Ten years ago, a friend and I were planning a trip across the Sahara Desert driving an old banger of a Range Rover to raise funds for anti-trafficking projects.
Two weeks before heading off, the trip was cancelled by the organisers as Al Qaeda had been raiding aid trucks along our route.
At the last minute we decided instead to drive across eastern Europe, visiting trafficking prevention projects and safe homes, and finally arriving in Greece. After four days of being taken around the backstreets of Athens brothels and on-street prostitution, I decided that I would never come back to such a miserable place of unchecked exploitation.
In reality it was the first of many trips to Greece, where I later became operations director for US-based anti-child-trafficking NGO, Love146.
Human trafficking exists
“Trafficking in Persons” and “Modern Day Slavery” have been buzzwords in Europe and a focus of public shock and anger for around fifteen years now.
If nothing else, most of us know that human trafficking exists, even if the statistics which are bounced back and forth seem to be so overwhelming that any effort to stop it is seemingly beyond our reach.
Trafficking exists in many forms: forced adult and child prostitution, labour without pay, domestic servitude, forced pickpocketing, cannabis farms and even organ removal to name just a few.
Discovering a black market in Greece
After that initial road trip, I returned to Greece to visit a project in the port city of Patras. The project was working with unaccompanied minors at the time and some months they would see as many as 40 new children show up from the ships and from underneath lorries. Many of these were sleeping rough in the rundown timber mills along the docks.
On discussing trafficking and various aspects of exploitation, I was told about two brothers from Afghanistan that had slipped through the care net recently. A car had been stopped entering the port and the two brothers were discovered in the boot.
Alongside the boys were an ice-box and a roll mat which contained a variety of surgical tools. The port police detained the man but just let the boys walk away into the town, towards further potential risk and harm.
The man had groomed the boys, making them travel into Greece under his protection, and was seemingly ready to remove their organs. This means there must have been people already waiting to be supplied organs on the black market.
The boys had a lucky escape but probably ended up stuck in the area for several months, sleeping in the timber mills in continued vulnerability.
Project workers I was speaking to shared that they had begun to hear whispers amongst boys in their care, that some were being offered money and plied with alcohol in return for sex.
This was the first time that I heard the term “survival sex”. Survival sex is when you hit rock bottom, and the only resource you have left is your body. You’d have to sell it if you were to eat for another day.
It’s important to note that the numbers of vulnerable young people and men purchasing sex from boys were rising before the large numbers of displaced people and children began arriving in Greece, fleeing conflict, and becoming known as a “refugee crisis”.
Supply and demand
In 2019 there were an estimated 5,000 unaccompanied children in Greece with three out of four having no access to accommodation or care.
I would like to say that this has improved, but I cannot. I would like to say that none of the children are at risk from predators plying them with loose change and food for sex, but I cannot.
What I can tell you is that where nations are slow to take notice of the needs of foreign children – or have insufficient regard that they could become part of child sex exploitation – there is usually an increase in established demand.
My personal warning to nations and cultures who do not act promptly for the welfare of children from other nations, who do not safeguard them from predators, is that your nations’ own children are statistically the next “new products” in this big business.
I don’t say this to shock but to challenge. When a nation allows the vulnerabilities of children who are forcibly moved or on the move to be exploited, it begins to fuel growth in demand for sex with minors. That demand will eventually be met by a nation’s own vulnerable and marginalised citizens.
The UK and US both accept that the sex exploitation of its own children is vastly more of an issue than that of those trafficked across national borders or exploited on arrival.
Because they can
This is mostly not paedophilia as we understand it, which is a psychological attraction to prepubescent children, this is largely men being able to outwork sexual fantasy and interest with impunity.
Why? Because they can. Because it remains often hidden, criminally organised and unchecked. If it remains unchecked and unchallenged, it becomes normalised.
Greece’s broken, disjointed system
International law is slowly catching up with the ever changing face of human trafficking. In the US, if a minor is caught in prostitution they are no longer criminalised into a downward spiral, but instead viewed as having been a victim of exploitation and given help. In the UK, when young Vietnamese boys are caught on site at domestic cannabis farms, they are not criminalised and deported; they are seen as captives of organised crime and helped. In other countries, if you are found to have had sex with a victim of trafficking, your not knowing is no longer a viable defence for your participation in exploitation.
