This year, on July 30th, World Day against Trafficking in Persons is observed for the first time after the official declaration of the end of the long-lasting coronavirus pandemic. However, we are still in a situation of general global crisis, political and economic instability, conflicts in many Asian and African countries, and the war in Europe as Russia leads against Ukraine, along with increasingly pronounced climate changes causing continuous population migrations, creating fertile ground for human trafficking. Most of the problems faced by the victims remain prevalent. All of this highlights the need for the fight against trafficking in persons, both at the global and local levels, to gain even greater significance and remain a constant priority. The aforementioned changes represent serious risks for human trafficking and various forms of exploitation, especially against women and children.

The celebration of the World Day against Trafficking in Persons serves as an occasion for our law firm’s continuous collaborators from the Association of Citizens for Combating Trafficking in Persons and all Forms of Gender-Based Violence, “Atina,” which has been actively engaged in this field for the past 20 years, to consider the most important issues and problems they encounter in their work.

According to “Atina,” what stands out particularly regarding the fight against human trafficking in Serbia during this period is the weakening of the previously established formal framework and institutional capacities for combating human trafficking. By the end of 2022, the five-year Strategy for Combating Trafficking in Persons expired, and earlier, in mid-2021, during its implementation, the Working Group that monitored its progress was abolished. The Action Plan for the last two years of the Strategy’s validity (2021-2022) was never officially adopted, despite significant efforts to not only develop the document but also put it into effect. In the first half of 2023, no steps were taken to initiate the development of a new strategic document in this field, so it might be prepared, at best, by the end of 2023. Additionally, in the past three years, the Inter-Ministerial Council for Combating Trafficking in Persons, chaired by the Minister of the Interior, has not convened even once. The newly established National Rapporteur for Trafficking in Persons, at the Ombudsman’s Office (established in late 2021), did not conduct any activities during this period nor published a report on its work in this area. Finally, the National Coordinator for Combating Trafficking in Persons and the Head of the Office for the Coordination of Activities in Combating Trafficking in Persons at the Ministry of the Interior retired in late July 2022, and the Office appointed a new head with significant delay, only in March 2023. All of this indicates that this issue has not regained its place as one of the priorities in our society.

According to “Atina,” these institutional deficiencies have had a negative impact on the position and protection of victims and have deepened other issues present in this area. The number of identified trafficking victims annually remains low and does not reflect the actual situation on the ground. The number of identified victims amounts to only a few dozen individuals (62 persons in 2022). The competent Center for the Protection of Victims of Trafficking in Persons (CZŽTLJ), operating under the Ministry of Labor, Veterans, and Social Affairs, received a larger number of reports, while other systems failed to fully investigate these cases, initiate investigations, or launch criminal proceedings. The identification mechanisms established in previous years, as well as the indicators for recognizing potential victims in various fields, numerous trainings, and capacity building for professionals in these areas, have not resulted in a significant increase in reported cases of suspected trafficking and the number of identified victims. It seems that the Center for the Protection of Victims of Trafficking in Persons is still not adequately positioned and recognized in all systems equally (especially in the healthcare and education sectors). However, based on the statistics within the social welfare system, it has some level of recognition since the largest number of detected cases of human trafficking came from that system. Moreover, in 2022, the Ministry of the Interior had the fewest official reports of human trafficking since the system was established in the early 2000s, and there are numerous reasons for this. Although the Center for the Protection of Victims of Trafficking in Persons has the mandate to identify and coordinate support, it is involved to a large extent in victim support, which somewhat diverts it from its primary mandate of identification. Regarding its mandate of protection, through its Shelter for Victims of Trafficking in Persons, this support system still lacks stability and faces numerous operational issues, such as frequent closures of the emergency shelter operated by this Center. Originally opened in early 2019, it was closed in August 2020, in the midst of the COVID pandemic, due to the lack of a work license. Afterward, during 2021 and early 2022, this shelter did not operate. It was reopened in April 2022 but closed again in January 2023 due to construction work. On each occasion, the beneficiaries from this shelter were referred to safe accommodations run by “Atina” or other providers of such services in our country.

“Atina” points out other long-standing problems in this area. For example, Serbia has not yet developed standardized indicators for identifying trafficking victims from multiple vulnerable and marginalized groups, such as children or refugees and migrants. Accordingly, the number of victims from the refugee-migrant population remains very low and amounts to a statistical error, despite the large number of refugees and migrants residing in Serbia and the numerous risks of exploitation they face. In 2022, the number of identified victims from this population, relative to the total number of refugees and migrants in Serbia, was only 0.004%. There are no mechanisms in place to enable CZŽTLJ to conduct regular visits to all locations where these people reside and effectively identify trafficking victims among them.

Another issue raised by “Atina” is the continuous punishment of victims for actions committed during their exploitation, especially in cases of victims exploited for forced prostitution, most commonly prosecuted as misdemeanors. This is often done because, according to the existing procedure and practice in domestic judiciary, for filing a criminal complaint for procuring prostitution, it is necessary to have a misdemeanor record for the woman forced into prostitution. In Belgrade alone, during 2022, a total of three criminal complaints for human trafficking were filed in cases where the woman had previously been punished for engaging in prostitution. Even more concerning is the fact that prosecutors or judges classify human trafficking actions as procuring prostitution (Criminal Code, Article 184), even in cases where the victims have been formally identified as such. Additionally, victims also face challenges regarding their right to compensation. They are still most often directed to a civil lawsuit to claim compensation and to hire a lawyer, despite the possibility of resolving this issue within the criminal proceedings. This exposes victims to additional costs, retraumatization, and secondary victimization. According to the data available to “Atina,” only four compensations have been awarded to victims since the criminal offense of human trafficking was recognized in domestic legislation. Nevertheless, during 2022, the Higher Court in Šabac recorded one landmark first-instance decision settling a claim for damages in favor of the injured party within the criminal proceedings.

“Atina” concludes by expressing hope that the state will take all these issues seriously, along with the negative.

Disclaimer:  This text is written for informational purposes only as well as to give general information and understanding of the law, not to provide specific legal advice. For any additional information feel free to contact us.

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