A migration surge into the European Union could be prompting an increase in child trafficking, the bloc's executive warned Thursday, as it published its first report on the fight against human trafficking.
Last year, more than 1 million people reached European shores, while an overall 88,300 unaccompanied minors sought asylum in EU member states - almost four times as many as in the previous year.
"Children are one of the most vulnerable groups targeted by traffickers," the European Commission wrote in its report, adding that they are "easy to recruit and quick to replace."
"Although child trafficking is prevalent in situations unrelated to migration, the information received suggests that the phenomenon has been exacerbated by the ongoing migration crisis," it added.
According to the report, close to 16,000 women, men and children were registered as the victims of trafficking in 2013-14, before the migration surge took on the dramatic proportions of last year.
The commission estimated that the actual number of victims was likely to be "substantially higher" than the figures reported, due to the difficulty of gathering reliable information on the phenomenon.
The majority of registered victims - 67 per cent - were trafficked for sexual exploitation, the report found, followed by forced labour. Other cases include the trafficking of pregnant women to sell their newborn babies, and of people for the purpose of organ removal.
More than three-quarters of recorded victims were women and at least 15 per cent were children - although the latter trend is increasing, the commission said.
Almost two thirds of victims came from within the EU - notably Bulgaria, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland and Romania - while the top five countries of origin for non-EU victims were Albania, China, Morocco, Nigeria and Vietnam, according to the commission.
It called on member states to implement EU anti-trafficking rules so as to increase the prosecution of perpetrators - described by EU anti-trafficking coordinator Myria Vassiladou as "worryingly low" - help identify the phenomenon early, protect victims and prevent trafficking.