Meet the Pickpocket Slaves of Europe

July 6, 2016

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 eight 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 eight 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.

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