10 Missing Children Cases Potentially Linked to Greek Mystery Girl


From Elinda Labropoulou and Laura Smith-Spark at CNN:

About 10 cases of missing children are “being taken very seriously” in connection with the suspected abduction of a girl by a Roma couple in Greece, a spokesman for a Greek children’s charity said Tuesday.

“They include children from the United States, Canada, Poland and France,” said Panagiotis Pardalis of the Smile of the Child charity.

In a case that has generated huge interest in Greece, authorities have charged the Roma couple with abducting the child they call “Maria.” They appeared in court Monday and were remanded into custody pending a trial.

A lawyer for the couple says the pair adopted the child from her biological mother.

The Smile of the Child said the girl, who was found Thursday in a Roma community near Larissa, central Greece, is now being cared for in a group home.

Medical tests carried out on the girl since she was found indicate she is between 5 and 6 years old, slightly older than initially thought, said Pardalis.Police have said they are suspicious of the records the couple provided for the child and for other children in their care. In addition to the abduction charge, the couple is accused of falsifying official documents.

Four officials, including the head of the registry office from which Maria got her birth certificate, have been suspended while a police investigation is under way, the media office of the Athens municipality said Tuesday.

The girl received the document this year, it said. It is unusual for a birth certificate to be issued years later.

1,000 years of Roma discrimination

Authorities asked questions about Maria because she has fair skin and blond hair, while her parents have darker complexions typical of Roma, a race descended from Indian nomads who face widespread discrimination in Europe.

Haralambos Dimitriou, head of the local Roma community, said the couple took the girl in because her Bulgarian mother couldn’t keep her. He said Maria was raised like a “normal” child.

Pardalis said Sunday that she was found in “bad living conditions, poor hygiene.”

Calls about the girl

Thousands of calls poured into Greece after authorities released photos of the girl last week.

Deborah Bradley and Jeremy Irwin, whose daughter Lisa Irwin vanished from their home in Kansas City, Missouri, two years ago aged about 11 months, asked the FBI to get in touch with Greek authorities when they heard about the case.

“There is no such thing as a tip too small,” said Bradley, whose hopes were raised despite the apparent disparity in age between their missing daughter and the girl found in Greece.

Authorities released photos of the two adults charged in the case Monday — Eleftheria Dimopoulou, age 40, and 39-year-old Christos Salis — in the hope that the publicity would reach someone who can provide more information about them.

Police said the blond child looked nothing like the man and woman with her, and DNA testing confirmed that they were not her biological parents.

A police statement said the couple “changed repeatedly their story about how they got the child.”

A government news agency said police found suspicious birth and baptism records as well as family registrations that claimed the woman had given birth to 10 children and the man was the father of four more.

Prejudice against the Roma

Prejudice and discrimination against the Roma are widespread in Greece and elsewhere in Europe, Amnesty International says.

Maria’s case plays into old prejudices about them stealing children for forced labor.

Pardalis mentioned such a possibility, saying, “We don’t have any other information if this girl was forced to work or to beg on streets.”

And the government news agency raised “the possibility of the existence of a ring bringing pregnant women to Greece from Bulgaria and then taking their children for sale.” The agency also cited past “reports” that empty coffins were found for infants who supposedly were stillborn to foreign mothers in Athens.

While there is a risk that old prejudices are at work here leading to these suspicions, DNA tests can prove who her parents are as well as the other 10 missing children. This story has given more light to the grave issue of human trafficking. Not only is human trafficking prevalent in the rest of the world, it is sadly all too common in the United States, with Houston, Texas as a hub for trafficked victims.

