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Wednesday, 27-September-2006
(Deutsche Presse-Agentur)- - Children across Europe are at risk from the continent's modern slave trade, according to international experts.

'What we're seeing is a lot of young persons trafficked within the region ... and sold into begging, prostitution and forced labour,' Lars Loof, head of the children's unit at the Council of Baltic Sea States, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

'Few countries have any statistics on the trade, but as an example, Polish authorities say about 20 per cent of all victims of trafficking are under age,' he added.

Human trafficking is commonly defined as the trade, coercion and exploitation of human beings for sex, labour or the removal of organs. According to a recent report by the Council of Europe, it is 'the modern form of the old worldwide slave trade.'

With Europe's borders increasingly open, children have become a particular target, being tricked or sold into servitude in poorer countries and sent to serve criminal purposes in richer ones.

In Austria, for example, gangs have been caught importing children as young as ten from Romania and Moldova and forcing them to beg and steal, especially in the run-up to Christmas.

'The children's families often work hand in glove with the criminals,' said Wolfgang Spadinger, deputy head of Austria's anti-trafficking task force.

In Russia, meanwhile, teenagers, especially girls, are both brought in from other countries to service the local sex trade, and forced into the trade in Russia in order to be sent abroad.

'Russia is a major source country (of trafficked children). At the same time, the commercial sex market there is huge, and there's a high number of young people there,' Loof said.

In Italy, underage girls are known to have been brought in from Albania as prostitutes, while Britain has seen cases of children from across the Commonwealth brought in by alleged 'relatives,' only to be forced into crime, Loof said.

'(Child trafficking) has a multitude of faces. The idea that it's all about big, organized gangs dealing in eight-year-old girls just doesn't fit the complexity of it,' he added.

Preconceptions pose a problem for those fighting the trade in more than one way. A common complaint is that victims of trafficking are equated with illegal immigrants - a dangerous misconception.

'In smuggling, the 'victim' is an illegal migrant and nothing special (exploitation) happens to him; in trafficking, the victim is subject to exploitation by violence or fraud,' said Hanno Hartig, of the Council of Europe's human-rights department.

The situation is compounded by the fact that many children, treated as illegal migrants, are simply returned home - into the same networks and economic difficulties which caused the problem.

'I've met some children in 'transit shelters' in Russia. They know that as soon as they get back to their little village, they'll try to get out of their desperate situation again - potentially putting themselves back in the hands of exploiters,' Loof said.

But the greatest challenge is simply identifying the victims as such. With many children forced into criminal acts, all too often they are treated as criminals themselves - compounding the harm already done to them.

'The big challenge is to break down the conception that the child is a criminal, not a victim. Any young person should be treated with respect, but it takes time to reform the entire juvenile justice system,' said Loof.

As long as that system remains unresponsive to victims' needs, however, the danger to children will continue.
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