Despair as a compass

Despair as a compass

Photograph: Predrag Mitic

"We know from the experience of our organization that smuggling often ends up with violence, extortion, and often debt bondage and exploitation, and in there we also see a link with human trafficking. Despite the fact that the victim gave consent to the smuggler to take her across the border, she hasn’t consented to violence and exploitation This is where we start thinking about when the volunteering in entire process stops”.

Author: Momir Turudic

When she was asked when NGO “Atina” started working on the issue of combating human trafficking within migrant and refugee population, Jelena Hrnjak, Program Manager in the organization, has stated that human trafficking “began to deal with them”. “It was happening and it was spreading its roots and tentacles all around us, and we, as the group of women activists gathered in the organization ‘Atina’, didn’t want to let it continue to go unhindered while the perpetrators get away with it, and the victims remain unprotected. In the early 2000s we have encouraged state authorities in Serbia to set initial foundation for resisting all that. And that lasts until today, and we can discuss the adequacy of the quality of that state response”, adds Hrnjak.

"VREME": What are the first detected cases of human trafficking in the refugee population that you remember?

JELENA HRNJAK: The great migrant crisis that happened in the summer of 2015 caught everyone by surprise; we often hear those sentences about surprise, like the ones about the December snow. However, the fact is that there had been reports on this issue, long before the crisis peak, that had indicated that refugee and migrant movements across Serbia are on the rise, with tens of thousands border crossings annually, and that migrants came from all over Africa and Asia.

Long before that, in September 2011, two Afghan children were found at the border crossing with Hungary, with forged documents, escorted by a person falsely impersonated their parent. As it was evident that the person did not have the best intentions with those children, she was arrested and the children were sent to safe accommodation, to one of the Shelters for Children. After only three months, the boy was reunited with his family in Germany, while the girl stayed here for 18 months, learned the Serbian language and began to adopt all the norms of our culture.

It was interesting when a year after her departure, two Serbian journalists featured a story in a German city about an Afghani family that counts twelve members, where, to their surprise, they have run into a girl who speaks Serbian and sends her greetings to Maja with short hair, and Boba, a friend of hers (the women who have helped her).

After that case, we started to alarm the system intensively, introduced the concept of children on the move with our partner organization Save the Children, and started reforming the system tailored to these children.

"VREME": Is the issue of human trafficking in a way has been suppressed by other issues that go along with the refugee crisis, such as human trafficking, conflict and accidents with tragic outcome, the impact refugee crisis has on the countries on the Balkan route and the European Union?

JELENA HRNJAK: All this is causally connected: if there was no corruption, there would be no smuggling; if states and smugglers did not share the same interest, migrants would not be smuggled through countries; if great and powerful states wanted to sincerely help people in other countries, they would not create crises and wars for their own interests. Certainly, there are some things that we as the civilization cannot affect, but is that so? Biggest share of climate change has occurred due to social constructs, they have been imposed on us and that we have been forced to live with. The issue of human trafficking has been suppressed, and it is the last one that surfaces for resolution, due to the fact that not even basic issues can be resolved – the issue of man's dignity, labor rights, everything that takes to be a man, or a woman.

In order for someone to be recognized as a victim of trafficking, it is necessary to move the approach to protection and support of refugee women from humanitarian to integrative, and to put refugee women at the center of the support system. Furthermore, it is necessary to hear more the voice of women themselves, to ask them more questions when creating programs and support services that are intended for them. Another recommendation addresses the challenges women face in accessing services and rights. To that end, the challenges of the women should be kept in mind when it comes to the amendments to the laws and the practice itself, not only when a challenge is identified by the system or a certain institution, or when that is needed for the purpose of harmonization with the EU or internal legislature.

The bottom line is, if the refugee women are offered more, they will be more eager to cooperate; the more informed they are about their rights, the easier it will be for the system to recognize them as the victims of human trafficking. If you conduct a survey in asylum centers and you ask employees whether the migrants and refugees know their rights, they will say they do, however, if you ask them if they know that they as potential victims of human trafficking have the right to the residence permit or the right to reflection, not many of them will know the answer to that basic question, and especially how one can exercise that right.

"VREME": What categories of refugees and migrants have the biggest exposure to the risk of human trafficking?

