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

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: .

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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The previous period of operation of the ASTRA SOS Hotline coincided with the period of the global health crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemics, and it was characterized by an increase in the number of calls by 71%.

Clients, as well as the whole society, were under great stress during the pandemic, and went through different phases of adaptation to the situation, different reactions and emotions, from surprise and disbelief, to anger, fear, concern and depression.

In the beginning, a high degree of anxiety and frustration prevailed about how to adapt and how to find or regain sense of some balance and stability. Due to different obligations and rolls, but also restrictions due to the emergency situation, they felt discouraged, under great pressure to organize their family life in a different way, while being functional and efficient at work. In the whole situation, some faced job loss, others faced job reorganization and a very precarious situation as to whether they might lose their jobs, and thus their livelihoods. With limited resources, combined with the feeling they are losing the ground under they feet, clients called to share with us their worries and fears.

It suddenly seemed as if the space devoted to work towards their recovery and reintegration had shrunk and become concentrated around the most basic things and issues:

  • how to protect one’s children and oneself, how to one’s protect parents,
  • how to monitor whether children are mastering their classes that have moved to the online sphere and whether they regularly work and send homework to teachers, in particular since one cannot expect an immediate feedback from them
  • who will look after the children, if the children go neither to kindergarten nor school, and the grandparents are not allowed to leave their homes,
  • how to go to the doctor for a necessary examination and organize a trip to another city,
  • what will happen to the trial that is scheduled and whether the defendants will be released from custody,
  • whether they will receive a package of food, clothes or hygiene products, if the courier services also face difficulties in functioning, etc.

Whatever they planned, clients felt limited to take any concrete steps.

Informing beneficiaries in a crisis situation, encouraging them, reacting to their immediate needs and working directly with them has once again proven to be an essential way to provide support to our clients as well as some sort of relief in a rather worrying situation. The increased number of field actions and provision of direct assistance to victims of trafficking reflects a greater need of clients for support during the pandemic, as well as the collapse of the system, which could not cope immediately with a problem of such a magnitude.

Due to the uncertainty of the current situation, for some clients, the way to overcome anxiety and discomfort was to find someone they could talk to, to seek the help they need, to recognize and accept their own emotions, as well as to assess the situation and find the appropriate way to cope with it.

In these strange and challenging times, practically nothing would be possible without cooperation, so, despite the mentioned blockade of the system, there were still some bright examples of people who were always available and extremely sensitive. Even then, our clients and us could rely on associates from different professions (doctors, lawyers, prosecutors, among others) as well as activists from other CSOs. It should be noted that doctors, regardless of the problem they faced most directly, because they were on the front line in the fight against the virus, in every situation when they had direct contact with survivors of human trafficking, had professional and victims centered approach.

In May, it seemed to everyone that the epidemic was behind us, that it ended as well as it could, given the circumstances, and that all the work, patience and following of the safety measures paid off. However, the events of these last days and weeks confute us, because the state of emergency has been re-introduced due to the spread of Covid-19. And in the new circumstances, support to the survivors and fight against human trafficking are continuing.

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Anybody can be a victim of human trafficking. Anyone can be a trafficker. In our practice we have seen all kinds of organized crime. We’ve witnessed a whole family being involved in recruitment and exploitation, or to a trafficker being a well-educated man, with two university degrees (one of which was from the faculty of orthodox theology), or being a manager in some bar.

One thing that most of the cases we work on have in common is the fact that 70% of victims had experienced domestic or partnership violence in the past.

Our client Ana was from poor family in which she faced domestic violence from parents, who then sold her to a man living abroad named Ivan. He was brutally abusing her, and his wife Djina. Primarily Ana was sexually exploited, but often she was forced to beg and do criminal activities, while Djina was forced to do housekeeping without possibility to choose when, what, for how long and how much she will do that day. Both Ana and Djina had only one meal per day, and Ivan was forcing them to have sexual relations with him regularly. One day Ana took the risk and managed to escape by pure luck. She grabbed her documents while Ivan was sleeping, took some money, hitchhiked to the nearest bus station and bought one-way ticket. She was barely 18.

She found the number of ASTRA SOS hotline on the Internet. She was too scared to press charges against the trafficker or to do anything that might expose her and let Ivan or her family know where she was. ASTRA helped her to obtain personal documents, referred her to the local social welfare center, and arranged for her medical exams. It took time and dedicated work, but in a few years she became a strong young woman ready for a next chapter in her life. ASTRA consultants maintained regular contact with her, and on one occasion she shared with us that she found a boyfriend and that they were planning to go to Germany for work. We gave her all the relevant, preventive, information and wished her all the luck.

Ana and her husband had a child. They worked in Germany and built a house in Serbia. One day, 4 years later, she called us and asked for help as well as to be taken a safe house because, her partner beat her up. Nina, her little girl, was in the other room.

In communication with the police, partner organizations, and local welfare center we managed to help her. Later on, when we met with her to make a safety plan, she told us that it was not the first time her partner was abusing her. She told us that she had to put up with that because he was providing for her, he was building a house for her and because he was a man, and she was a woman.

