Support victims of human trafficking in Serbia

by ASTRA - Anti trafficking action (ASTRA - Akcija protiv trgovine ljudima)
Support victims of human trafficking in Serbia
Support victims of human trafficking in Serbia
Support victims of human trafficking in Serbia
Support victims of human trafficking in Serbia
Support victims of human trafficking in Serbia
Support victims of human trafficking in Serbia
Support victims of human trafficking in Serbia
Support victims of human trafficking in Serbia
Support victims of human trafficking in Serbia
Support victims of human trafficking in Serbia
Support victims of human trafficking in Serbia
Support victims of human trafficking in Serbia
Support victims of human trafficking in Serbia
Support victims of human trafficking in Serbia
Support victims of human trafficking in Serbia
Support victims of human trafficking in Serbia
Support victims of human trafficking in Serbia
Support victims of human trafficking in Serbia
Support victims of human trafficking in Serbia
Support victims of human trafficking in Serbia

On July 30, the International Day Against Human Trafficking, NGO ASTRA published the following press release. At the same time, the announcement is an appeal to employees of the judiciary and other institutions who come into contact with persons who have survived human trafficking, to apply an approach oriented towards the rights of victims and existing legal solutions – aiming to protect the rights of a from the most vulnerable groups in our society, former victims of human trafficking.

For the past 12 years, ASTRA has been analyzing court verdicts for the criminal offense of human trafficking and related crimes, such as mediation in prostitution and child trafficking for adoption. The main goal of the analysis is an objective assessment of the degree of achievement and respect for the protection and rights of victims in court proceedings, but also the improvement of the overall systemic response in the fight against human trafficking and support for victims of human trafficking. To our great regret, after more than a decade of analysis, we have no choice but to state that some of the most frequent failures in the work of the courts and the achievement of justice for victims of human trafficking have, through constant repetition, turned into chronic/rooted "pains."

To clarify what this is about and how the analysis of dry legal facts can lead to astonishment, deepened distrust in the system, and even fear for loved ones and the environment, we will present some of the MAIN OBSERVATIONS about established harmful court practices in this area.

  • The fines are in the legal minimum. Most sentences for the crime of human trafficking are 3 to 5 years. Imprisonment sentences of more than 5 years are decreasing (38% in 2018, 25% in 2019, 17% in 2020, 11% in 2021 and 20% in 2022). In 2022, sentences in the amount of 3-5 years were not pronounced, and in 80% of cases, the sentence was pronounced for less than 3 years!
  • Criminal acts are initially more often classified as mediation in the practice of prostitution from Article 184 of the Criminal Code and less often as the criminal offense of human trafficking from Article 388 of the CC (the percentage of defendants for the offense from Article 184 of the CC - was 13% in 2018, 59% in 2019, 64% in 2020, 70% in 2021 and 69% in 2022; the percentage of defendants for the offense from Article 388 CC amounted to 80% in 2018, 29% in 2019, 27% in 2020, 30% in 2021 and 31% in 2022). This automatically means lower sentences for an increasing number of offenders.
  • An increase in the share of sexual exploitation in human trafficking is present for years (60% in 2018, 82% in 2019, 100% in 2020, 92% in 2021, and 100% in 2022, with the fact that in 2022 in 25% of cases it is a combination of sexual and associated labor exploitation). Here, another question justifiably arises - what about other forms of human trafficking, and especially what about labor exploitation, which is a global trend and a form of trade that occurs more and more often in both the official and the gray economy, and it refers to women, men, and children.
  • Most of the victims are women and girls (2018−86%, 2019−97%, 2020−100%, 2021−100%, 2022 −100%).
  • Verdicts made by accepting a plea deal prevail (40% in 2018, 50% in 2019, 59% in 2020 and 2021 and 56% in 2022). Judgments passed in this way, as well as the classification of the act as mediation in prostitution, lead to the fact that potential victims do not receive the status of injured persons, which makes them "invisible participants" because they are denied the right to participate in the proceedings and cannot participate in any way to influence the course and content of the agreement, including the exercise of their rights.
  • The status of a particularly sensitive witness is still very rarely granted, even when the injured parties are/are not children - only 1 injured person received the status of a particularly sensitive witness in 2022 in court proceedings related to k.d. human trafficking, while in other cases there is no data.
  • 50% of victims in cases of human trafficking in 2022 are children, that is, girls.

These are just some of the observations about judicial practice in the last few years, ending in 2022. There are no significant advances forward, despite numerous gatherings of experts, education, analyses and reports... Recommendations for improving judicial practice are almost repeated year after year. On the other hand, rare conscientious individuals proposed legal changes, and some judgments inspire hope that things can improve.

However, while the victims are waiting for the "better," we are left with open questions: What message are we sending as a society if we prescribe minimum sentences for one of the most severe crimes, the perpetrators of which are ready to completely devastate one or more people for the sake of profit? If institutions ignore calls to do their job in cases of mass human trafficking for the purpose of labor exploitation? If we don't grant the status of especially sensitive witness, and 50% of the victims are our children? If we complicate the process of awarding compensation to victims? if we trust the perpetrator more than the victim?