In Greece, anything to do with anti-trafficking – and especially its relation to child safeguarding – has been languishing in reports with the phrases “Greece is planning”, “Greece is developing” for too many years now.
Sadly, Greece still falls short of compliance with the EU Directive on Human Trafficking and is far from being in a position where its frontline services are able to “intervene on a child’s behalf even if there is suspicion of trafficking and exploitation” as required by the directive.
I am sure that having insufficient childcare facilities designed for child victims of trafficking has a knock-on effect. Frontline forces are far more likely to intervene if they are confident there are clear, joined-up services for the specific needs of that child.
In 2018, I took a male minor back to the agency he had registered his asylum request with. I explained why it was clear that he was a victim of trafficking and vulnerable to re-exploitation, having been held captive for six months under threat of death in a garment factory in Turkey.
I had to explain what trafficking was and the responsibility under EU law to take special measures for his welfare. They registered him again and communicated with EKKA that this case needed attention, which was really good.
EKKA is essentially Greek social services charged with the care of children. Its resources were significantly impacted by the economic crisis long before the influx of refugee children.
This indicates a broken disjointed system with how refugee children and their needs are assessed.
This is real
For any of this to be of value, governments, first responders and carers first need to recognise that this is real, it happens and that it needs our early intervention.
For more than a decade now regional police forces and social services in the UK have been shell shocked by their own neglect of hundreds of girls who they had labelled as “troubled liars”, but who were instead victims of organised forced prostitution. Groomed by fake boyfriends, picked up from school, taken to locations for sex acts and dropped off at the end of the street in time for tea, believing or even experiencing that no one would listen or intervene.
Trafficking in persons remains in the top two most profitable crimes of choice for organised crime gangs. It can only remain so where there is demand, such is the nature of business.
Greece remains in Tier 2 (out of 3) of the US Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons report for 2020 (TIP). This is the plum line for reporting international standards in addressing human trafficking. It indicates that Greece is progressing but has significant numbers of severe instances of modern day slavery, and does not fully comply with the minimum standard for addressing human trafficking.
Any assumption that the state alone will adequately address such issues would be a mistake.
How can child sex trafficking be stopped?
This may seem like a random story but I promise it is relevant. In 2014, I heard a talk from Cyril Regis, one of the first black football players to play for the England squad. He spoke about how, 30 years ago, he began playing for a local team and that on any given match day 50 of the crowd of 500 would shout racist chants, make monkey noises and throw bananas on the pitch. When he started playing for a top team there would be 500 people in a crowd of 5,000 making monkey noises and shouting racist abuse.
Cyril said that in his lifetime such behaviour has become culturally unacceptable; and it has become legislatively criminalised and enforced.
My hope for child sex exploitation and human trafficking is that it first becomes culturally known, then culturally unacceptable, and finally criminalised with the resources to actually enforce such criminalisation at ground level. This takes a widespread movement of people holding their nation’s governments to account in delivering those strategies so often left in the margins of good intent.
It is important that we understand that child exploitation is not something that happens to someone else somewhere else, it has landed firmly upon our own doorstep. The situation demands that all children are valued. It continues the scream for our attention and action long after our initial emotional response to headlines has subsided.
To report a suspicion of trafficking in Greece call: 1109 or visit 1109.gr
Gaz Kishere has worked in the charity sector for 30 years, in youth work, community development and anti-human trafficking. He currently spends most of his time in Athens with his wife Victoria where they run a small anti-trafficking project.
Gaz is immersed in the so-called “refugee crisis”, caring for volunteers and helping grass roots projects resolve “life and outcomes limiting organisational cultures”.
Gaz tells us: “Many in the counter trafficking say they are part of a modern abolition ‘movement’. However, ‘movement’ is a name given by those who come after us, if they deem our efforts to have produced such change, that we are worthy of that honour”.
Find out more about Gaz’s work here: www.crossborderinitiatives.org