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The Independent | 10.03.2017

People trafficking and smuggling networks are some of the most profitable and widespread activities for organised crime in Europe, Europol finds

People smuggling in Europe has expanded so dramatically in recent years that it is now comparable to the illegal drugs market, a report has warned.

Criminal networks offering services facilitating illegal movement within the EU ​has emerged as one of the most profitable and widespread activities for organised crime in Europe, according to the latest major crime report by EU’s law enforcement agency.

Europol’s Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment warns the migrant smuggling business has become a “large, profitable and sophisticated criminal market, comparable to the European drug markets,“ as continuing conflicts and economic pressures in Africa and the Middle East continue to act as push factors for irregular migrants travelling to the EU.

Smuggling services and the trafficking of human beings generate the largest numbers of organised crime gangs and continue to generate the greatest profits among the various criminal markets, generating an estimated EUR 4.7 billion to EUR 5.7 billion at the height of the refugee crisis in 2015.

More than 510,000 illegal border crossings between border-crossing points at the external border of the EU were registered in 2016, with nearly all of the irregular migrants arriving in the EU along these routes using the services offered by criminal networks at some point during their journeys.

The report warns that existing migratory routes are often used by organised human trafficking gangs to exploit to traffic victims within the EU.

“While the migration crisis has not yet had a widespread impact on the trafficking of human beings for labour exploitation in the EU, some investigations show that traffickers are increasingly targeting irregular migrants and asylum seekers in the EU for exploitation,” the report states.

“Irregular migrants in the EU represent a large pool of potential victims susceptible to promises of work even if this entails exploitation.”

It adds that unaccompanied minors are at particular risk to these types of exploitation, highlighting the “significant increase” in the number of lone child refugees present in the EU as a result of the migration crisis and the fact that this group is “likely to be targeted by traffickers”.

The report comes a month after the UK Government announced the closure of the Dubs scheme, a measure intended to offer vulnerable unaccompanied minors a safe passage to the UK, in a move that was condemned by major charities and public figures who claimed it places lone refugee children at risk of falling victim to illegal smuggling and trafficking networks.

Responding to the findings, Debbie Beadle, head of youth development at ECPAT, a leading children’s rights organisation in the UK campaigning against child trafficking, warned that child refugees travelling to and within the EU are being “left to the whim” of adults, placing them at severe risk of exploitation.

Ms Beadle told The Independent: “Children are all the more vulnerable to these criminal networks. They cannot organise their own travel — adults are going to organise it for them and arrange their movement. They are therefore left to the whim and motivations of adults.

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