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Let Europe face up to human trafficking in 2018

  • 12 Jan 2018

Europe’s reception of children seeking refuge is particularly shameful

Siobhán Mullally, Opinion, The Irish Times, 

12th January 2018

Last year came to an end with horrific images of slave labour markets in Libya, and a further UN Security Council resolution that both condemned human trafficking and expressed grave concern at the exploitation of children forcibly displaced by conflict.

The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court described Libya as a marketplace for trafficking in human beings, and a situation that was dire and unacceptable.

And in November the bodies of 26 young Nigerian women were found floating in the Mediterranean – another tragic incident adding to the many left to die while seeking refuge in Europe.

The International Organisation of Migration has estimated that 80 per cent of Nigerian girls arriving in Italy may be victims of trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation. Most originate from Edo state, in particular the impoverished surroundings of Benin City. Many arrive traumatised and brutalised, yet safety and even a humane and dignified reception in Europe is not guaranteed.

Even those who are victims of the crime of human trafficking may be subject to the now infamous Dublin transfer procedure. In one such case Swedish authorities initiated proceedings to transfer a 28-year-old Nigerian asylum seeker and her six-year-old daughter to Italy despite evidence that she had been repeatedly raped and assaulted by traffickers in Italy in the presence of her daughter.

It was only following the concerted action of a Scandinavian human rights lawyers’ group that further trauma, and a serious risk of re-trafficking, was prevented.


Europe’s reception of children seeking refuge is particularly shameful. The Council of Europe action plan on child migration (2017-2019) is a response to what is now recognised as a crisis of child protection. Europol – not given to sensationalist claims – has estimated that 10,000 migrant children are missing in Europe.

A special report by the Lanzarote Committee on sexual abuse and exploitation of children affected by the refugee crisis has concluded that the scale of the phenomenon of missing migrant children in Europe is alarming. Evidence submitted by the European Commission to the UK House of Lords sub-committee on Europe estimated that up to 60 per cent of unaccompanied migrant children have gone missing from reception facilities in some EU countries.

The Council of Europe anti-trafficking body (GRETA), in its 2017 urgent procedure report on Italy, expressed serious concern at the frequent disappearances of unaccompanied and separated migrant children from reception centres shortly after arrival, many suspected of having fallen victim to criminal trafficking networks.

GRETA’s report on France, published following on-site visits to the Calais “jungle”, expressed alarm at the risks faced by children left unaccompanied for several days after the dismantling of the camps.


The language of crisis suggests an inevitability. Yet, as we know, such failures of protection are not inevitable but a consequence of the action and inaction of states.

The vulnerability of migrant and refugee children in Europe is produced at least in part by our failures to provide effective protection, and by our continuing reluctance to expand legal routes to migration.

Against a background of the greatest forced displacement of peoples since the second World War, several European states, including Ireland, have restricted access to family reunification – a crucial pathway to safe and legal migration for children.

The brutality of borders, marked by barbed wires, walls, floating bodies and push-backs, is not an invention of the Trump administration. This is the reality of the EU 70 years on from the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, its opening preamble recalling the disregard and contempt for human rights that outraged the conscience of mankind.

‘Never again’

That outrage, sadly, has not persisted. We may rightly ask whatever happened to the cries of “never again”, “jamais plus” and “nunca mas” that so animated the nascent human rights movement in 1948.

2018 will see the adoption of a global compact on safe, orderly and regular migration, and a comprehensive refugee response framework. It is a critical opportunity for the international community to restate and to insist upon the human rights of migrants and refugees.

Prof Siobhán Mullally is president of the Council of Europe Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, and director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights, NUI Galway.