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 18 October, the EU International Day against Trafficking, ten European civil society organizations received their Child10 Award at the Royal Castle in Stockholm, Sweden. Amongst these organizations is ASTRA, who, together with the other nine organisations were awarded for their work against human trafficking and other forms of commercial sexual exploitation of girls. The Award was presented by Her Majesty Queen Silvia.

The Global Report on Trafficking in persons from United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) shows that every third victim of human trafficking are children and that 9 out of 10 of the victims of human trafficking for sexual exploitation are girls and women. The selected Awarded Members are all organizations working to eradicate the commercial sexual exploitation of children and to support the victims all around Europe.

– This year’s Awarded Member Organizations are all dedicated organizations in the fight against trafficking and sexual exploitation of children in Europe. They all have impressive track records and are making a substantial impact on the ground. We are extremely proud to have them as a part of our network, says Jacob Flärdh, Secretary General Child10.

The ten organizations selected as Child10 Awarded Members for 2021 have, during the past year, been working together to identify common challenges and best practices as well as jointly advocating for effective and durable solutions. They have also received a grant of 10.000 Euros from Her Majesty Queen Silvia´s Foundation as well as an individual support program to scale the impact of their organizations in support of our program partner Applied Value.

Astra has been a driving force in protecting victims of human trafficking in Serbia for two decades and  has remained true to its cause despite a very challenging context. They are today one of the strongest, loudest and most credible voices against human trafficking and sexual exploitation in Serbia and the region. Astra’s strong commitment to be at the forefront, supporting victims and applying a holistic rights-based approach to human trafficking is impressive − it was said at the award ceremony.

One of the highlights during the seminar was a high-level panel discussion where particiapnts included Charlotte Petri Gornitzka, the Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF, Ilias Chatzis, the Chief of UNODC’s Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling Section, Diane Schmitt, the EU Anti-trafficking Coordinator and Erik Wottrich, the Head of Sustainability at Tele2.

– Organizations and governments all around Europe are testifying on the increase of human trafficking and other forms of commersial sexual exploitation during the pandemic. These kinds of meetings and discussions we have had today, aiming to increase the collaboration between actors in various countries are extremely important to stop this exploitation, says Jacob Flärdh. 

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On October 7, the European Court of Human Rights issued a long-awaited verdict in the case of Zoletic and Others v. Azerbaijan - 20116/12, in favour of 33 citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who were recruited in 2009 and taken to Azerbaijan where they were forced to work.

The case of labor exploitation of the citizens of Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia in Azerbaijan is, according to its size and the number of exploited persons, one of the largest, if not the largest registered labor exploitation case in this region. According to data which workers, whom we talked with, there were 920-1040 workers engaged in the construction sites ran by SerbAz Company in Azerbaijan.

The court ruled that The Respondent State failed to comply with its procedural obligation to institute and conduct an effective investigation of the applicants' claims concerning the alleged forced labour and human trafficking. The state of Azerbaijan was aware that workers are potential victims of human trafficking and forced labour. This information was made available to government officials and authorities based on several reports: (1) ASTRA report (a report based on the testimony of injured workers compiled by ASTRA in cooperation with partner organizations from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia), (2) the 2011 report of the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance ECRI, and (3) the report of the Council of Europe Group of Experts on Trafficking in Human Beings GRETA from 2014.

In addition, all injured workers were awarded compensation for non-pecuniary damage of 5,000 euros, which should be paid to them by the state of Azerbaijan.

We are very pleased that we have contributed to the fact that even this piece of justice that the victims of the SerBAz case deserve sees the light of day. You can find more about the verdict and the SerBaz case (with a few useful links) HERE!

In the past 20 years, our citizens have been exploited in Malta, Azerbaijan, Russia, Slovakia, Austria, Germany, Switzerland and others. At the same time, both domestic and foreign citizens were exploited in Serbia, but so far there has been no verdict in Serbia on this occasion.

Circumstances change, what you wanted and what motivates you to always do more than expected, sometimes get such a positive outcome. We expect that the EC ruling will have a direct, positive and encouraging effect on the protection of victims of human trafficking for the purpose of labor exploitation in our country as well.

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On March 4, 2021, the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Serbia accepted the constitutional complaint of ASTRA’s client, a victim of human trafficking who was a minor at the time of the crime, and ruled that her right to the prohibition of human trafficking, granted by Article 26, paragraph 2 of the Constitution of the Republic of Serbia, as well as the right to a trial within a reasonable time, granted by Article 32 of the Constitution of the Republic of Serbia, were violated.

