Promising practices: Atina’s response to the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic

Promising practices: Atina’s response to the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic

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The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that life of a woman, victim of violence, is in many ways reminiscent of a permanent state of emergency. Many of the women with such experience, particularly women victims of human trafficking, were socially isolated even before the crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Unfortunately, all the worries other citizens had in COVID-19, which referred to whether they would have enough food, work, freedom, came true for victims of human trafficking.

Atina, as an organization that is combating human trafficking and all forms of gender-based violence, did not allow for issues of girls and women with the experience of trafficking to remain in the shadow of the pandemic, but responded promptly to the crisis caused by the coronavirus, adapting along the way, in order to meet the most important needs of the victims.

Atina’s experience from the past period shows that the coronavirus pandemic has exposed many other problems in our society, and taught us that institutional response alone in such situations is not enough, and that without civil society organizations, especially women’s organizations, it is not possible to provide an adequate response to the arising issues. State institutions in the field of human trafficking victims’ protection managed to respond to only 30% of the needs of human trafficking victims in the pandemic, while the remaining 70%, or the majority, were provided by civil society organizations. It is understandable that the system's response to the pandemic was predominantly health one, however, civil society organizations, on the other hand, believe that the opportunity was missed for the system to take care of, and eliminate the consequences, for the poorest and most vulnerable categories of the society, including victims of violence. The organizations proposed that (in addition to political and medical), a third crisis headquarters be formed under the jurisdiction of the state, which would take care of all those citizens who live on the edge of poverty, on the margins of society, and who are in social need. Unfortunately, it has not happened, and they continued to live next to us, not with us, even in the pandemic.

The problems for victims of violence will only begin after the pandemic calms

Despite the fact that state statistics show the number of reports of violence against women during the pandemic has decreased, this does not mean that there was less violence. In Atina’s experience the problems will only begin once the pandemic calms. Atina made an assessment of the situation and needs a few months after the outbreak of the pandemic, by interviewing 36 women victims of human trafficking, and created some of the parameters necessary to adequately assist them. “We cannot wait for the victim to ask for help in order to react, in order to even admit that the problem exists. Unfortunately, a dominant paradigm when it comes to victims of all forms of violence is the one shaping the question whether victims receive assistance and support if they ask for them, instead of asking whether assistance is offered to victims clearly and sufficiently, and whether support reaches them at all.”

Women who started earning money independently, who found jobs before the pandemic, and relied on their own capacities, lost that possibility with this crisis. The vast majority lost their jobs and there are no visible prospects of finding new ones after the crisis, Jelena Hrnjak, programme manager of Atina said. “Many of them were working off the books or for daily wages, and even the assistance of the state did not reach them in terms of the minimum salary, or a part of it,” she added. “In the first weeks of the pandemic, 31 percent of women with the experience of violence informed us that they had lost their jobs; by the second week, it was 55 percent. In week four, 92 percent of these women were left without any income.”

Experience of the organization Atina is that the problems will only begin after the pandemic calms. It seems certain that additional efforts will be needed to ensure the visibility of all victims of trafficking, given how much effort is already being made to achieve their visibility both in the labor market and in access to other rights that belong to them but are often not available. After each crisis period, some people need more time to stand on their own two feet, and victims of trafficking are often in a position to need more time and support to rely on their own capacities. However, as they have survived a lot, they are also strong in ways that a person is not even aware of. Atina’s role is to show them that strength, and to constantly remind them of it, but to be there for them as well.

If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is that human rights and women's rights must be conquered again and again, and that nothing is for granted. Hrnjak underlines that violence is not subsiding, and that there is “a sea of women in Serbia who suffer violence” which has not stopped in COVID-19. “This pandemic has highlighted the position of women victims of violence in our country, society, and exposed them to additional risks and challenges, leaving many consequences for their social inclusion,” she explained. Atina, however, had to find a way to help these women. “Atina also runs a licensed service of assisted housing, along with a day center intended for women and girls, victims of human trafficking, so the services had to be reorganized and maintained during the pandemic. In addition, Atina provides support and accommodation for migrant women, victims of gender-based violence, and that too has been continued with. We have learned that online services are necessary but not enough, and that nothing can compensate for direct human contact,” added Jelena Hrnjak.

Challenges in providing services to the victims during the pandemic

When we speak of the challenges in providing services to this vulnerable group during the pandemic, the issue of accommodating women victims in shelters is the greatest one, as there were no self-isolation rooms, and women could not be accommodated in safe houses without a confirmation that they tested negative. On the other hand, the state-run shelter for human trafficking victims, which has even before the pandemic faced numerous obstacles in work and had limited functional capacities, came to an even more unenviable position during COVID-19. In the first months of the pandemic, Atina had to use its reserve fund to help women in this shelter, which was left without food. In August 2020, all women and children from this emergency shelter were referred to Atina's safe accommodation program - assisted housing[1], and the state-run shelter was completely closed, which further increased the pressure on the organization's work, but also limited the possibility for all other victims of trafficking to use the specialized emergency accommodation service.

The state, therefore, not only did not increase efforts to respond to the needs of trafficking victims during the pandemic, but also limited or terminated existing services, shifting responsibility largely to civil society organizations. Such situation is not sustainable in the long run, and the state should both financially and in any other way help organizations that provide specialized services. “The state of Serbia must begin to take responsibility and act in accordance to its obligations toward all these victims. This should also be done financially toward support programs and licensed service providers from the ranks of civil society organizations that do not stop their activities even in times of the greatest crises, and effectively adapt programs to the needs of women and girls. Without that, we as a society cannot make a change,” explained Hrnjak.

