Immigrant children disappearing without trace after entering Spain

DNA tests reveal adults are traveling with minors who are not their own Sexual and economic exploitation suspected

Tests carried out on people at the temporary immigrant holding center (CETI) in Melilla have led to the conclusion that illegal migration into Spain is, on occasion, also human trafficking. DNA samples taken from a group of sub-Saharan immigrants at the center who had arrived with children proved that there was no genetic link between the adults and the youngsters.

"There was behavior that made the social workers suspicious because the supposed parents were taking no notice of their children," says Carlos Montero, the director of the Melilla CETI, which currently holds almost 1,000 people — double its capacity. The Red Cross also reported a similar situation in its refuges in Andalusia: "There were women who did not know when they stopped breast-feeding, when their child's first tooth came out, and who were even disgusted by changing diapers," says Milagros Núñez, manager of the organization's immigrant care program.

"Some of these false parents have admitted they are not related to the child," says Montero. "They say they found them, abandoned, on the way to Melilla and took them under their wing. We don't know what the truth is or where the biological parents are. There is a lot to investigate." Montero believes such children may be stolen, kidnapped, or "rented."

Until now, arriving in Melilla with a child was a guarantee of being fast-tracked to the Spanish mainland, and of a hugely increased likelihood of not being deported. "It was practically a passport," says a police inspector.

Until now, arriving in Melilla with a child was "practically a passport"

Almost five years have elapsed between the first suspicions of aid workers in 2008 and the authorities deciding to act. During this period dozens — maybe hundreds — of children and the adults who traveled with them have become the victims of mafia rings that originated in Nigeria but now operate out of Cameroon, Guinea and other West African countries. In the first six months of 2013, the Red Cross identified 27 minors and 44 women who were at risk of exploitation.

The first alarm was raised by the Ombudsman's office, which issued a 2012 report titled "Human trafficking in Spain: invisible victims," which was followed up by Consuelo Madrigal, a prosecutor with the court of protection for minors. At the beginning of this year, the police reacted: "In the case of some minors [arriving in Spain] there was evidence of human trafficking or exploitation," said police commissioner Emilio Baos in a circular to Immigration and Borders operatives.

As of March, children entering Spain unaccompanied or with adults who cannot prove their parenthood have been registered by the authorities, photographed and fingerprinted, although this order is still not being applied in all cases. "Now, after we have registered them, we are able to prevent them from disappearing as has regrettably happened on many occasions previously," says Ombudsman Soledad Becerril. However, NGOs dedicated to the protection of minors question why it has taken so long to put this measure into practice.

The last mechanism of authority to react to the situation has been the Andalusia regional ombudsman, Jesús Maeztu. After meeting with NGOs, regional government representatives and state security agencies, a coordinated protocol to combat the trafficking and exploitation of immigrant minors has been put in place and will be passed to the regional assembly in December. "We are talking here about pedophilia and even organ trafficking," Maeztu said.

Prosecutor Madrigal stated in her circular that all adults arriving in Spain with children they claim as their own should be DNA tested. "The problem is that the test costs 700 euros," says Montero. To get around this, the social welfare department of the Melilla regional government, which has responsibility for unaccompanied children in the exclave, has signed an agreement with the University of Granada.

We are talking here about pedophilia and even organ trafficking"

However, José Palazón, who heads the Melilla-based protection of minors NGO Prodein, warns that in some cases "the cure is worse than the disease." He recounts the story of a Congolese boy taken in by a children's home in Melilla who was sent by his parents to try and reach Europe in the company of a neighbor, who abandoned him on the road. "A sub-Saharan woman picked him up in Casablanca and assumed the role of his mother, bringing him into Melilla. I don't think separating them would have been a very good idea."

Children act as a passport for those who pretend to be their parents and are also used for blackmailing purposes against their biological relatives. Police operations across Spain this year have uncovered cases where Nigerian children have been held by mafias until their mothers have paid the ring anything up to 40,000 euros for being conducted to European soil. To meet the debt, they have to prostitute themselves for years.

In April, the police arrested a Nigerian madame who had several children under her control. She was charged with killing a nine-month-old baby whose mother was a prostitute in Barcelona and was sentenced to 18 years in jail.

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