The Changing Face of Human Trafficking in the Balkans

The Balkans have a long sordid history of trafficking in human beings (THB). For decades, the Western Balkans have been countries of origin, transit, and destination, but with the increasing political instability of the region, the current refuge crisis, and the disastrous shape of the economy in this part of the world, the face of trafficking victims has changed. The massive influx of refugees has resulted in the “dehumanization” of many desperately seeking asylum. Additionally, the accepted marginalization and stigmatization of certain groups, (most predominately the Roma) make these groups especially vulnerable to trafficking. Not all trafficking involves crossing of borders. Increasingly men, women, and children are forced into sexual or labor slavery within the borders of their country of origin. The long held stereotype of the Eastern European young girl tricked into sexual slavery by criminal networks and brought across borders is just one piece of the complex puzzle. Increasingly victims of trafficking are citizens of the country where traffickers offer their services. With the expansion of the European Union and hopes of entering the EU, the Balkan nations have been under increased pressure to protect their borders, cooperate to limit trafficking, and to bring anti-trafficking laws up to international standards. Ironically as some aspects of law enforcement have improved, trafficking has become more hidden and criminals have shifted to local victims.

The focus on trafficking as a criminal enterprise has led to the use of gendered and racialized language, “innocent,” “white slavery,” “trafficked for sex,” to discuss trafficking in human beings and thus reinforces the stereotypical ideas of the identity of the victims[1]. In discussing and breaking down the identity of victims, it is important to acknowledge that the concept of identity and how individuals perceive people from various genders, ethnicities, and cultures is constructed through society. Societal constructions of identity reinforce notions of various groups: Roma steal, beg, are uneducated; women are weak and victimized; men are strong and providers. These ideas, ingrained in our minds through reinforced stereotypes, maintain these constructed identities and make it harder to combat human trafficking. The identity, both self-identity and imposed labels, functions in different ways based on the group. The cultural notions of identity and the stigma of Roma are extremely different and often the opposite of refugees. This paper will explore how identity, both individual and group, defined by society, make certain groups more susceptible to trafficking (due to social exclusion, stigma, etc). How are those stigmas unique to various groups, such a Roma and refugees? How does that identity affect the way victims identify and react after being rescued?

Refugees and Trafficking

At the conference International Discussion Forum on Trafficking in Human Beings and the New Migration Challenges at the European Commission in Sofia, Bulgaria, experts and practitioners from international and regional NGOs spoke on the challenges and potential solutions for combatting trafficking in human beings in the context of the current refugee crisis. The general consensus was that the major challenges to combatting human trafficking along the Balkan refugee route is the identification of victims and potential victims of THB. Since the Balkan countries are mainly transit countries, people do not want to stop moving and stay in the country for at least one year in order to press charges, testify, and participate in the prosecution of the traffickers[2].

One expert from Macedonia, Tatijana Temelkoska the National Interethnic Relations Officer from the OSCE Mission to Skopje, said that officially there were five victims of THB in 2015: two boys from Afghanistan and three girls, two from Syria and one from Nigeria. The girls were ages eighteen, fifteen, and a couple months old. In the first half of 2016, Macedonia officially identified three victims of trafficking, one woman for sex trafficking and two men for labor exploitation[3].

However, La Strada, a local chapter of La Strada International which works to prevent and suppress human trafficking through advocacy, education, awareness building and victim referral to support networks and victim assistance, informally identified two hundred forty potential victims of trafficking in persons among the refugees in 2015[4]. This number remains unofficial for many reasons. These refugees are vulnerable persons and do not want to stay because Macedonia is a transit country so there is limited time frame for risk assessments. Additionally, it can be hard to motivate refugees to signal to an officer or social worker or tell someone they are being trafficked because often times the traffickers are housed in the reception centers or camps with the victims[5]. Helmut Sax a member of the Council of Europe Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA) and an expert on child’s rights approaches to trafficking, discussed the additional social stigma. Due to the stigma attached to prostitution (child prostitution especially) some shelters refuse to take in these victims, even when they are children [6].

Most interestingly, the indicators La Strada Macedonia and other NGOs created to identify potential victims of trafficking do not take into account cultural differences or cultural identities. Due to this, the number of two hundred forty may include victims of other gender based violence, not human trafficking. The set of indicators that may work to identify victims in the Balkan context, may not work when attempting to identify victims among peoples from a variety of cultures, from Africa to the Middle East[7]. For example, a young child bride traveling with her “husband” may act similarly towards him as a girl and her trafficker. All indicators are not necessarily effective in every context and must continually be changed and updated based on context and the specific groups of people.  

Police and Border Control

The police play a key role in the discrepancies between the official and unofficial numbers. Police and border control’s main concern and focus is on national security and registration of refugees, not identifying vulnerable persons or victims of trafficking. Additionally, there is massive turnover among police and border control officers. Specifically, in Macedonia, when a group of police are finally trained on how to identify potential victims, they may no longer be in the position. On the other hand, if a police or border control officer does identify a potential victim, the potential victim often does not want to report the crime or follow up because they want to keep moving. In their minds, the victimization will end once they reach Germany or Austria.

Little research has been conducted on active police roles or police complicity in human trafficking in the Balkan region. During the war in BiH, foreign women were trafficked into the country to service police and United Nations officials. Today, according to the National Anti-Trafficking Officer at the OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina, generally the police are not involved in trafficking; however, there is one case in which a police officer was a client of a victim of trafficking[8].

Traffickers use the threat of police and their relationships with police to intimidate victims to obey. This is especially evident with foreign victims and even nationals whose traffickers have burned their passports or other identification documents; if they are Roma, often they have never had an identification card. However, once the victim escapes the bondage of their trafficker, their experience with police varies based on the level of education and training that specific officer and unit has gone through. In some cases, the officers either do not believe the victim’s story or do not recognize the crime as trafficking[9]. This leads to re-traumatization and secondary victimization. Police forces in the Balkans must be trained in dealing with trafficked victims and learn about the physical and psychological effects of the human rights abuses the victims endure at the hands of their traffickers.

[1] Jacqueline Berman, “(Un)Popular Strangers and Crises (Un)Bounded: Discourses of Sex-trafficking, the European Political Community and the Panicked State of the Modern State,” European Journal of International Relations 9, no. 1 (2003): 38.

[2] European Commission Hosted Conference, “International Discussion Forum on Trafficking in Human Beings and the New Migration Challenges,” June 28, 2016.

[3] European Commission Hosted Conference.

[4] European Commission Hosted Conference.

[5] European Commission Hosted Conference.

[6] European Commission Hosted Conference.

[7] European Commission Hosted Conference.

[8] Boris Topić.

[9] Katarina Ivanović.

Written by: Katie Masi