Astra’s 20-year combat against human trafficking in Serbia

Interview

Geschatte leestijd: 11 minuten

A small NGO is at the center of the fight against human trafficking in Serbia. Because no one else is.

Marija Andjelković is the director of ASTRA – Anti-Trafficking Action and one of the founders. ASTRA is a local anti-trafficking NGO in Serbia and was founded in 2000 by ten young activists with different backgrounds, most of them were active in the movements against the Milosevic era during the 1990s. 

  • This article is based on an interview by Jennifer Janssen from the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women with Marija Andjelković, President of ASTRA – Anti-Trafficking Action, which was published on the GAATW website on the 5th of January this year. Also parts of an earlier article written by Andjelković for the website of Peščanik in 2021 were included.

More than twenty years ago, ASTRA organised a large-scale media campaign on trafficking called Open Your Eyes and opened a telephone hotline to inform people about safe migration including human-trafficking risks. In 2002 they received the first call from a victim of trafficking and since there was no help for them at all in Serbia at that time, ASTRA started the Direct Victim Assistance Programme, which is operational and successful in reaching trafficked persons and providing assistance, till today. The info line became an SOS hotline for victims of trafficking and their families. 

Human trafficking is a high-profit and low-risk form of crime.

ASTRA provides direct assistance to victims, Andjelković explains. “Medical, legal, psychological assistance, alternative accommodation if needed, and support during the reintegration process. Being in direct contact with the victims, with people who’ve survived trafficking, and being on a local level in the field we have gained a lot of knowledge.”

ASTRA started a large education programme for professionals, such as teachers and professors. ASTRA trains police, social welfare centres, journalists, psychotherapists, doctors, lawyers, prosecutors, judges, labour inspectors, trade unions, all who are involved in anti-trafficking work and crime fighting. 

The U.N. has stated that human trafficking is the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of people through force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them for profit.” Human trafficking is one of the most profitable criminal activities.

In the 1980s, Serbia was considered by many people a more prosperous country than neighbours. But after a prosperous period in the 1980’s, subsequent to the Yugoslav Wars, the arrival of different foreign military groups into the region allowed for human trafficking to thrive in Serbia, according to Andjelković. Serbia today is considered a source, transit and destination country for children, women and men trafficked for the purpose of sexual and labour exploitation. Serbia’s poverty rate for 2019 was 10.10%. The GDP per capita in Serbia was US$9,230 in 2021 and the unemployment rate 10.1%.

There is a strong correlation between poverty and violent crime, whereas crime and corruption are more common in nations with higher poverty rates.

Why is human trafficking such a complex crime problem world-wide? Why do we need so many stakeholders in the fight to combat human trafficking? 

Marija Andjelković: “Human trafficking is a high-profit and low-risk form of crime that rivals arms and narcotics trafficking, in terms of income. Estimates are that the income from human trafficking is up to 60 billion dollars per year – we know that only about 25% of the real number of victims is officially identified. 

“After twenty years of work, we also see that the routes, trends and modus operandi of traders are changing. We know that human traffickers are well organised, informed and connected to perpetrators of other forms of crime, war criminals and terrorists. We know that victims are trafficked across borders, but also within the borders of Serbia, as well as that our citizens make up almost 90% of all identified victims in Serbia. We know that there are more and more visible cases of labor exploitation of men, our and foreign citizens, in the construction industry, transport and agriculture. There is a constant: the majority of victims are women and girls (85%) and they are trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation. More than half of all identified victims are children. In 83% of the cases, the perpetrators are men.”

What are the main challenges in Serbia?

“The treatment from the institutions and non-implementation of the laws that are in place. We also have a huge issue with identification of victims – we have indicators, but they’re not adopted officially and still not public. In practice, victims are taken to the police and identified or not identified by the centre for victims and there is no opportunity for them to appeal the decision. Another challenge is the lack of services, as most services are provided by just two or three NGOs. For a long time, we didn’t have a shelter for trafficked persons – just one small NGO shelter with several beds. And reintegration programmes hardly exist, so trafficked persons are on their own. Safety issues and risk assessment are at a very low level and victims may be threatened and intimidated even inside the courtroom. 

“One of the weakest things is the judiciary. ASTRA has been monitoring court cases on trafficking for the past 11 years. And every year we have fewer and fewer convictions for trafficking and more for similar criminal acts like facilitation of prostitution, which is a misdemeanor. The prosecution re-qualifies the crime to facilitation of prostitution and enters a plea agreement with the trafficker so that he or she receives a very small penalty – a fine or a suspended sentence – and the victim is not even informed about it and can’t demand compensation.