JELENA HRNJAK: That is constantly changing. Personally, I do not think, although many accuse the organization "Atina" of that, that women and children are the most vulnerable category per se. I am of the opinion that different life circumstances force people into different situations in which, of course, they would rather not be, but they have no choice. Women, certainly, not all women, but the ones on the bottom of the priority ladder in any society - the women who haven’t had a chance for education opportunities, women whose mothers and grandmothers didn’t have that right. Those transgenerational norms are inherited, deeply entrenched and difficult to be noticed by us, here in Serbia.

We have come to the situation that in the 21st century, after so many years of struggle, women's human rights are still not guaranteed, and that we must conquer them all over again. That is the key, there is no progress in women’s human rights if there is no investment in the women, and special attention should be paid to those who are left on the margins of society, in this case those we are talking about today, Congolese women. , Afghanistan… women who have suffered violence.

There is no progress if systemic solutions are still lacking, and that the support programs that exist in Serbia are still not available to refugee women, especially at the local level, and that they are not responsive to their needs. The least progress has been made in the application of the principle of participation, which means that women still do not make decisions in the processes in which they need to do so. This can’t and shouldn’t be provided for the sake of form, just like some public debates on the drafts of the laws in Serbia are conducted; what essential is essential making room for these women.

"VREME": What forms of human trafficking have been encountered in refugeeand migrant population?

JELENA HRNJAK: There is a thin line between human trafficking and other forms of violence.  What we see in the field are real life stories lived in apprehension and fear of sexual violence, force into committing criminal acts and “domestic” violence. I’ve put family under quotation marks, because in many cases we have been encountering in practice we don’t know whether it is a family, or a life in the Dante’s seventh circle of inferno.  

This comment doesn’t pertain only to migrant and refugee families.  There are cases of forced smuggling in Serbia (what can fall under human trafficking), sexual abuse of girls, labour exploitation. We have also noted the cases of revenge marriages, that would later down the road lead girls into further circle of hell. Sadly, the biggest number of cases that our organization has been reporting haven’t ended up before the court, however, there have been some segments of the system that have done their job properly, from prosecutorial investigations to the identification of certain migrants as the victims of human trafficking.

"VREME": To what extent are local trafficking networks involved in similar trafficking related to the refugee population, and to what extent are international networks involved?

JELENA HRNJAK: We can confirm with certainty that smuggling networks are well connected and intertwined. We know from the experience of our organization that smuggling often ends up with violence, extortion, and often debt bondage and exploitation, and in there we also see a link with human trafficking. Despite the fact that the victim gave consent to the smuggler to take her across the border, she hasn’t consented to violence and exploitation This is where we start thinking about when the volunteering in entire process stops When there are testimonies of smuggled persons about conditioning, violence, extortion, our state is obliged to treat them as victims and punish the perpetrators. Just like in human trafficking, in vast number of cases of smuggling there is a victim, and the person is in need of support, not the state.  

Let me go back to the question, yes, we do think they are related, however, the states do not recognize that as human trafficking, so that they do not have to assume responsibility for the consequences that people experience due to smuggling (i.e. other criminal act). I would like to be more precise, smuggling in vast number of cases can occur without severe consequences, however, we can’t categorize majority of cases as smuggling and allow for the state to be the only entity that has been damaged.  Moreover, it is difficult to break migrants’ wall of silence, as they are well aware of the fact that when they are heading to “game” (colloquial expression used by the migrants for the attempt of border crossing), they are breaking the law; even when they are experiencing some criminal act, they refuse to report it due to the fear for themselves and for their closest ones, concerned they would be caught and processed by the police.

Besides, there are many points in the vicinity of the border crossings where so-called push back occurs, when police of some countries use physical force harshly and thus threaten their physical integrity and dignity, with the purpose of returning the migrants to the country they came from. There are numerous such examples, both international and domestic organizations and institutions have noted them. In those “interspaces”, according to the testimony of numerous migrant women, various forms of violence occur and nobody is held accountable for it.  

"VREME": How is the cooperation of your organization with state entities in that respect, and what is it like with other organizations that deal with refugee issues?

