LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - European countries are helping human traffickers by closing their doors to migrants, who risk swapping hardship at home for a new life of slavery on the road, humanitarian experts said on Thursday.
They said the stark choice - endure war, famine or persecution at home or opt for a new start in a safer country - is increasingly denied to migrants fleeing peril in Africa and the Middle East as anti-immigrant sentiment rises across Europe.
“Restrictive immigration policies are creating a new world order where barriers to basic services turn migration into a real humanitarian crisis,” said Francesco Rocca, president of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
“These barriers are a gift to the traffickers,” he said at the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s annual Trust Conference.
Europe’s migration crisis peaked in 2015 with an influx of well over 1 million people. While annual arrivals have since tumbled, European Union members have feuded over how to share the burden and support for anti-immigrant parties has surged.
The migration feud has divided southern and eastern European Union states - as well as rich destinations such as Germany.
As governments respond to nationalist sentiment among voters, xenophobic rhetoric has risen and once-safe havens for migrants have closed, allowing human traffickers to jump in and lock migrants into profitable cycles of exploitation and abuse.
“We are putting people on the move between two unacceptable decisions,” Rocca said.
“Stay at a place where famine, violence, food and security, the consequences of climate change, will put their lives at risk - or escape from their countries risking to be trafficked, to be sold as slaves or to die during the journey.”
Labor trafficking is on the rise across Europe and has overtaken sexual exploitation as the predominant form of modern slavery in several countries, including Britain, Belgium and Portugal, according to rights body the Council of Europe.
At least 4 million children worldwide are victims of forced labor and sexual exploitation, according to the United Nations.
From factories, farms and fishing boats to domestic servitude and sex work, about 25 million people globally are estimated to be victims of forced labor, according to a watershed U.N. International Labour Organization estimate.
Tarnished as criminals, rather than people needing protection, migrants are becoming even more vulnerable to traffickers and to abuse, frontline workers say.
And aid workers, too, say they are bearing the brunt of an ever louder Western clamor against the needy and to any outsiders who are perceived as a threat to the status quo.
“What we have seen across Europe is a series of trials, where individuals like you and I are being prosecuted for helping another person, for offering a lift, for offering a bed, for offering food,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, a humanitarian affairs adviser with Medecins Sans Frontieres(MSF).
“People are dying at the doors of Europe and the response is to criminalize the NGOs, but also to criminalize the very act of human solidarity,” said Sahraoui.
Citing family reunification as a major reason for migration, Duncan Breen of the United Nations refugee agency said more commitments were needed for resettlement to prevent people from taking “crazy risks”.