Marija Andjelkovic

“The compensation issue is definitely one of the things that is lacking in Serbia, which is why we’ve been lobbying for so long for a compensation fund for victims. The criminal court judge can decide to award compensation during the criminal procedure, but they don’t do it; they rather advise the trafficked persons to start a civil procedure and ask for compensation in that civil procedure, which is a long and expensive procedure, not at all helpful for the trafficked person plus she has to face her trafficker again in the new court procedure. Out of the 570 victims that we’ve supported, only three have been awarded compensation and person till date managed to actually receive it, with our legal support.

“The average sentence for trafficking in Serbia is three to five years. But three to five years of jail time is very low considering that the maximum sentence is twelve years. Who are we protecting here? Also, the protection of the victims during the court procedure is very weak. Some of them do get the special status of a vulnerable witness, but in practice they’re still not protected fully – they can’t testify through the video link, like in other countries, or even in a separate room, and so on. Victims literally face their traffickers in the courtroom, and they often do so without any legal support, so they are threatened and exploited before the trial and even during the trial they are put in this vulnerable and re-traumatising situation. This is something that we need to work more on.”

We don’t want to deal with the complexity, or we try to blame the victim of being naive, call her a prostitute.

“Very early we realised that we are dealing with organised crime, so we started to build our own network to approach the problem from all angles needed. We started an anti-trafficking network of 10 NGOs dealing with different issues: specialised in violence against women, women’s rights, children rights, human rights in general, and so on. We educate them on trafficking and how to work with victims, but they mostly choose to work on prevention, which is very important at the local level, because a lot of traffickers are from smaller towns. So if they reach a victim, they refer her or him to ASTRA. 

“We are also part of the international anti-trafficking networks La Strada International NGO Platform and GAATW. One of ASTRA’s regular activities is monitoring and reporting on the trafficking situation in Serbia to U.N. committees, the U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons (TIP) reports, and EU progress reports, etc – we use all these mechanisms to advocate for victims’ rights. Sometimes we conduct research, especially if we notice new trends in the field that need to be understood better.

“And there is a taboo on trafficking. We don’t want to deal with its complexity, or we try to blame the victim of being naive, call her a prostitute. Find reasons why she could have been exploited, freeing ourselves as a society of the responsibility of looking at perpetrators, not blaming victims. But it still happens. A few years ago a frightened victim rushed to the local police station to report that her trafficker threatened her and then intimidated her by throwing stones at the apartment window where she was with her small baby child, trying to intimidate her in her private time, convincing her not to ever try to run away. And then she is told by the policeman on duty there is no such thing as trafficking in Serbia.

“‘Come on you, you raped girl, you’re next’. With those words, in the health center, in front of a corridor full of patients, a nurse addressed a victim of human trafficking who ASTRA brought for a gynecological examination. “Can you imagine how our client must have felt, everyone could hear the nurse shouting these words to her. It shows lack of respect, lack of awareness of the problem and perhaps a lack of interest. By us being there with her, we try to protect and support her at times like this and remember once more that there is more work to do.

“From 2022 we have been part of a national referral mechanism in Serbia – we contributed to development of the national anti-trafficking strategy, Action Plans, Standard Operating Procedures, and so on. And we have signed a Memorandum of Understanding with all relevant institutions in Serbia. ASTRA is known as a very critical organisation, and we don’t negotiate the minimum standards that we want to see for clients. But of course, we cooperate with institutions, especially in building these mechanisms, so for a very long time we’ve been advocating, for example, for introducing the Fund for Victims of Violent Criminal Acts Compensation Fund. ASTRA has been lobbying for the establishment of an independent Rapporteur against human trafficking for eight years and after a long advocacy campaign, a Rapporteur was finally introduced last year and we’re very proud of that.”

Who is at risk of becoming trafficked? Are there trends and do they change in time?

“In 2000, most of our clients were not Serbian citizens but coming from other countries – Moldova, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine – passing through Serbia and going to Western Europe, mostly Italy, Spain, Germany, Sweden. We also had clients who ended up in the Middle East. Both then and now, most are women and girls. Now we see more internal trafficking – selling women and girls from one town in Serbia to another. We also notice changes in traffickers’ modus operandi: before, we used to see more bruises, cigarette burns, broken teeth, and so on. We still see that, but somehow traffickers have become more sophisticated because of the new technologies and because they use more psychological control, they blackmail victims. So it’s much harder to prove some of these things when we go with our clients to court, for example; it’s much harder to explain to professionals why she couldn’t escape, why she doesn’t have bruises, why she was not beaten, and so on.

