LONDON • Gangs involved in human trafficking are taking advantage of the refugee crisis in Europe, with at least 10,000 unaccompanied child refugees disappearing after arriving in Europe, the Observer said, citing the European Union's criminal intelligence agency.
Mr Brian Donald, Europol's chief of staff, told the Observer on Saturday that 5,000 children had disappeared in Italy alone, while another 1,000 were unaccounted for in Sweden.
A sophisticated pan-European "criminal infrastructure" was now targeting refugees, he added.
"It's not unreasonable to say that we're looking at 10,000-plus children. Not all of them will be criminally exploited; some might have been passed on to family members. We just don't know where they are, what they're doing or who they are with," Mr Donald was quoted by the Observer as saying.
Some unaccompanied child refugees in Europe had been sexually exploited, he added.
"An entire (criminal) infrastructure has developed over the past 18 months around exploiting the migrant flow. There are prisons in Germany and Hungary where the vast majority of people arrested and placed there are in relation to criminal activity surrounding the migrant crisis."
VICTIMS VISIBLE IN THE COMMUNITY
These kids are in the community. If they're being abused, it's in the community. They're not being spirited away and held in the middle of forests, though I suspect some might be; they're in the community - they're visible.
MR BRIAN DONALD, Europol's chief of staff, on missing migrant children in Europe
Europol believes 27 per cent of the million arrivals in Europe last year were minors, while an estimate by organisation Save the Children put the number at 26,000.
Mr Donald urged the public to keep an eye on their communities as most missing child refugees would be hiding in plain sight.
"These kids are in the community. If they're being abused, it's in the community. They're not being spirited away and held in the middle of forests, though I suspect some might be; they're in the community - they're visible. As a population, we need to be alert to this," he told the Observer. He also noted that long-standing criminal gangs known to be involved in human trafficking were now being caught exploiting refugees.
"The ones who have been active in human smuggling are now appearing in our files in relation to migrant smuggling," said Mr Donald.
Europol's revelation emerged after the Home Office announced it would work towards accepting a higher number of unaccompanied migrant children, according to the Daily Mail.
The vulnerable children, who will be identified by the Home Office in relation to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, will be in addition to the 20,000 Syrian refugees that the government has already pledged to take in by 2020, the Daily Mail said.
"The crisis in Syria and events in the Middle East, North Africa and beyond have separated a large number of refugee children from their families," Immigration Minister James Brokenshire said.
"We have asked the UNHCR to identify exceptional cases where a child's best interests are served by resettlement to the United Kingdom and help us to bring them here."
A spokesman for the United Nations Children's Fund welcomed the announcement and said: "The UK has a responsibility to protect vulnerable children, it is absolutely right that the government is committed to resettle unaccompanied children from conflict regions."