JELENA HRNJAK: Of course, there is cooperation, especially with individuals from institutions that care, who do their job professionally and who are constantly trying to preserve the integrity of these institutions. But that is Sisyphus' job, in a society in which the responsibility of the institution means nothing, in which the state believes that it deserves trust by calling itself that. And it is Sisyphus' job, I often mention, that the role of civil society organizations is to defend the state from the regime. The authorities are changing, but the state we all make must survive for the benefit of all those who are on its territory. Unfortunately, playing with responsibility is a huge pain. People often say “we will seek justice in Strasbourg”, however, even when citizens win the case before the court in a proceeding, the compensation is reimbursed from the citizens’ budget, while state officials who failed to perform in accordance with the law get away with it, unpunished, and not assuming any responsibility for that.

"VREME": What steps are taken when the issue of human trafficking is noticed withing the refugee population, what is the procedure like?

JELENA HRNJAK: Registered number of victims is far from reality, it happens due to wide range of problems that the system has and is failing to overcome.  These are not excuses, but are the reality people in the field have been facing – lack of sufficient number of interpreters, lack of services that would be offered to the migrants, shortage of capacities for evidence collection, shortage of communication among different services for support and assistance… Due to that, for years, Serbia has identified only single digit number of the victims of human trafficking in migrant population, and that is something that has to be modified, but, many things have to happen in that respect.

I remember the time when I started dealing with this topic, about fifteen years ago, there was so much insistence that early marriages are usually a right that should not be interfered with. Today, in 2021, the position that child marriages are violence is still not unanimous, but the amendments to the Criminal Code are finally entering the procedure. Because child marriages are a crime and should be recognized as trafficking in human beings by the Family Law, which will abolish the possibility of marriage before the age of 18, as well as the Law on Prevention of Domestic Violence, so that juvenile marriages and extramarital affairs are recognized as Domestic violence. So, it is necessary to deeply, honestly, persistently change the norms, and the way we see other people. Changing narrative when we speak about Roma population, not approaching the population as the segregated one, not to insist on empathy, but on “the principle of equal approach” to all citizens. That is fundamental.

"VREME": Is there any legality depending on the state of origin, i.e. are the refugees from certain countries more exposed to certain types of human trafficking risks (prostitution, forced labour, child trafficking…)?

JELENA HRNJAK: I will quote our colleague Hajar Mohamadi, human rights’ advocate, whose journey from Afghanistan to Sweden, through Serbia, lasted two years (that trip by plane lasts a few hours). She spoke a few days ago about the laws of her country and commented on how women live in Afghanistan today. She said that women in Afghanistan have a life left equal to death, that is, to stay at home and be sex slaves. This is, in short, the answer to the question of the laws that govern certain countries in relation to women.

There is no established monitoring system and early identification system in Serbia for persons at high risk of exploitation. It would imply a deep understanding of different communities in the countries of origin, knowledge of organized criminal groups, but also a commitment to changing economic systems that feed on human misery. Everything speaks in favor of the fact that no one is in favor of changing the system, because a dignified life and work make the product more expensive, and no one likes such mathematics

"VREME": Are the refugees aware of the risk of human trafficking, according to your opinion? Do  they know, for instance, if they oblige to “complete” their journey from the country of origin to the EU, once they arrive in desired destination, they very often place themselves into a situation to become some kind of modern slaves?

JELENA HRNJAK: Of course they are aware, but they have no alternative. Regardless of the risks, you want to get out of the hell you're in. Despair is your compass, and no matter what those risks bring, you will bow your head, you will tolerate abuse, because you believe that there is a place for everyone in this world. That is why I sign that all those women and girls whom "Atina" supports are the strongest women in the world!  

"VREME": What are, according to your opinion, the most efficient ways of combating human trafficking in refugee population?

JELENA HRNJAK : Free media, free elections, accountable institutions, independent judiciary and participation of the refugees and migrants, and in particular women and girls, in creating policies that affect them.

"VREME": To what extent has the issue of human trafficking, formerly also present in the Balkan countries, increased since the Balkan route has been activated?

JELENA HRNJAK: Immensely. It will continue growing.  The Balkan route is not the problem, the issue of migration is the issue of the future; it is conditioned by the issue of "Kosovo's independence", economic opportunities… Just look into the number of foreign citizens who come to Serbia for work, officially thousands of them get work permits on the monthly basis, while the citizens of Serbia have been leaving the country, 60,000 of them annually. Migrations have only begun.

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