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Tuesday, 18 June, 2002, 14:49 GMT 15:49 UK
Belgium's 'missing' migrant children
child prostitute
Vice rings may be targeting migrant children

Belgium's leading child protection agency has warned that hundreds of child migrants and asylum seekers coming to the EU without their parents are going missing.

Last year around 1,500 so-called "unaccompanied minors" were registered as arriving in Belgium.

In the first major study of its kind, the charity Child Focus says an alarming number could be falling into the hands of traffickers and prostitution rings.


They are in a country they don't know, they don't speak the language, the don't have any money. So we really fear for their future

Heidi de Pauw, Child Focus
In the town of Alst, outside Brussels, a special centre has been set up to accommodate some of these children.

They have come from almost every corner of the world - Africa, China, eastern Europe.

The youngest is just nine, from Kosovo. In search of better lives, the children have left their homes and their parents too

"It was very hard I left Albania and came to Italy by boat, then a train to France. I didn't eat for five days, I slept outside. No one would help me, says 16-year-old Shpetim from Albania.

Appeal

Appeals for information have now been issued to trace nearly 400 young migrants and asylum seekers who came to Belgium without their parents and are now missing.


It will take a team effort across the European Union to beat the criminals who prey on these young lives

While some have clearly moved on willingly, a recent study by Child Focus suggests a quarter may be involved in prostitution or forced labour.

"We are talking about a great number of children who are disappearing every year, and they are in a very vulnerable situation, says Heidi de Pauw, who carried out the study .

"They are in a country they don't know - they don't speak the language, the don't have any money , they don't have friends or families to turn to when they are in difficulties. So we really fear for their future."

Tracing the missing

In Brussels' crowded red-light district, child protection agencies have been working to track down missing teenagers lured or abducted from reception centres by traffickers.

In some cases they have been forced to work off a debt by those who brought them to the EU.

However the highly complex network of criminal gangs operating across Europe has made the work of the agencies difficult.

Head of the anti-trafficking unit of the Belgian Police Wim Bontinck explained: "If you take out one ring there will be a few colleagues to replace them tomorrow. One member of a ring today will be leader of another ring tomorrow.

"It is not as simple as the normal mafiosi structure where if you get the top guy in the hierarchy the whole structure collapses."

Better protection for these vulnerable youngsters is needed.

But this is not just a Belgian problem, at the very least it will take a team effort across the European Union to beat the criminals who prey on these young lives.


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