And finally, what does all this say about us, society, and the state?

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Bearing in mind that one of the dominant trends in human trafficking, both globally and in our country, is the increase in the number of cases of human trafficking for the purpose of labor exploitation, ASTRA has developed a mobile application dedicated to providing correct and timely information to persons at risk Safe at Work. The aim is that potential victims are informed and protected in time before entering into a risky employment relationship, or if they were already in a situation of exploitation, that they would know who and where to seek help.

In order to understand that correct and timely information is crucial in such cases and something that saves health, time, dignity, and even life - it is enough to recall the recent significant cases of human trafficking for labor exploitation that have marked the past few years, such as are: the case of a large number of workers from India exploited on construction sites throughout Serbia (2020), the case of workers from Vietnam engaged in the construction of the Linglong factory (2021/2022), the recently disclosed case of labor exploitation in the household of a woman from the Philippines, exploited workers of domestic and foreign origin on agricultural farms in Vojvodina, and all individual cases of our fellow citizens who work in Serbia or abroad under terrifying conditions.

The app contains all relevant information for a person looking for a job in the country or abroad, such as general information and indicators of human trafficking for the purpose of labor exploitation, preventive information, such as advice, most common misconceptions, a legal framework regulating the residence and work status in our country or the destination country, if we are going to work abroad, information on what is a valid employment contract and what it should contain, as well as how to obtain health insurance in the destination country. In addition, there are also useful contacts, i.e., contacts of diplomatic residences and organizations that people can turn to for help if they are already in a situation of exploitation in the destination country. So far, nine countries have been represented in this way, mainly the top destinations for Serbian citizens in search of work: Austria, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Germany, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Switzerland and Slovenia. The list of destination countries will be further expanded in the coming period.

Considering that in recent years Serbia has been hit by economic migrations, as well as those caused by the wars, and the general economic crisis, the influx of foreign workers to Serbia is evident. That is why the application offers all this information and vice versa, i.e., to workers who come to Serbia to find a job. They can get information about the procedures for obtaining temporary residence, a work and residence permit, health insurance in Serbia... Also App offers contacts of Serbian diplomatic residences in their origin countries, organizations they can turn to for help, and emergency service telephone numbers. 

At the begining of the yaer, ASTRA launched a campaign on social networks and in Belgrade's public transport to make the application available to the broadest possible circle of people and potential persons at risk of labor exploitation. 

The application is bilingual (Serbian and English) and adapted for Android and iPhone users. It can be downloaded from this link

Public transportation campaign
Public transportation campaign
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The first information about the exploitation of Serbian workers in Germany came in October 2022. Associates who contacted us for assistance in returning one group of people to Serbia share this information with us.

In a short period, from the same organization, we were informed about other workers who also returned to Serbia. All cases were connected and involved victims who the same company exploited, but in different cities throughout Germany. One common factor among all of them is their desperation to find a job to provide for their families, but they were deceived and exploited. In the end, they returned home without any earnings.

ASTRA Victim support team spoke and met with survivors and organized different types of assistance, depending on their needs and their life circumstances.

Recruitment method:

Five out of nine victims found a job ad through a social network and called the listed number. Four victims received a job offer from an acquaintance from their place of living. In both cases, the negotiations for the job were conducted by a man who represented himself as a company driver. The job offer included a one-way ticket to Germany, accommodation and food, as well as six days of work per week and eight to ten hours of work per day. The company promised a work permit to all workers upon their arrival in Germany.

Exploitation period:

Upon arrival in Germany, the company took the workers' passports, allegedly for "a work permit registration."

The workers were sent to collective accommodation, far from the facilities where they worked, and which they described as "dirty, smelly, with bugs and rats, one toilet for 40 workers with no hot water most of the time."

The workday began at 5 am with a 45-minute drive to the facility. The duration of worktime was at least ten hours, but usually twelve or fourteen hours. The workers were paid significantly less than promised, as the accommodation cost was taken from their salary every month and other expenses were deducted. They were left with no money to send to their families.

Victims reported witnessing or personally experiencing insults, blackmail and psychological harassment by company managers, making them feel intimidated at all times. Some workers were exploited for only a few days, while others endured for several months before the police entered the facilities, arrested the suspects, and connected the workers with NGOs for assistance.

Services provided by ASTRA:

ASTRA established contact with nine victims and provided support and assistance, including aid packages with food, hygienic kits and other necessities. Some victims required medical and psychological assistance due to the poor living conditions and trauma they experienced. We scheduled appointments with doctors, organized transportation and provided adequate medication.

In the previous period, we scheduled appointments and escorted the victims to the German Embassy in Serbia.

According to data from NGO organizations in Germany, more than 80 victims of labor exploitation have been identified. The majority of the victims are from Serbia. The final number of victims will be confirmed after completing a thorough investigation. Through media reports, we found that several suspects have been arrested, and seven individuals are under investigation.

The victims are still at high risk due to their poor living conditions and financial situation. Together, we still try to find ways to improve the quality of life for the survivors. To prevent fraud and re-trafficking, we searched and checked new job offers they saw. We also introduced them to the mobile application Safe at Work, which ASTRA recently developed to inform persons at risk on time and protect them from labor exploitation.