Shine a Light on Human Trafficking

photo courtesy of: http://www.houstonrr.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/ShineALight-KS-300x394.jpg

Many people believe that slavery ended in 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.  While this is of course true and helped to close the door on a dark period in American history, slavery is in fact still a harsh reality in today’s world.  Regarded as a form of modern day slavery, human trafficking, the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of individuals for the purpose of exploitation, is the fastest growing and most profitable area of organized crime in the world.  With approximately 20.9 million victims, human trafficking impacts children and adults alike in cities, countries, and continents all around the world.

photo courtesy of: http://www.houstonrr.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/ShineALight-KS-300x394.jpg

photo courtesy of: http://www.houstonrr.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/ShineALight-KS-300×394.jpg

The severity and continued growth of the human trafficking industry caught the attention of Congress and in 2000 they passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), which declared all types of human trafficking a federal crime.  The TVPA wasn’t enacted for only prosecutorial reasons, but is also aimed at prevention through public awareness programs.  In 2003, 2005, 2008, and 2011, increasing knowledge and awareness of the issue led to developments in the act and in 2013, President Obama signed the reauthorization of the TVPA, recognizing the magnitude of the international human trafficking problem and reestablishing the important role the TVPA plays in combating it.

While the U.S. government has taken a stance against the human trafficking problem through legislation, campaigns for public awareness and educating citizens on reporting tips can urge individuals to take a stance as well. One such initiative is underway in the city of Houston, one of the principal supply and transport sites for children and adult trafficking victims due to its proximity, demographics, substantial immigrant labor force, and easy access to I-10, the number one route for human trafficking in the United States.  During the month of September, Houston’s Human Trafficking Awareness Month, Mayor Annise Parker vows to provide the pubic with informative facts about the global dilemma as well as educate individuals about ways they can help combat the problem.  Houston’s public awareness campaign, “Shine a Light on Human Trafficking,” is aimed at educating the public on how to recognize signs of human trafficking and encouraging them to report suspicious situations to the appropriate authorities.  Other states, such as Ohio, have recently pledged resources and manpower to establish public awareness campaigns in order to educate the public on the problem of human trafficking.

Long-term education and awareness campaigns like “Shine a Light on Human Trafficking” can play a big role in combating modern day slavery.  With numerous businesses such as massage parlors, escort services, salons, and modeling agencies acting as fronts for the human trafficking industry, increased awareness of the warning signs and recognition of the types of establishments that have been known to be involved in the industry can help authorities put an end to this epidemic.  Often hidden in plain sight, law enforcement agencies often rely on the public for tips to locate, dismantle, and prosecute individuals involved in these organizations.

Modern human trafficking presents the most widespread global slave trade known to mankind, with more people enslaved today than at any other time in human history. A violation of one of the most basic human rights, efforts to combat this epidemic should be tailored towards the restoration of that fundamental human right—freedom.  It is a common misconception that human trafficking presents only a vast international problem; the U.S. State Department estimates that between 600,000 and 800,000 individuals are purchased and sold across international lines and borders every year, the United States included.  Making people more aware of this fact alone can help combat the human trafficking dilemma.  Awareness campaigns are invented to provide the tools needed to help bring the victims to safety and individuals involved in the human trafficking industry to justice.

For those who live in Houston and would like to take part in “Shine a Light on Human Trafficking,” the campaign will kick off at City Hall on September 24 at 6:30 p.m.

Human Trafficking and Child Exploitation

Human-Trafficking-1The FBI’s recent liberation of 105 children and arrest of 150 pimps in 76 cities across the United States adds to the number of successful rescues conducted under Operation Cross Country, a joint effort operation among the FBI, Department of Justice, and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children aimed at combating child sex trafficking.  According to UNICEF, child trafficking is defined as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of children for the purpose of exploitation.”  Almost all female, the recently rescued victims ranged in age from 13 to 17 and were prostituted in locations such as casinos, motels, and truck stops as well as on the internet through social media outlets and online advertisements.  Beginning in 2003, raids executed under Operation Cross Country have led to the successful rescue of more than 2,700 children.  While rescues such as these continue to constitute a step in the right direction, the secret and underground nature of the human trafficking industry create an extraordinary and challenging problem to combat.  Generating a profit of approximately $32 billion per year, the vast amounts of money to be made in the trade present incentives for both criminals, who want to maximize their profits through elusive avenues, as well as for law enforcement officials who want to rescue the victims and punish their captors.