“We also have more migrant workers now coming to Serbia. And because the government is not putting minimum standards for migrant workers, we also have a lot of cases of labour exploitation. The first one happened in 2006, it was a Serbian engineer who was trafficked to Malta and exploited on a construction site there. Since then, we’ve had several massive cases of labour exploitation; the most recent one was the so-called LingLong case, with exploitation of Vietnamese workers brought by a Chinese company to build a factory that would sell tyres to companies in Western Europe.”

How do you incorporate the voices and experiences of trafficked persons in your work?

“The well being of our clients always comes first and whether they are directly or indirectly involved, we always take their opinions into consideration. We are happy to see that nowadays more and more survivors are feeling the strength to be in the public spotlight, to contribute to policies, and to implement anti-trafficking activities. It’s really important to listen to our clients not only at the beginning, but throughout the whole process of recovery and reintegration.”

We don’t care much about numbers or statistics because we know that statistics can be tricky.

What would you say is unique about ASTRA?

“Our approach is perhaps not unique, as I know that some of our colleagues worldwide also use this approach, but we focus on an individual approach for each client. As an organisation we do not care much about numbers or statistics because we know that statistics can be tricky. For example, I remember when we had an increased number of children victims of trafficking. The year before, there was a lot of training for police and social welfare centres to work with children victims of trafficking. So that had an impact – that finally our government and institutions admitted that trafficking of children happens in Serbia as well – and that could be one of the reasons why we have this increased number of trafficked children being reported in that year. 

“This is why it is important to have this individual approach to each person, to follow their needs and not to just implement a project as ‘copy paste’. I remember when we suggested a project to one of our donors, he mentioned how this idea did not work in Cambodia and therefore wasn’t going to work in Serbia. I really think that we should look into the individual and local surroundings, as well as each situation and trends, to work with the survivors with the understanding that each of them is unique. 

“This is something that we always do: we put above all else the trafficked persons we work with, because our activities are created and formed depending on what we see in the field. This is the principle that we have followed all these 22 years. Our successes are related to the success of our clients. When we see that someone has succeeded, not only to get out of the trafficking situation and be psychologically stable, but also to continue with their life, independent of their family, NGOs, the government, or institutions, but be on their own and to call us after several years and say that she or he is doing fine. This is something really important to ASTRA.

“Our failures are related to not being able to help trafficked persons in our country. Sometimes we don’t succeed in finding a missing person or getting in touch with them and we have to give up or pause the search, that feels really bad.”

Foto bron: ASTRA

Foto bron: ASTRA

Can you name some successes you recently had in court in fighting trafficking?

“The first is the judgement of the European Court of Human Rights for the Azerbaijan case versus the Serbian case. It’s a case that we used to work a lot on, supporting people who ended up as slaves on construction sites in Azerbaijan.

“The second is a decision of the Constitutional Court of Serbia, it’s the first one on trafficking. And it’s related to our client, a child victim of trafficking, who was sexually exploited and who showed up 27 times in the courtroom while her traffickers showed up only 10 times. She was strong enough to come every time, ready to testify what happened to her. And after seven years of trial, the prosecutor decided to do a re-qualification of the criminal act of facilitation of prostitution, and to do a plea bargain with the trafficker. 

“So we decided to go to the Constitutional Court, they made this unique decision saying that this child was first trafficked by a trafficker and then by the system. These institutions have re-qualification and plea bargains to make the process shorter and cheaper, but in this concrete case, the court couldn’t understand how it’s cheaper and shorter after seven years of molesting this child through the system. For the first time, the Constitutional Court awarded a huge compensation for this child, now a young woman. The Constitutional Court concluded by saying there is no money that could possibly change how her life was destroyed by the acts of institutions, but at least this is some compensation for her moral damages. The moment when we told her about the court’s decision she told us ‘Are you aware of how important this is for all other girls and children who are going through what I have gone through!’ This gives us a reason to continue doing this job.”

If the system in Serbia still doesn’t work, and human trafficking keeps transforming and can not be wiped out, has it been worth all these years? 

“It’s worth it, because ‘the raped woman’ I mentioned called us from Germany recently to say that she is fine, that she has found a job and that she just wants to say thank you for everything and wish us a happy New Year.”

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