Existing and new problems of victims of human trafficking after the coronavirus pandemic

You can read the original text on the website of the Golubović Simić Marinković law office:  https://gsm.legal/sr/blog/postojeci-i-novi-problemi-zrtava-trgovine-ljud...

This year, July 30, the World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, is marked for the first time after the end of the coronavirus pandemic was officially declared. It is followed by a general global crisis, political and economic instability, conflicts in many Asian and African countries, the war in Europe that Russia is having against Ukraine, and increasingly growing climate changes that cause constant migrations. This all represents fertile ground for human trafficking, while most of the problems previously faced by the victims are still present. Therefore, the fight against human trafficking, both at the global and local level, should gain even greater importance and remain a constant priority because precisely all the listed changes represent severe risks of increased human trafficking and various types of exploitation, especially of women and children.

The World Day against Trafficking in Human Beings is at the same time an occasion to meet with the permanent associates of our law office from the Association of Citizens for the Fight against Trafficking in Human Beings and All Forms of Gender-Based Violence "Atina," which has been active in this area for 20 years and which provides support to victims of this criminal act, and discuss the most critical issues and problems they face in their work.

In "Atina," they say that when it comes to the fight against human trafficking in Serbia in this period, especially striking is the weakening of the previously established formal framework and institutional capacities for the fight against human trafficking. According to Atina, at the end of 2022, the five-year Strategy for the fight against human trafficking expired. Before that, in the mid-2021 – and its implementation period, the Working Group that monitored its implementation was closed down. The Action Plan for the last two years that Strategy encompassed (2021-2022) was never formally adopted, even though significant efforts were made to draft and put that document into force. As in the first half of 2023, no steps were taken to create a new strategic document in this area, which means it will probably be at best prepared at the end of 2023. Association "Atina" adds that the inter-ministerial Council for the fight against human trafficking, which the Minister of the Interior chairs, has not met even once in the previous three years. At the same time, the newly established National Rapporteur for Human Trafficking (found at the end of 2021 within the office of the Protector of Citizens) did not conduct any activities or publish any report on his work in this field during this period. Finally, the National Coordinator for the fight against human trafficking, who also acted as the head of the Office for the Coordination of Activities in the Fight against Human Trafficking at the Ministry of the Interior, retired at the end of July 2022, and the Office got its new manager with a long delay, only in March 2023. This points to the conclusion that the fight against human trafficking has not found its place as one of the priorities in Serbian society.

Our interlocutors from Atina say that these institutional shortcomings have harmed the position and protection of victims and have influenced the deepening of other problems in this area. First of all, the number of identified victims of human trafficking annually is still low and does not show the actual situation from the ground. The number of identified victims is reduced to a few dozen persons (in 2022 - 62 persons). The Center for the Protection of Victims of Human Trafficking (CPTV), which works under the Ministry of Labor, Veterans, and Social Affairs, and is in charge of the identification, received many reports. However, other systems failed to follow up on these cases, open investigations, or initiate criminal proceedings. Identification mechanisms that were created in previous years, as well as indicators for identifying potential victims in various areas, and numerous trainings and raising the capacity of professionals in those areas, did not lead to a tangible increase in the number of reported cases of suspected human trafficking and the number of identified victims. The CPTV still needs to be adequately positioned and recognized equally in all systems (especially within health and education); hand still, the CPTV is recognized to some extent in the social protection system. As per the statistics, the most significant number of detected cases of human trafficking came precisely from this system. At the same time, in 2022, the Ministry of Internal Affairs had the fewest official reports on human trafficking since the system was established in the early 2000s, and there are a handful of reasons for that. Although the Center for the Protection of Victims of Human Trafficking has the mandate to identify and coordinate, in a large part of their work, they also participate in the protection of victims, which to a certain extent distracts them from their priority mandate, identification. In the part where the CPTV has a protection mandate through its Shelter for Victims of Trafficking in Human Beings, that support system still lacks stability. It faces numerous operational problems, such as frequent closures of this CPTV-run emergency shelter for victims. Namely, although this shelter was opened initially at the beginning of 2019, already in August 2020, in the middle of the covid-19 pandemic, it was closed due to the lack of a work license. After that, during 2021 and the beginning of 2022, this shelter did not work. It reopened in April 2022 but was closed again in January 2023 - due to construction works. Each time, the beneficiaries from this shelter were referred to safe accommodation run by “Atina” or to accommodation run by other providers of these services in the country.