The very measures introduced against the spread of coronavirus have had a negative impact on victims of trafficking and created new challenges in working with them. The situation of isolation has placed trafficking victims in an even more difficult position, as their freedom is again restricted. Due to such circumstances, the pandemic caused a regression of the victims to the position of dependence on others as well as on the support programs. Particular concern of Atina’s team was the risk of re-trafficking in individual victims, taking into account all available information from the field.

The crisis caused by the pandemic delayed, and in some cases prevented, the process of recovery for victims of violence and human trafficking. “The crisis has shown that violence does not stop, it simply changes form”, Hrnjak said speaking of the challenges organizations faced during the work with beneficiaries in the state of emergency in Serbia, issues, and the ways to overcome  them.

She adds that women, especially in the current circumstances, are reluctant to report violence for a number of reasons. It was particularly challenging to work with women who were in the process of exiting violent and exploitative relationships; for many, plans to turn to someone for help or report have been delayed, while some have said they will only take that step once the crisis is over. “This process is completely understandable, we had that experience in work during the refugee crisis where we met women who would say they were suffering violence and were planning to ask for divorce or help, but only when they arrived in the destination country. In fact, this experience has confirmed what we knew before, that victims must feel safe in order for the recovery to begin at all. The state of complete uncertainty and constant standby has postponed the recovery process for many of them,” emphasized Jelena Hrnjak.

Seven times more calls and full safe houses

Atina was receiving seven times more calls through its hotline than before the pandemic. Hundreds of women from the whole territory of Serbia were calling to get information and seek support mostly for medical reasons, urgent food or hygiene necessities. Most of them were in need of information about the trials in detention cases

““In three safe houses we run, 80% of capacities were occupied; we were doing regular checks and supplied provisions to the women and children accommodated there. We have set up online counseling with psychologists available to girls and women who were in the state-run shelter and other social care institutions, as well as to those who are residing in their homes and other places,”, Hrnjak said speaking of the first months of the pandemic. “For all other women who were not in Atina’s accommodation, case managers were concerned about how long the state of emergency would last and how these new conditions would affect the quality of service provided, how it would affect the trust gained in the relationship, and also how to ensure that victims remain visible, if it is known they have been barely visible even before the pandemic.” 

Women's social entrepreneurship is the right recipe for overcoming the consequences of this and all other crises as well

Social enterprise “Bagel Bejgl” had to change its business plan during the pandemic and begin delivery service in order to lessen the economic consequences of the crisis. Speaking of its survival during the pandemic, Hrnjak says that it was “adapting along the way”. 

“We are aware that difficult times will come after the crisis, probably more difficult than ever. They will be challenging in a different way, currently unknown to us. That uncertainty is what scares us all. On the other hand, we in Serbia constantly live through beginnings, and this will be a similar story. De integro. Starting from scratch all over again,” Jelena Hrnjak said speaking of the way in which coronavirus pandemic will affect human trafficking survivors and their economic independence. “I strongly believe that continuation of investing in women and women's social entrepreneurship is the right recipe for overcoming the consequences of this and all other crises as well”, she added and continued, ” I think we should make the best out of this crisis, which I consider a crisis of humanity. In addition to disinfecting our hands and space, I believe this is also the time to disinfect our thoughts and emotions. I know that women will find a way to fight through, just like they always have before - heroically and with a smile on their face”.

New risks and an increase of online sexual exploitation

Organization Atina points out that the existing legal and institutional mechanisms were not adequately respected before or during the pandemic, and that the proclaimed policy of prevention and suppression of human trafficking was not fulfilled in a way that would give effective results.

This is indicated by the processing of human trafficking cases, and bad practice related to the requalification of the criminal offense, most often when it comes to sexual exploitation. Experience shows that in almost nine out of ten cases, requalification occurs, and traffickers are punished more leniently, which sends the wrong and affirmative message to the perpetrators.

In addition to the above, the situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has left an additional negative impact on the position of victims of human trafficking, and numerous consequences for their lives. In these circumstances, the already inefficient process of victim identification has become even more difficult, as has the availability of support systems, both health and social.

This situation, as we have seen, also reflects on the economic stability and independence of trafficking victims. Most beneficiaries of Atina’s support program have lost their jobs, which again places them in a situation of risk, slows down their recovery, and further complicates the reintegration process.

There has been more and more talk in public about the cases of online violence cases of online violence as well as online sexual exploitation, which especially affects children and is another important segment in understanding this complex phenomenon.

Having in mind these new risks and the evident increase of online violence and exploitation, Jelena Hrnjak concludes, “As a system and as a society, we must show our intention to learn how to take care of each other and not only those who are similar to us and around us, but also about persons who are in different life positions, who are at risk of violence and exploitation, and who ultimately suffer from it. This is especially important today when this violence becomes less perceptible, when it is transferred to the online space, where the possibility to act and help the victims is significantly narrowed. We must keep all this in mind when we create a response, and we must, therefore, create one that is not selective, and includes all members of our society. Finally, we must look at the policies we create and take responsibility both individually and collectively, as humanity. Given that we are responsible for this pandemic, as we caused it with our irresponsible attitude towards nature, with neglect for its preservation, we are responsible for finding a way out of this crisis.”


[1] In 2018, Atina licensed this long-term service within which women with the experience of human trafficking work on their recovery and economic independence. On an annual basis, the service is used by a third of identified victims of human trafficking in Serbia.




This article was produced within the project “Support to civil society organisations’ initiatives to assist and protect victims of trafficking in human beings during the COVID-19 pandemic” NGO Atina is carrying out with the financial assistance of the Council of Europe. The views expressed herein can in no way be taken to reflect the official opinion of the Council of Europe.