeared".
Children like Marijana Miroiu's grandson, Robert, who was just three when he was snatched from outside his home in the slums of Rahova, on the outskirts of Bucharest.
Although police cannot be certain that Robert was taken by traffickers, who mostly prey on girls, his pale skin would have made him a tempting target. "Foreigners came asking to buy Robert but I refused," says Mrs Miroiu, 47, clutching his photograph. "A few days later, while he was playing outside, he vanished. I went to police, I put up posters, but he was never found.
"He is my blood and I cry for him every day. He was a beautiful fair-skinned boy. He did not look like a gipsy boy, and I am convinced the traffickers took him. I weep when I think of his fate. For a little boy, pretty like Robert, there is a fate that is worse than death."
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