Regarded as a form of “modern day slavery,” children in the trafficking industry are forced into labor and prostitution against their will.  According to the FBI, sex trafficking is the fastest growing area of organized crime and the third largest type of organized crime in the world.  Out of an approximate 20.9 million victims of human trafficking around the world, UNICEF estimates around two million of them to be children.  Furthermore, the U.S. State Department estimates that between 600,000 and 800,000 individuals are purchased and sold across international lines and borders every year, with more than 70% of victims being female and half being children.

Human traffickers and pimps tend to prey on vulnerable youth, making runaway and homeless children particularly at risk for becoming victims of the trade.  The United States Justice Department estimates that approximately 450,000 children run away from home each year and moreover, the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Throwaway Children states one out of every three children that runs away is lured into sex trafficking within 48 hours of leaving their home.  In addition to domestic victims, a large number of international human trafficking victims are brought to the United States every year.  The State Department asserts that most international victims come here from Mexico, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Central America.  The staggering statistics combined with horrific details of the trade make the demons inherent in the human trafficking industry especially apparent and personally, the issue hits even closer to home for me as Texas has become regarded as the United States hub for human trafficking, specializing in the trade of international victims.

Because of its international airports, numerous bus stations and busy interstate highways, Houston’s ship providing easy access to the Gulf of Mexico, and shared borders with Mexico, Texas has become North America’s number one supply site for young children used in sex and labor trafficking.  Proximity, demographics, and a substantial immigrant labor force all combine to make Texas an ideal location for the trafficking industry.  With three cities (Houston (4), San Antonio (7), Dallas (9)) included on the top ten list of largest cities in the United States (and a 4th, Austin, not far behind), a copious amount of sex based businesses such as strip clubs, massage parlors, and escort services call Texas home.  Furthermore, major sporting events, conventions, and universities attract large numbers of visitors from all over the world, creating a higher demand for services of the commercial sex industry and a need to fill that void.  Additionally, I-10, described by the U.S. Department of Justice as the number one route for human trafficking in the U.S., runs across the entire state of Texas providing an effective and efficient manner for traffickers to quickly transport victims between remote locations or across state lines.

In 2013, President Obama signed the reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), which renews crucial federal anti-trafficking programs, resources for services provided to survivors of human trafficking, and partnerships with certain countries to protect and prevent child trafficking.  Furthermore, the TVPA blocks U.S. foreign aid and assistance from being transferred to counties that use child soldiers and forms programs that respond to those humanitarian emergencies that create an elevated risk of human trafficking.  While the U.S. government has recognized the prevalence of the issue and shown support for combating the problem, according to World Vision, government funding designated for efforts to fight both international and domestic human trafficking account for only .0003 percent of the federal budget. In other words, World Vision calculates that for every $32 traffickers earn by exploiting another person, the U.S. government spends 10 cents combating this exploitation.

While I can appreciate the complexity of the human trafficking issue and the potential solutions to eradicate it as well as the severity of the budget deficit the United States as a country is facing, more needs to be done to narrow the gap between profits made by traffickers and the amount of resources allotted to finding those traffickers and rescuing the millions of individuals in captivity.  With modern day avenues such as the internet allowing traffickers and organized crime rings to synchronize business plans and activities and transport victimized children around the globe as needed and demand dictates, perhaps more attention should be focused on the very phenomenon that allows human traffickers to be so elusively prolific—the internet.  In other words, perhaps the best way to track the increasing number of digital footprints left behind by traffickers is to fight fire with fire by focusing on the development and advancement of other technological methods that can be used to identify, trace, track, and catalog both victims and offenders.  Whether or not you agree that attention should be focused on advancing technologies or believe that some other method is a more effective way of combating human trafficking, I’m sure we can all agree on one thing—allocating a mere 10 cents to the fight against human exploitation for every $32 profit pocketed by traffickers is not an adequate distribution nor does the trivial figure serve as an effective or successful deterrent to individuals engaged in the lucrative trade.  With more people enslaved today than at any other time in human history, a reorganization of budget allocations and an increase in resources as well as enhanced societal awareness and understanding is absolutely needed in order to both continue and improve the fight against human and child trafficking and exploitation both domestically and internationally.