Serbian authorities continue to battle one of the most reprehensible crimes in the country, but critics say they often fail to treat human trafficking as organised crime.
By Bojana Milovanovic for Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 14/12/11
In all, 90% of trafficking victims are women and children. [Nikola Barbutov/SETimes]
In 2011, Serbian police identified 78 victims of human trafficking and filed 25 criminal complaints against 43 perpetrators, according to the data provided to SETimes by the Serbian Interior and Justice ministries.
The vast majority of the victims, 90%, are from Serbia, while the others are from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ukraine and Montenegro. Two thirds are women. Most of the perpetrators are of Serbian nationality with the exception of one Slovak and one Montenegrin citizen. Eight are women.
Interior ministry data shows that the most frequent occurrence in human trafficking is sexual exploitation. Trafficking humans is also used for the purposes of labour exploitation, to use the victims to commit criminal acts, forced begging and forced marriage.
The NGO Astra opened an SOS hotline in 2002 to help the victims of human trafficking, which proved instrumental in assisting them. Since then, more than 14,000 people have called the hotline for help.
"We provide psychological and legal support to the victims and their families," Astra co-ordinator Ivana Radovic told SETimes.
Radovic explained that anyone can become a victim in the human trafficking chain, but pointed out that the most vulnerable categories are women and children who comprise 90% of the victims.
According to evidence collected by Astra, after Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU and Serbia liberalised the visa regime, human trafficking inside Serbia has been more prevalent than cross-border trafficking.
"Nearly three quarters of human trafficking in Serbia is internal. As far as cross-border trafficking is concerned, Italy is still the most frequent destination for the victims from Serbia," Radovic said.
While she praised the Serbian police for dealing more forcefully with human trafficking in the past several years, she chided authorities for still failing to treat human trafficking as organised crime.
"In statements by police officials, one can hear that organised crime groups are no longer involved in this type of crime in Serbia, and a similar message is coming from the prosecutor's office for organised crime, primarily through its decisions not to prosecute specific [human trafficking] cases as acts of organised crime," Radovic said.
Safe houses for victims of human trafficking already exist in several Serbian cities, but Belgrade is just acquiring its first, which will provide emergency accommodations.
Justice Minister Snezana Malovic and Labour and Social Policy Minister Rasim Ljajic signed a contract in late November that permits the temporary seizure of buildings suspected of being acquired by criminal means.
One such building spanning 400 square meters has been handed over by the Directorate for Seized Property Management for the purpose of accommodating human trafficking victims and the Service for Co-ordinating the Protection of Human Trafficking Victims.
Ljajic notes that such safe houses already exist in Novi Sad and Nis, but that in Belgrade, the problem of accommodating human trafficking victims had been pronounced.
"Human trafficking is one of the most monstrous crimes through which the perpetrators want to set civilisation back. Estimates say the profit from human trafficking is between $3 billion and $60 billion per year, which is why it is the obligation of all state institutions to do everything to mitigate the consequences and help the victims," Malovic told the Serbian media.
She announced that by amendments to the law, human trafficking had been defined as one of the most severe criminal acts for which sentences cannot be commuted.
"Human trafficking is a global phenomenon, which is why it is necessary that, apart from the international community, the states in the region also engage in its resolution," Ljajic said.
He added that the problem is getting worse and that it is crucial to stress that the number of victims in Serbia is growing. By contrast, in the 1990s, the majority of the victims were women from Eastern Europe.