"Atina" also points to other perennial problems in this area. For example, Serbia has not yet developed standardized indicators for identifying victims of human trafficking from multiple vulnerable and marginalized groups, such as children, refugees, and migrants. In this regard, the number of victims from the refugee-migrant population is still minimal – at the level of statistical error, despite the large number of refugees and migrants residing in Serbia and the numerous risks of exploitation to which they are exposed. In 2022, the number of identified victims from this population concerning the total number of refugees and migrants who stayed in Serbia was only 0.004%. At the same time, there is a lack of mechanisms that would allow CPTV to make regular visits to all places where migrants reside and to identify victims of human trafficking among them effectively.

Another problem that "Atina" draws attention to is the continuous punishment of victims due to acts committed during exploitation, especially for victims who were exploited for forced prostitution. They are usually punished as a misdemeanor. This is often done because of the existing procedure and practice in the domestic judiciary, as to submit a criminal complaint for mediation in prostitution, it is necessary to base it on a misdemeanor record for the woman who is forced to engage in prostitution. Only in the territory of Belgrade during 2022, 3 criminal charges for human trafficking were filed for cases where the woman was previously punished as a misdemeanor for engaging in prostitution. Even more worrying is the practice of prosecutors or judges to classify acts of human trafficking as mediation in prostitution (Criminal Code, Article 184), even in cases where victims of human trafficking have been formally identified.

On the other hand, victims also face challenges regarding their right to compensation. Namely, victims are still most often referred to civil proceedings to obtain compensation for damages, where they have to hire a lawyer again, even though there is a possibility this issue to be resolved within the criminal proceedings. In this way, victims are exposed to additional costs, re-traumatization, and secondary victimization. According to the data available to "Atina," so far, only four compensations have been paid to the victims since the crime of human trafficking was recognized by domestic legislation. And yet, in 2022, one precedent first-instance decision was recorded in the High Court in Šabac, which resolved a compensation claim in favor of the injured party within the framework of the criminal proceedings.

Citizens' Association "Atina" indicates that due to all these problems, the fight against human trafficking and supporting victims in 2022 and 2023 were not a priority of the Government of the Republic of Serbia. In this context, they refer to the evaluations from the latest report of the US State Department in this area - the TIP report. Namely, that report states that during 2022, the Government of Serbia did not show more significant efforts compared to previous years in this area, nor did it consider the impact of the covid-19 pandemic on its capacity to carry out the fight against human trafficking. The report also says that the government has investigated and prosecuted fewer defendants and convicted fewer traffickers than in previous years and has reduced resources for the work of the CPTV, despite the increased need for staff and resources necessary to identify victims and coordination of support consistently. According to the report, the government also needed to clarify the roles and responsibilities of the relevant actors, which are nominally prescribed by the Standard Operating Procedures in this area, also adopted in 2019.

Further, it was also stated that the CPTV did not allow potential victims who did not receive official victim status to appeal the decision, thereby limiting their access to support and that the authorities continued to punish victims of human trafficking for acts committed during exploitation. This report also mentioned the case of 500 Vietnamese workers in the Chinese factory Linglong near Zrenjanin, who were suspected of being forced into labor, which the state did not adequately investigate. Because of all this, Serbia remained on the unenviable "Tier 2 Watch list" maintained by the State Department for the second year. From "Atina," they add that the GRETA Report for Serbia, published by the Council of Europe in June 2023, mentions various problems in this area too, so, among other things, GRETA reminds that in Serbia, there are still a small number of cases in which victims of human trafficking awarded compensation in court proceedings, that there are not enough specialized services for victims, etc.

The Association "Atina" concludes that they hope that the state will take seriously all these problems and the negative evaluations it receives in relevant international reports and that in the coming period, it will take concrete steps towards solving them. In this sense, they hope that the subsequent observation of the World Day against Human Trafficking in Serbia will bring more positive news and better protection for victims of human trafficking.