Balkan Nations Fail to Tackle Human Trafficking

The recently released United States Trafficking in Persons Report 2022 has shone a light on the worsening state of the human trafficking situation in the Balkans. It found that nations in the Southeast region of Europe are failing to successfully combat trafficking. The comprehensive report details harrowing stories of involuntary and abusive forced labour – children harvesting cannabis in Albania, women trafficked for sex work in Moldova, and Serbian men brought to western Europe to work in construction. Across South-eastern Europe, the commodification of human beings has increased at an alarming rate.

The degrading, abusive and criminal trade in human beings in a very lucrative one. According to the European Commission, human trafficking brought in an estimated profit of 29.4 billion Euros in 2015 alone, with profits made from sex work totalling an estimated 14 billion Euros. Orchestrated by a web of transnational criminal groups, human trafficking in the Balkans exploits the marginalized and the vulnerable. Women and girls made up 72% of victims between 2017-2018. A distressing number of overall victims- one in four- are children. More alarming still is the manner in which these children are abused. 27% of Serbian children and 25% of Bosnian children trafficked were subjected to sexual abuse in what Samir Rizvo, Bosnian Assistant Minister and State Co-Ordinator for Combating Trafficking, called a “crisis” in a recent roundtable discussion on the issue.

The ways in which governmental and non-governmental organisations can combat trafficking are straightforward. By neutralizing the power that organised crime groups hold in Balkan states, the crisis could be greatly improved, yet these groups have a long history in the region. Although petty crime rates remain low, international crime syndicates have flourished in the Balkans, extending their influence during periods of political instability and partaking in widespread corruption. Both regional and international efforts are needed to investigate, prosecute, and convict those profiting from human trafficking. Further measures can be taken to alleviate the effects of trafficking. When assisting survivors of trafficking, a victim-centred and trauma-informed approach is necessary. An increase in awareness of warning signs to look out for would help prevent possible trafficking situations. We should look to UNICEF’s Blue Dot system being used to assist Ukrainian refugees in Europe, where reliable information is offered to families in a child-friendly way, and unaccompanied children are identified.

Complicating matters in the Balkans further is the increased number of migrating
peoples in the past decade. During Europe’s refugee crisis of 2016, Balkan nations were used
as “transit states” as refugees travelled from the Middle East in hopes of getting to the EU.
This movement of people could be more accurately described as “people-smuggling”, a
similar practice that can be voluntary. However, this carries an enormous amount of risk as a
smuggling situations could quickly deteriorate into one of forced labour, oftentimes to pay off
a “debt” to the smuggler. Refugees taking the “Balkan Route” westwards often do not declare
refugee status in the region for fear of being held there. This lack of identification means that
they cannot avail themselves to governmental protection, leaving more people exposed to trafficking.

Further movement of people is currently ongoing as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A recent Freedom Fund press release expressed serious concern regarding a trafficking risk. Since the outbreak of the war, anti-trafficking organisations such as La Strada and the IOM have reported an increase in calls to their hotlines, with up to five times as much activity as normal. Police in Romania and Moldova have reported their suspicions of Ukrainian refugees being trafficked as they cross the border into what was meant to be asylum. The sheer volume of unaccompanied children moving across Europe present a serious trafficking risk, over 500 were documented crossing the Romanian border in a period of just three weeks.

The men, women, and children represented in this article’s trafficking statistics are largely invisible in modern-day Balkans. They work in brothels and basements and factories, selling trinkets to tourists and begging on street corners. Much of human trafficking goes unnoticed in what is becoming an invisible crisis. The sprawling and secretive nature of Balkan trafficking should not deter regional and international organisations in the fight against trafficking but rather spur them to action in order to alleviate this crisis before it gets worse.