This decision of the Constitutional Court is extremely important from the point of view of the entire legal system of the Republic of Serbia. By determining the violation of the constitutional prohibition of human trafficking, it has been indicated that trafficking in human beings cannot be reduced only to the criminal aspect but that it has its constitutional character with the main goal of protecting trafficking victims.

The Constitutional Court considered the prohibition of human trafficking in relation to three groups of positive obligations of the state: 1) the obligation to establish a legislative and administrative framework for the prevention and punishment of trafficking in human beings; 2) the obligation to protect victims of trafficking by providing measures of prevention, registration and assistance to such persons; 3) the obligation to conduct an investigation and court proceedings when there is a reasonable suspicion that a criminal offence of human trafficking has been committed.

The Constitutional Court, in its deliberation, started from the conclusion that human trafficking is a modern form of slavery, and as such is contrary to the principle of humanity, that it insults human dignity and the fundamental values on which a civilized democratic society is based.

In making its decision, the Constitutional Court considered the provisions of the Constitution and the regulations of the Republic of Serbia, international treaties, positions and case law of the European Court of Human Rights, as well as the opinions of international monitoring bodies, such as the Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA), which had been expressed in the first and second evaluation rounds of the implementation of the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings in relation to Serbia.

The Constitutional Court found that there was a violation of the positive obligation of the state in relation to the victim of trafficking in human beings by non-compliance with the preventive measures, protection and assistance to such persons granted by Article 26 para. 2 of the Constitution, as the court did not provide any measures of protection and assistance to the victim, who at the time of the crime was a child according to international treaties, or a juvenile according to the Criminal Code; that it did not adjust the conduct of the proceedings to the finding of the court expert, in which the state of traumatization of the victim had been established; that it did not respond to the request for granting the status of a particularly sensitive witness, as well as the request regarding the method of examining the injured person as a witness, which led to the secondary victimization of the injured.

The Constitutional Court found that the principle of opportunity, which deviates from the principle of legality of official prosecution, was based on the need to avoid lengthy, costly criminal proceedings and that it applied to less serious criminal offences in cases in which summary proceedings are conducted. Given the above, the Constitutional Court reiterates that the principle of opportunity, in this case, was applied after five years and six months of proceedings, which violated the essential ratio of this procedural mechanism.

Because the principle of opportunity was applied, based on a reclassification of the criminal offence from a serious offence of human trafficking into a minor offence of aiding and abetting the perpetrator, where the victim was a child, by misapplication of procedural rules, the Constitutional Court has concluded that, for the crime of human trafficking, proceedings should include thorough consideration of all the constituent elements and available evidence until a court decision is made.

The Constitutional Court considers that in this concrete case, the competent state bodies – the Higher Public Prosecutor’s Office in Belgrade and the Higher Court in Belgrade have not fulfilled their positive obligations in the procedural aspect in relation to the prohibition of all forms of trafficking granted by Article 26 para. 2 of the Constitution, i.e. obligations to conduct an effective and fair procedure, which would result in delivery of a relevant court decision.

The Constitutional Court pointed out that in the present case, no amount of money could compensate for the human rights violations suffered by the complainant, but it still determined the compensation for non-material damage in the total amount of EUR 5,800, at the expense of the Ministry of Justice.

The decision was published in the “Official Gazette of the Republic of Serbia”.

Bearing in mind that for many years ASTRA has been pointing out (in the legal analysis of court decisions for the crime of Human Trafficking under Article 388 of the CC of RS) to the omissions in the treatment of trafficking victims, as well as the trend of reclassification of this crime into minor offences, after which a plea agreement is concluded with the defendant − this decision of the Constitutional Court gives hope to trafficking victims in better treatment and protection of their rights.

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The main difference in this period, comparing to any other period of time since our organization started operating, is the virus that has spread all across the planet changing everyday lives of people everywhere. The COVID-19 virus took the whole planet by surprise. Global crisis emerged, countries imposed new laws and tried to balance between limiting people’s movement and trying to maintain a stable economy.

The last year has been challenging for all of us. Due to the Covid-19 virus pandemic and restrictions it caused, in already unequal conditions, many people experienced severe consequences and erosion of their basic rights and needs. Many of our citizens lost their jobs, with no perspective to find it soon.

The COVID-19 virus affected the lives of people, held captive in trafficking chains tremendously. Since the pandemic started to spread quickly, the government ordered for the majority of the resources to be directed to “fight” against the fast growing pandemic. This affected the lives of people in trafficking chains as well as the organizations trying to find them and help them. Traffickers are now able to work “in the shadows” since the majority of the resources are redirected to assist in the fight against the virus. The media space is also occupied with information about the Corona virus, which makes it almost impossible for organizations battling against human trafficking, or any other problem for that matter, to let their voices be heard.

