Unaccompanied child refugees in Greece desperate to reach the UK and other parts of northern Europe are being forced to sell their bodies in order to pay smugglers to help them with their journeys, according to a new report from Harvard University.
The report, from Dr Vasileia Digidiki and Prof Jacqueline Bhabha at the university’s centre for health and human rights, reveals what they describe as a “growing epidemic of sexual exploitation and abuse of migrant children in Greece”.
The report says child refugees from conflict zones including Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan trying to make their way across Europe are being stranded in Greece, unable to afford the fees charged by smugglers to move them.
As a result some of the children are turning to selling sex to try to fund their journeys.
Report author Digidiki said: “This emergency can no longer be ignored. We can no longer sit idle while migrant children are abused and forced to sell their bodies in broad daylight and plain sight in the heart of Athens simply to survive.
“It is our responsibility as human beings to face this emergency head on and take immediate action at every level to put an end to this most heinous violation of dignity and human rights.”
The report found that the average price of a sexual transaction with a child is €15 (£12.50). The largest group of children selling sex are Afghani boys along with Syrians, Iraqis and Iranians. The majority of customers are older men aged 35 and over.
Smugglers often charge thousands of euros to move people across Europe and so despite selling sex many children find that the fees charged by smugglers are still beyond their reach.
Charities working to support child refugees across Europe who want to seek sanctuary in Britain have criticised the government for closing the Dubs scheme in March after taking 350 children via the programme. Campaigners had hoped up to 3,000 children would benefit under the scheme.
It has also declined to comment on numbers of children transferred under Dublin III regulations – family reunion. Last year only five children are thought to have been transferred from Greece and Italy to the UK under Dublin regulations.
According to Greek child protection agencies in 2016, they received referrals for 5,174 unaccompanied migrant children. It is this group who are at the highest risk of sexual exploitation. But at the end of December 2016 only 191 of them had been transferred to other European countries. Almost 50% of unaccompanied children in Greece are awaiting relocation to specialised, child-friendly accommodation.
“What these numbers underscore is the reluctance of many European countries to provide refugee children with a safe and permanent home,” the report’s authors state.
While the report finds that Greek authorities have made some appropriate provision for vulnerable migrant children in specialised camps and centres, many do not have access to these safer facilities and are at risk of exploitation and violence.
The report finds that child sexual exploitation is high in both urban and rural settings in Greece. It also found that some of the children selling sex become addicted to drugs making it even less likely that they will be able to afford to pay smugglers and leave Greece to continue with their journeys.
It concludes that there has been “a dramatic failure of protection affecting significant numbers of child migrants and refugees within Europe today”.
It also identifies rape and other forms of sexual assault of young children in the camps, an increase in child marriage and blackmail of some children who have been abused and had humiliating photos taken of them by mafia gangs who blackmail them by threatening to send the photos to unaccompanied children’s families back home.
Co-author Bhabha said: “This report documents a shocking and pervasive aspect of the current refugee crisis: the exposure of very young children to sexual exploitation as a survival strategy.
“It is imperative that national, regional and international bodies address this serious child protection emergency by rethinking their approach to one of the most vulnerable populations of migrants, and by immediately allocating adequate human and financial resources to reverse the current situation.”
A Home Office spokesman said: “We transferred over 900 unaccompanied children to the UK from Europe in 2016, including more than 750 from France as part of the UK’s support for the Calais camp clearance. Two hundred children have already arrived in the UK through section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016. Another 150 will be resettled in the coming months. We have previously said we will not give a running commentary on numbers from the scheme so these are the only published stats we are releasing at this time.”
The Irish government is also operating a programme to resettle unaccompanied minors. So far 21 children formerly from Calais have been resettled in Ireland and six unaccompanied children from Greece.