The U.N. has stated that human trafficking is the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of people through force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them for profit.” Nicolas Bizel of the EU delegation to Serbia believes that human trafficking is “the most profitable criminal activity in the world.” In the 1980s, many considered Serbia more prosperous than its regional neighbors. However, the affluence of Serbia would not last. ASTRA – Anti-Trafficking Action suggests that due to the subsequent Yugoslav Wars, the arrival of different foreign military groups into the region allowed for human trafficking to thrive in Serbia. According to ATINA, Serbia today is considered a “source, transit and destination country for children, women and men trafficked for the purpose of sexual and labor exploitation.”
The Link Between Poverty and Human Trafficking
Serbia’s poverty rate was 24.3% in 2017. In comparison, Serbia’s neighbor Hungary had a poverty rate of 12.3% in 2019, significantly lower than that of Serbia. The GDP per capita in Serbia was $9,230 in 2021 and the unemployment rate was 10.1%. Transform Justice found a strong correlation between poverty and violent crime, whereas crime and corruption are more common in nations with higher poverty rates.
In 2021, there were a total of 46 officially identified victims of human trafficking, 39 of whom were Serbian citizens. However, it is increasingly difficult to estimate the true number of victims. ASTRA Anti-Trafficking Action understands that the number could be significantly higher. Many victims of human trafficking “remain invisible to the public eye.” The main reason for this seems to be that the exploited are working in closed-off environments such as abandoned factories or fenced-off estates.
Human trafficking in Serbia affects women and children significantly more than men. Women and children count for the majority of victims in Serbia. For women, it is most likely that traffickers exploit them for sex work throughout Europe. In fact, the thriving sex trade in Serbia has “overwhelmed the police” who have become unable to sustain the campaign against human trafficking and the sex trade. The Institute For War & Peace Reporting states that the campaign against the industry is sure to fail until many women stop viewing escort work as a way out of poverty.
According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report, Serbia was downgraded to a tier 2 rating. This means that Serbia failed to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking, however, it is “making significant efforts to do so.”
Serbia has set penalties for sex trafficking and labor trafficking to two to 12 years imprisonment for an adult victim and three to 12 years for a child victim, according to the Trafficking in Persons Report. This is in line with serious crimes such as rape.
The Serbian Police filed complaints on 63 suspects, an increase from 57 in 2020. The Public Prosecutor’s Office (PPO) investigated 35 suspects in comparison with 22 in 2020. However, the PPO failed to prosecute more defendants than in 2020. Alongside this, courts convicted 16 traffickers compared with 18 in 2020, according to the same report.
ASTRA – Anti-Trafficking Action is a non-governmental organization fighting to eradicate all forms of human trafficking. During its journey to combat human trafficking, the organization has assisted 507 victims and aims to help many more in Serbia.
The organization has employed several methods to tackle human trafficking. Primarily, an information and prevention campaign in Serbia. This includes encouraging people to pay attention, recognizing human trafficking in their environment and reporting the case. Alongside this, ASTRA educates individuals on early potential signs that they may be potential victims such as whether a potential job offer is real.
ASTRA – Anti-Trafficking Action has acknowledged that it is fighting an increasingly difficult battle due to the indifference of the Serbian institutions. As a result, it has a hotline in case any individual would like to report a matter: 011-785-0000.
The Serbian government and ASTRA – Anti-Trafficking Action’s desire to eradicate human trafficking in Serbia could be a positive step. With human trafficking largely affecting the most vulnerable, any positive action can help improve the future living situation for the most exposed in Serbia.
A healthy and growing economy can only help the poorest in Serbia, raising the standard of living and reducing poverty. Reducing poverty makes it harder for organized crime to partake in human trafficking. Reducing the risk for the most vulnerable.
– Josef Whitehead