The chronic vulnerability of the Western Balkans makes the region a key target for human trafficking

Human trafficking by local and international criminal syndicates came to the Balkans during the wars in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Kosovo during the 1990s. Tanya Domi (Adjunct Professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University) argues that an integrated approach is necessary to curb criminal activity and mitigate harm to migrants as they find their way to a new life.

One of the most notorious human trafficking cases in the Balkans involved a sex trafficking ring in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) that was covered up by the leadership of the UN Mission. In 2001, an American police monitor serving in the UN Mission blew the whistle on a group of Americans serving in the International Practices Task Force (IPTF) Mission: she was summarily terminated for reporting the crime.

I broke this story and approached Bosnian newspaper Oslobođenje, the longest operating daily newspaper in BiH, which agreed to publish it. The horrible irony of these crimes was underlined by the fact that they occurred in Bosnia, where women bore the brunt of a brutal war that known for the mass rape of Bosniak women as a tool of ‘ethnic cleansing.’

Six years before the gross failure of the UN Mission in Bosnia, then First Lady Hillary Clinton addressed the phenomenon of “modern day slavery” during her 1995 speech in Beijing, focusing attention  on this burgeoning global issue by saying: “It is a violation of human rights when women and girls are sold into slavery for the purposes of prostitution.” In 1999, Clinton once again addressed human trafficking at the Istanbul Head of State Ministerial meeting when she announced a $1 million grant to the OSCE from the U.S. government to address human trafficking as a problem confronting all member states.

International legal framework for human trafficking

But twenty years on, the scope and number of these crimes, despite an advanced and developed international legal architecture and the concerted efforts of multilateral organizations, governments and NGOs, has only grown.

By 2016, sex trafficking had expanded into the Iraq war. The UN Human Rights Council determined that ISIS was actively engaged in carrying out an ongoing genocide against the Yazidi people, characterized by a brutal war that became notorious for ISIL militia raping, enslaving and sexually trafficking Yazidi women. In 2017, the International Office of Migration (IOM) estimated that 40 million people were being trafficked each year.

A multitude of international organizations have mandates to address human trafficking. They include: The United Nations, the OSCE Office of Trafficking, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the International Office of Migration (IOM) and the U.S State Department.

A substantial effort to address trafficking occurred in 2000 with the adoption of the Palermo Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, supplementing the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC). All the states of former Yugoslavia have adopted this protocol into national law (except Kosovo, not yet a member of the UN).

The Council of Europe took steps to reinforce the legal efforts of the European Union to address trafficking by adopting, in 2005, the Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings, a regional human rights treaty of international human rights law.

This architecture also includes the U.S. State Department annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report for every country in the world, including the United States. Despite monitoring and assistance since 2000, many of the Western Balkans countries remain countries of transit or origin.

Who is trafficked?

The International Labor Organization (ILO) reports that women and girls account for 71% of modern slavery victims, although the number of men who are trafficked has substantially grown too. Women and children are principally trafficked for sex, forced marriage and child labor. The Growth in trafficking of men reflects their status as migrants and in forced labor. Organs are another commodity trafficked on the global stage.

What is the current state of human trafficking in the Western Balkans?

The migrant flow into South Eastern Europe began in 2015, as Europe and the Western Balkans faced one of the most significant waves of refugees seeking refuge on the European continent since World War II. During this period, Germany accepted almost 900,000 Syrian migrants. Migrants entered Europe through Greece and made their way toward Western Europe along the “Balkan Route” — the path stretching from the Middle East to the European Union through Turkey and South East Europe — in search of a better life in the European Union.”

During refugee flows, the risk of trafficking heightens. As long as people are desperate enough to leave their home in search of safety and, if they have the necessary resources, they will seek out traffickers to take them to a new country in search of freedom and a new life. Criminal syndicates target countries affected by chronic poverty, as reflected broadly throughout the Western Balkan region. Along the Balkan Route, as migrants attempt to reach Western Europe, detection is difficult, owing to a lack of capacity. Governments are fiscally strapped, struggling to meet the basic needs of local citizens, let alone manage a major migrant flow.

By 2017, according to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), a humanitarian organization that runs a small clinic in Belgrade, there were 4,000 refugees in Serbia at any one time. During that year, MSF estimated that around 20,000 migrants passed through Serbia. In Bosnia, the Federation government has placed migrants in the Bihać North Western region of BIH, preventing them from entering Croatia. Like neighboring EU member Hungary, Croatia has built border fences to block their entry.

During 2018, according to the IOM, a total of 61,012 migrants were officially registered by the authorities in the Western Balkans, five times more than the previous year. The most significant increase in migrants was in BiH, at 23,848, a twenty-fold increase from the previous year. A BBC television report broadcast in late October 2019 indicated that all official migrant camps in BiH are full, and most male migrants have been deposited in an unofficial camp in Bihać, where they exist on concrete floors, open to the elements, and surrounded by landmines. The Red Cross provides one meal a day, nearly 3,000 people are without beds, and winter is approaching.

The Nexus Institute, in partnership with Fafo and Serbian NGOs Atina and the Centre for Youth Integration, published a set of recommendations in 2017 on how to identify refugees and migrants who may have been trafficked while en route to Europe, or during their journey in the Balkans. Their list is one of the most comprehensive and thoughtful approaches to the ongoing crisis:

  1. Better understand human trafficking in crisis;
  2. Inform and educate migrants and refugees about human trafficking;
  3. Ensure sufficient capacity and procedures for formal identification of trafficking;
  4. Provide assistance to trafficked persons identified among migrants and refugees;
  5. Coordinate protection efforts across different fields of work and ‘statuses’:
  6. Integrate human trafficking into the humanitarian response;
  7. Develop tools and guidance to identify human trafficking among migrants and refugees;
  8. Build the capacity of humanitarian responders to identify and assist victims of trafficking.

The migrant crisis is ongoing and will continue for years to come. The most vulnerable will always be at risk. An integrated approach to human trafficking, blending humanitarian and law enforcement responses, is critical to curbing trafficking and mitigating harm to migrants.

This is the tenth blog in a series hosted in the run-up to the event New Actors and Strategies for Fighting and Investigating Corruption in the Western Balkans at the Harriman Institute, Columbia University (7-8 November 2019).

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