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Balkans: Task Force Says Human Trafficking Fastest-Growing Regional Crime

A special task force of the Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe has set out to revise the way that authorities respond to human trafficking in the Balkans. Leaders of the task force say official statistics reflect only a small portion of the problem. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill reports that the Balkans are particularly vulnerable to a pervasive crime that targets the most helpless -- women and children living in poverty.

Prague, 16 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A special task force has begun a campaign to fight trafficking in human beings in the Balkans, calling the trade the region's fastest-growing crime.

The Task Force on Trafficking in Women and Children of the Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe says it has begun setting up a regional information center in Belgrade. The task force's chair, Helga Konrad, says the center should open in about a month and will gather data on human trafficking, support the development of shelters for victims, and assist in their repatriation. Greece and Switzerland are providing initial financing.

Konrad says the task force wants to counter a situation in which well-meaning people or officials establish what they call "shelters," which amount to no more than places to store people until they can be sent home. Konrad says a proper shelter must offer adequate quarters, security, medical care, legal and psychological counseling, and repatriation assistance.

Official data gathered for the task force by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) show nearly 1,300 victims of human trafficking from the Balkan states in the year 2000. But the IOM says the data are scattered, confused, and incomplete, and that the actual number is a multiple of this figure.

Konrad says, "Most of the authorities -- the governments, the police, the international organizations -- collect some data but so far have also very often mixed up illegal migration, [people] smuggling, and trafficking."

The IOM's coordinator for Central Europe, Irena Vojackova-Sollorano, says the IOM study shows that a special set of circumstances makes the Balkan states particularly vulnerable to trafficking in humans -- most often poor women and children.

"The problem in the Balkans is that it is in a post-conflict situation. And in most post-conflict situations all over the world we have trafficking in human beings involved."

She continues: "The other part is that the Balkans are geographically located so near to rich countries and to very poor countries. And that makes it [human trafficking] very lucrative because the distances are very short from rich to poor."

Trafficking in human beings involves the exploitation of men, women, and children for forced or underpaid labor. But the main drive of the activity is in the exploitation of women and children in a multimillion-dollar sex trade -- forced prostitution.

Task force chair Konrad says the definition of human trafficking does not depend on what motivated victims to leave their countries -- illegal immigration, the promise of jobs, or even voluntary prostitution. Instead, the definition rests on what happens to the victims afterwards.

"But for us, the difference and what makes it trafficking -- and what we have the intention to combat and to fight -- is the fact that they [the victims] are put into slavery-like situations and deprived of their freedom."

The task force and the IOM say that their fight against human trafficking requires police and other government authorities to increase their awareness and their ability and will to interdict the commerce.

The IOM study and the forthcoming Belgrade clearing house are to improve data gathering and build awareness. The task force is offering education and training to police, prosecutors, and other authorities to increase the ability to counter this type of crime.

Finding the will to halt human trafficking is both more difficult and more delicate. Organized crime amasses immense sums of money in this commerce and has the means and intent to use it for self-protection. As Vojackova puts it: "Corruption is everywhere part of organized crime. You cannot have organized crime operating if there is not corruption."

The task force says that the battle against trafficking in human beings will be long and hard. It says this is the fastest-growing crime in the Balkan region, the fastest-growing source of income for criminal networks, and -- in the words of a task force statement -- "above all, an abhorrent human rights violation."