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Public space installation - Labyrinth of THB
Public space installation - Labyrinth of THB

With the HOW CLOSE ARE YOU? campaign, which will last from September until the end of 2022, we will try to raise awareness that anyone can be a victim of human trafficking and that human trafficking for the purpose of labor exploitation takes place nearby.

We want to encourage people to pay attention, recognize trafficking in their environment and report the case. But at the same time, if they are a potential victim, we want to educate them to recognize the early signs that may indicate that they have received a false job offer or are at risk so that they seek advice or help based on that. We especially appeal to employees in health care, social care, prosecutor's office, courts, police, and competent institutions (whose role is essential in recognizing and protecting victims of human trafficking) to perform their duties in an informed and responsible manner.

We will started the information and prevention campaign of human trafficking, i.e., one of its increasingly present forms - human trafficking for labor exploitation, with a public event that will take place on Republic Square, on Wednesday, September 21, at 12 noon.

On this occasion, an installation - Labyrinth of human trafficking was installed on the Square. With this labyrinth, we wanted to bring the experience of victims of human trafficking for the purpose of labor exploitation closer to citizens. By moving through the labyrinth, citizens were able to learn more about the ways of entering the chain of human trafficking and the types of prevention and assistance available to them. The labyrinth was set until September 23 at 5 p.m., and members of our team informed passers-by during those three days about prevention methods, the rights of victims of labor exploitation, and free-of-charge ASTRA support services.

Most victims of human trafficking exploited on the territory of Serbia are citizens of our country. Out of a total of 46 officially identified victims of human trafficking in Serbia in 2021, 39 of them are Serbian citizens. These are official data, but many victims of human trafficking who never reach state authorities or non-governmental organizations remain invisible and far from the public eye, because exploitation occurs in closed spaces, private households, fields, estates, or fenced and closed factories and construction sites. The number of undetected and unrecognized cases of human trafficking by system institutions, according to experts' estimates, can be up to 10 times higher than the number of registered victims. According to the latest report of the International Labor Organization (ILO), in 2021, the number of victims of human trafficking raised to 10 more million (a total of 50 million people), while around 28 million people worldwide are in a situation of forced labor. In this sense, Serbia is no exception. Moreover, bearing in mind the strategic-geographical position of Serbia, economic and war migration, the covid pandemic, and its consequences on the economy, the number of (potential) domestic and foreign trafficking victims is increasing. Numerous cases indicate this from the practice of ASTRA, some of which never reach the public, and some are discussed but in a limited form.

Although the crisis, society, and the unresponsiveness of the institutions are pushing us to accept a situation in which an increasing number of people in our environment will agree to difficult working conditions or find themselves in a situation of forced labor that they cannot leave − with the campaign HOW CLOSE ARE YOU? We want to remind our citizens that we are dealing with human lives and destinies that can be permanently damaged or destroyed by such treatment. And that's why: Report, it is a matter of life! ASTRA SOS hotline 011 785 0000.

The campaign will be based on three storylines from the practice of ASTRA that best illustrate the contemporary forms of human trafficking for the purpose of labor exploitation that we have encountered in recent years. It will also cover the causes and consequences of this criminal act and how actors in combating human trafficking, competent institutions, and society reacted to them. Our goal, as ever before, is to improve the position of victims and potential victims of human trafficking in our society.

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More than 13,000 citizens of Ukraine have passed through Serbia since the beginning of the war on Ukraine's territory, while more than 6,000 are still in Serbia. Most of them are located in reception centers. The reception camp in Bujanovac near Vranje is mainly specialized for migrants from Ukraine. According to our information, most of the people in the camp are children and women. Also, some children travel unaccompanied. Many refugees in Serbia are here independently, i.e., they found temporary accommodation on their own.

The influx of refugees has mobilized not only humanitarians but also many traffickers and smugglers, who are trying to make money by exploiting this particularly vulnerable group. Immediately after the beginning of the war and migrations from many border crossings, there were reports that human traffickers were noticed in the border area. Women and children are especially at risk. That is why ASTRA has developed information flyers in Ukrainian intended for safe migration and protection from human trafficking and disappearances of children with contacts for case reporting, help, and support!

To distribute information leaflets to those who need them most, we contacted the Embassy of Ukraine in Belgrade and activist organizations and groups working with refugees. We forwarded part of the material with the help of women's and human rights activists at the border crossings between Ukraine and Poland, bearing in mind that the influx of refugees from Ukraine to Poland is the largest. With the help of organizations from the south of Serbia, we distributed the rest to the reception centers.

We learned from the staff of the Ukrainian Embassy that most of the migrants from Ukraine who are currently in Serbia are in transit and intend to continue to one of the countries of Western Europe or back to Ukraine, to cities where there are no war conflicts at the moment.

For now, there are no identified victims of human trafficking originating from Ukraine on the territory of Serbia. However, we will find out the real consequences of this war conflict in this sense only much later.

LINK PDF protection against human trafficking:

LINK PDF reporting missing children:

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Project Leader:
Marija Andjelkovic
Belgrade , Serbia
$26,947 raised of $30,000 goal
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