According to statistics, 25,5% of the Serbian population is at the risk of poverty, while almost 1,37 million people live in a state of material deprivation. Almost 65% of Serbia’s population perceives themselves as poor. According to the European Quality of Life Survey, 69% of citizens of Serbia say they don’t know how they will survive until the end of the month with the income they have. The youth unemployment rate is at 29.7%.

Victims of trafficking in Serbia are mostly recruited through job offers made by people they know or by employment agencies. The presence of the Covid-19 pandemic has made human trafficking less visible, due to the fact that the activity of human traffickers takes place on the Internet and social networks. Victims are most often recruited through false job advertisement (for example on Facebook, Instagram, or even some false sites offering high payed jobs).

Since Serbian citizens are receiving the vaccine, individuals seem to have calmed down completely, and for that reason, on daily basis, we receive calls from our citizen who want to go abroad for work, because they cannot find a job here and/or the job is better paid abroad. They find jobs through Facebook, Instagram and on the Internet on individual sites.

A couple of days ago, we receive a call from a citizen who quit his job in Serbia so he can go aboard and work for a bigger salary. They told him he will get work contract there, and accommodation with food. He needed to pay them 50 euros for transportation. When he arrived, nothing was agreed. They told him that he would work illegally and that he would not get an employment contract. He changed two accommodations in one week. When he decided to return to Serbia on his own, he didn’t got the salary for that one week.

We receive calls from citizens every day for similar or same job offers. We provide them with preventive information, check the contracts they receive (if they get one), send letters to the Ministries, and contact the Embassies to get information on whether it is possible to enter a certain country at all, and we are doing our best every day to help our citizen.

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This year it will be twenty years of the adoption of Palermo Protocol and twenty years of ASTRA’s presence in the anti-trafficking field. Over the past two decades, ASTRA has supported over 540 victims of trafficking and received over 45,000 calls via the SOS hotline for supporting victims of trafficking.

The National Referral Mechanism for protection of victims of trafficking in human beings did not originate in Serbia, but Serbia is one of the first countries to embrace the idea of this mechanism. We felt it was important to consider how this mechanism works in practice today and how it can be improved for the benefit of the trafficked persons.  For this reason, ASTRA released a new publication “Assessment of the national referral mechanism for victims of trafficking in the Republic of Serbia”, available in English language: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1AUc5FOsGsObuEcOJjHl2ZUT1M5RKIonM/view .

Since the beginning of this year, ASTRA SOS hotline recorded an increased number of calls and in the previous period, from July until today, this trend is still present. For clients who call the ASTRA SOS Hotline, it is both a source of information and support for various challenges that have intensified and expanded due to the situation caused by the Covid-19 pandemics. However, even in this difficult time, there is a space for solidarity and good deeds. Clients with whom we have been in contact before, who have recovered from the trauma and experience of human trafficking, from different sides and from different meridians, called asking about the situation, sympathizing, looking for a way to help, in concrete means, sending things and necessities for children of ASTRA’s other clients. They, empowered and in full control over their lives, recognize it is a difficult moment for those who are now even more marginalized and unable to find a foothold in today’s world, for those that need additional encouragement and strength to keep standing straight and not to give up.

Very poor health conditions of victims, identified this year, required professional medical assistance and treatment. Men, victims of labor exploitation, due to isolation experienced, lack of documents and fear, have not been examined for years. The conditions they lived in (poor nutrition, housing conditions beneath any human dignity) combined with hard physical work and psychological conditions (threats, beating) contributed to severe health issues they are struggling with, physical but also those connected to mental health (PTSD, depression, anxiety and others). ASTRA Victim Support Unit helped them while being in contact with institutions in order to receive all necessary medical support. For one client, there was a need to organize a very complicated surgery, which, after an exhaustive analysis, review and preparation, was successfully performed.

Migrants from India, victims of labor exploitation to whom we provided assistance during this summer, recently informed us about activities of new Serbian agencies which recruits Indian workers for engagement in construction sites in Serbia and for other occupation. Feedback we receive from them, now that they are safe in their country, show us that the trust that is built in contact with them is really a great value and strong base for proactive approaches and preventive measures. On the other hand, community-driven groups and strong workers’ initiatives that share information and resources building social cohesion and healthy, protective core, even in such challenging time like this is.

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Project Leader:
Marija Andjelkovic
Belgrade, Serbia
$22,571 raised of $30,000 goal
 
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