AMSTERDAM — Hundreds of Eastern European children are living what the Dutch press calls a modern Oliver Twist story, some held against their will, others in thrall to their handlers as they are forced to beg and steal their way around Western European cities.
The thieves in question, some as young as 8 years old, are picking pockets and committing other petty crimes in the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, Germany, and Spain, according to the recently released findings of an international investigation called Operation 13Oceans (a randomly generated name) that focused on those countries.
Several kids appeared on the radar of the Dutch police when they saw the same faces over and over again, with different names each time. They had picked them up, booked them, and let them out on the streets again, in a never ending cycle. Eventually, as the cops ran their faces through the databases of Europol and other international organizations, a list of around 300 kids emerged.
The children are invisible victims because it is hard for society to see the sinister hand of organized human trafficking that lies behind the petty thievery that afflicts so many European cities, helping to stoke the anger against “migrants,” many of whom are Roma, but many of whom are not.
“What you see is often not what it appears,” says Warner Ten Kate, a Dutch public prosecutor who specializes in human trafficking. When you see a mother begging with a child, for instance, you don't necessarily think about the infant being forced to serve as a prop for a woman who is not its mother at all.
“As the children get older,” says Arthur de Rijk, team leader of the 13Oceans Task Force for the Amsterdam Police, “they are forced to steal for a criminal organization.
“We are actively watching four international criminal networks,” says de Rijk, who declined to give further specifics because the investigation is ongoing. The ages of the kids involved range from 8 to 16, he said.
Although there have been investigations into this issue before, they were mainly in the context of pickpocketing or so-called mobile banditry offenses. In this case the children are seen as victims rather than offenders.
“The pressure exerted on the kids is immense,” Ten Kate says. “We believe some of them are forced to steal up to a €1,000 [$1,115] a day.”
When a group of kids the Amsterdam police team had under surveillance was arrested in Barcelona, the team traveled to Spain. They found the three girls, the boy, and the baby in a building on the outskirts of the city.
De Rijk’s voice takes on a somber tone as he describes the conditions: “It was too dirty for words. They were living in a crack house. It looked okay from the outside, but inside it was one big chaos. It smelled like urine, the kids were covered in lice. The fridge was moldy, mattresses were on the floor and no chairs. The electrical wires were hanging from the walls. It was a dangerous place; it was dreadful.”
The kids were in bad shape, but once taken in by authorities, “They started playing again,” said de Rijk. “They looked relieved.” Having been assigned to the care of Dutch social services before they ended up in Spain, the children were flown back to the Netherlands. “We don’t really know where the kids are from, if they were born in the Netherlands, Bosnia, or Austria,” said de Rijk.
Much research preceded the raid in the Spanish crackhouse.
The ball started rolling more than a year ago, when an observant Amsterdam railway police officer, who had been watching for a while the movements of the young girls pickpocketing in the station, was looking for a broader approach, one that included social services.
“That railway police officer approached me with his file,” Ten Kate says. “That’s how 13Oceans started; a national team was formed, initiated by the Amsterdam police.”
Because the kids move and steal in groups at stations in one city, but are transported to another European city at a later point in time, the investigation has to be international in nature.
Through the international legal body Eurojust the initiative for cooperation in this case came from the Netherlands, Bosnia, and Austria. The countries pursue a common goal: getting to the ringleaders of the clan that is trafficking and abusing these children. Thus far, two adults have been picked up, but many other arrests are expected.
Criminal exploitation and forced begging has been an issue on the table of European legislators for many years. The EU anti-trafficking coordinator, Myria Vassiliadou, asked member states to include this topic in their national legislation. In the Netherlands and other countries the new policy went into effect in 2011. But legislation is one thing, action another.
“This is the first internationally oriented investigation in which criminal exploitation is stressed in this way,” says Ten Kate. “The goal of the investigation is twofold: on the one hand to tackle the criminal cooperation and dismantle the financial structure behind it; on the other hand, to keep the kids out of the hands of these criminal organizations. We are hoping to offer them a better future.”
The problem of young children being exploited as agents of petty crime certainly is not new. It’s been almost 180 years since Charles Dickens introduced us to Fagin, the Artful Dodger and poor, innocent Oliver Twist. In this century, young children, often Roma, can be found roaming the streets and railway stations looking for loot in almost every European city. But in tracking their movements, the pattern of a larger organized crime network emerged.
“If you are part of a certain clan, the peer pressure is enormous.” Ten Kate explains. “The odds of breaking out are small. Also, these kids are taught the outside world is hostile. It is not so difficult to push them to stealing.”
When intimidation fails, physical violence and other forms of abuse are employed to keep the kids in line. Not surprisingly, there are signs drugs are used as a form of coercion. “You can see some of them deteriorate, one moment they look somewhat okay, and a couple of months later, when arrested again, they are in much worse shape,” says Ten Kate.
“The biggest difference for us is that we went from treating the kids as criminals to seeing that these kids are victims,” says de Rijk. “They should go to school and they deserve a future. They don’t beg and steal for fun, they need protection. The most important thing is that we manage to identify these little kids and give them a future.”