Trafficking in persons is a profitable international trade; it is the third source of income for organized crime after drugs and arms. The available figures confirm an alarming growing trend and the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that forced labor generates annual profits of US$150 billion; a heinous business among the fastest-growing criminal activities. According to ILO, nearly 21 million people fell into trafficking trap but considering its hidden, underground nature numbers are likely to be even higher.
It is a complex phenomenon which interconnects with many factors and fuels the flow of international migration. It is a market that feeds itself endlessly. The recent reports of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees state that the number of people forced to flee their homes due to conflicts has reached 60 million in 2014. Today we are witnessing a migration of epic proportions with an unprecedented stream of people heading for Europe through sea and land routes. The Mediterranean has long been a major entry point for thousands of people flocking to the Old Continent as a safe haven from wars, persecution and poverty but over the past year some routes have become busier. Migration flows now follow the beaten tracks of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Western Balkans.
"In such mass movement, children are the most vulnerable, the most invisible and the most exploited," says Leonardo Cavaliere, who works as legal consultant at a corporation and has been passionate about migration issues since university. His initial interest led him to address in depth the unaccompanied minor problem and to live in a host community for some time, he now volunteers as legal advisor for migration matters and has a dedicated website to share knowledge and raise awareness, Minori Stranieri Non Accompagnati - MSNA (unaccompanied foreign minors).
"Many are the stories I could tell you that I've heard from those kids," he goes on, "all sad, terrific, absolutely incredible stories, but one in particular really impressed me, the very first boy I met in Bologna, by chance on a street," and his voice changes when he begins telling me the odyssey that Afghan child went through.
He watched his father and brother murdered in front of him, his mother knew he would be next so she put him on a bus leaving for Pakistan. She was a professor of English which she had taught to her children as well, therefore he could fluently speak that foreign language although they were not allowed to do so in public. In those circumstances, overcoming language barriers can save your life. She brainwashed him on the risks of such trip and warned him not to say a single word in English until he was absolutely sure he was out of Afghanistan, then he left. He was six years old.
Once in Pakistan, he met some traffickers who helped him cross the border and entered Iran. But he was far from being safe. The traffickers told him to stay away from police as he was from the Hazara ethnic group and therefore easily recognizable -- if caught in Iran illegally he would be held in an Identification and Expulsion Center and then sent back to Afghanistan, where he would face certain death.
That memory is still fresh, the story goes fast and emotions take firmer form keeping me thinking and involved. I follow that trip as if I was doing it myself.
He spent four years in Iran working as a cobbler in a dark basement and he hardly saw daylight, as he constantly hid until he found the courage to leave. He managed to reach Istanbul, Turkey, where he met some other Afghans and found a job. Together, they decided to go to the Greek Island of Lesbos with an inflatable rubber dinghy. Two of them didn't make it as they fell overboard and could not swim. When in Lesbos, a lady paid their ferry ticket to Athens where he remained for some time and then moved to Patras. From there, after several failed attempts to travel to Italy, he finally made it hiding between the wheel and the body of a truck, stowed in that small space where you risk of being sandwiched if you are not small enough. Lucky for him, he was very tiny. So, he finally entered Italy, got off that truck and climbed into another one going to Bologna. That's where I met him, but his final destination was Sweden where some people of his village lived and where - he kept saying - there was peace.
"It took me about 15 minutes to tell you his story," Leonardo says, "but for him it meant eight years, by the time he reached Bologna he was fourteen."
Chased, beaten, threatened, exploited, enslaved, misled, raped, sold, tortured, these children simply want to live and they spend their life in search of a possibility to grow-up.
"I think that Europe today is losing the best of youth as well as the opportunity of making the most of what these young, brave people have to offer. When you look a ten year-old child in the eyes, a child that has suffered all sort of abuses, the worst mistreatments and cruelties, that went through shocking experiences unimaginable for us, what you still see in his or her eyes is an incredible dignity. Those eyes say: I'm thankful that I managed to come here, I made it, I've come all this way, I've walked across the desert, survived the sea crossing, now can you help me? Help me in some ways, don't send me back or I will die. That's what I always see in their eyes. When I ask them what they want to do now that they are here, all of them answer they want to study, they dream of going to school and study. Studying to work and be part of a community where they can earn a better living."
"The existing laws and regulations do not, in practice, tackle this problem so as to ensure a protection system and a decent, human hosting which respects the minimum quality standards of life; some thousands of minors fled from the extemporaneous preliminary reception centers set up to handle the continuing arrival of migrants and therefore exposed themselves to exploitation in our country. Some, such as Afghan or Eritrean minors, make themselves invisible in order to continue traveling to Northern Europe. Others, such as the majority of Egyptian minors, reach big cities like Rome or Milan where they easily accept extreme working conditions and employment to pay off the heavy debt incurred for the trip. They use opioid-based and pain-relieving drugs to endure the hardship of their work. As for the Rome context, which I know best, there is a serious problem of children prostitution close to the Termini railway station, in broad daylight."
Based on last data from the Directorate-General of Immigration within the Italian Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, out of 10,242 registered unaccompanied minors 5,707 disappeared.
As long as we look at this problem from a security policy angle and consider migration as an emergency issue, very little progress will be made. As long as we deny a solidarity and humanitarian approach underlying European Union's fundamental values, there will be no common, shared consensus on what to do.
Meanwhile, children are those who suffer the most, those who pay the highest price. To show these kids in their dramatic dimension, the photographer Magnus Wennman has met them in many refugee camps and made a photo collection to tell us "Where the Children Sleep". Are those lives not worth living?