In that moment we realized just how much her belief system was shaped by the patriarchy as well as by all the experiences of violence, firstly in her primary family, later with Ivan, and finally with her second partner.
We had to add to our recovery plan one more thing, maybe the most important one - she needed to know how strong and capable she was, that she is an example to her daughter, and to all the women out there, who are suffering in situations of domestic and partner violence, but manage to survive, to call for help, to find a way out.

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Based on ASTRA’s experience and the calls we receive via our SOS Hotline, one of the most common methods of recruitment of trafficking victims is through promise of a job. Through job offers, found either on Internet or by word of mouth, alleged employers advertise their need for workers of various profiles, offer uncommonly high wages, visas and work permits (if needed), free accommodation and oftentimes no particular qualifications are asked for. These offers do not necessarily need to lead to a trafficking situation, but instead to unregulated work „in the gray zone“, jobs with very poor working conditions (in extreme cases labor exploitation), or simply financial fraud. According to ASTRA’s experience in the field, as well as the results of our studies show, young people are proven to be at major risk of falling victim to trafficking.

In October, ASTRA received a call from a young woman who found a job offer on the Internet for a waitress in Austria at the sort of a bar/casino. She contacted the man who announced the offer over a social platform and, via a video call, he showed her the bar, the clientele, as well as the waitress whom she will substitute. Based on all information she provided us with, and ASTRA’s contacts with partner organizations in the Austrian city of destination, members of ASTRA Victim Support Unit checked the legitimacy of the offer, employer and destination. We learned that in that Austrian city there is no bar under such name as advertised in the offer, instead, at that address, there is a private house with extensive surveillance system. Since the woman still insisted on accepting the offer, we forwarded her all the contact numbers of local organizations she could contact should she be in any danger or a problem. ASTRA’s contact with this client lasted for several days – as soon as new information regarding the offer would appear, she would try to find a justification for it and still insisted on accepting the job. After having the last talk with the potential employer, some „red flags“ arose. Namely, he mentioned that once she arrives it would be better not to leave the workplace, so „not to attract the attention“ (as she would be working illegally, without visa and other necessary documents). Also, the clients in the bar are known to be „quite pushy and flirty“ so she should know how to refuse them. Finally, the woman was supposed to share the room with her employer and besides being a waitress, she was expected to cook for him.

Once the client was at the disposal of all the necessary information, and once she was supported in her efforts to make an independent, well-informed decision, she decided to decline such a risky offer. In ASTRA, we firmly believe that access to information, patience and support empower people, most of the times it is the only thing that takes for people to take their life in their own hands.

Within SOS Hotline and Direct Victim Assistance Program, ASTRA provides preventive information on the problem of human trafficking, safe migrations, provides victims with various forms of help and support, but also informs citizens about possibilities and conditions for safe and legal work in the country/abroad and checks legitimacy of the employer, destination and the offer.

In 2018, 21% of all calls ASTRA received were of preventive nature.

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Reintegration is one of the most important aspects of assistance to trafficked persons. After they leave the situation of exploitation and go through recovery process, which is hard, complex and might last for years, survivors of human trafficking, just like anyone else, want to be recognized for their personal and professional contributions, to be valuable and respected members of their community. A key part of recovery and reintegration process is economic empowerment – supporting survivors at realizing their economic potential, by finding a job or continuing education.

Unfortunately, most stories of survivors of human trafficking do not end in such a way that would bring them a sense of justice, and the cases of our beneficiaries who attain a job as a symbol of emancipation are extremely rare.

Recently, a woman whom ASTRA is assisting for four years now called to tell us that she finally found a job that matches her education, she was hired as a nurse in the local hospital! These were extraordinary news, and we knew how much hard work, together with the appropriate support system, was needed to make her goal a reality. This client contacted ASTRA in 2015, after escaping from Bosnia where she was sexually exploited. Being a single mom, in a very difficult financial situation, and experiencing many health problems, she was trying to find an employment for years, but she was either rejected due to her age and lack of experience or accepted temporary jobs in order to earn just enough money to live on. Over the years, ASTRA has provided her with continuous medical and psychological care, and recovery process was long and difficult, with many ups and downs. A year after contacting us, she expressed the wish to become a medical technician and ASTRA team has provided her with financial and other forms of support necessary to continue education. She successfully graduated from secondary medical school, passed the state exam and obtained a license, while at the same time being the sole provider for her family. 

For her, as for many other people with trafficking experience, finding an employment or some other form of generating income, was the primary focus, both immediately after exiting a trafficking situation and as part of long-term reintegration process. It not only means survival and financial stability, but also reduces their vulnerability and the chance to repeat the cycle of exploitation. For her, the prospect of doing a job she loves, helping other people, is what gave her the motivation to deal with everyday problems, as well as to bravely face consequences that severe traumatic experience of trafficking had left on her.

ASTRA strongly believes that the most concrete way for survivors to reclaim their dignity and to thrive is to become financially independent. If you share our opinion, please donate and support us in our efforts to empower them, so they could, by relying on their own capacities and strenght, find an attainable path to safe employment.

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Project Leader:
Marija Andjelkovic
Belgrade, Serbia
$22,611 raised of $30,000 goal
351 donations
$7,389 to go
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