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Yugoslavia: First-Ever Anti-Trafficking Law Drafted To Fight Sex-Slave Trade

A new anti-trafficking draft law currently under revision in Yugoslavia is due for ratification this summer. The law is seen as an important first step for the country, which has long served as a major Balkan hub in the trafficking of women from Eastern Europe and Russia.

Prague, 9 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Yugoslavia has long played a prominent role in the notorious Balkans trafficking route.

Geographically situated at the center of the southeast Europe smuggling route, Yugoslavia is a heavily trafficked transit route for the illegal trade in drugs, guns, and women.

During the corrupt rule of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, women-trafficking gangs cemented their control over the country's highways and border checkpoints, easily moving their cargo of sex slaves from Eastern European countries through the Balkans and into Western Europe.

Although Milosevic fell from power almost two years ago, the Yugoslav smuggling route is still running strong. But the power of criminal gangs may be challenged early this summer, when the Yugoslav parliament is set to ratify a new law that for the first time will make it illegal to participate in the trafficking of human beings.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has sought to develop a region-wide approach to human trafficking, which sees hundreds of thousands of women and children sold into prostitution and slavery. Stella Bonner, the spokesperson for OSCE's Yugoslavia mission, told RFE/RL that the organization worked closely with federal authorities in Yugoslavia to draft the new law. She called it a major step forward in the fight against trafficking, but said the country is only beginning to address its role in the sex-slave trade.

"We're starting at the beginning, to build the legal framework that is needed, to make sure that it's a criminal offense so that those who are involved in human trafficking can actually be prosecuted," Bonner said.

One of the OSCE's main goals is to coordinate the work of Yugoslav government agencies and nongovernmental organizations so that they can address the three main components of anti-trafficking measures: prevention, prosecution, and protection.

"If the authorities come across a case of trafficking in human beings, it's one thing to deal with the people who are guilty of doing so. It's another thing entirely to deal with the women or children who are victims of [trafficking]. The police need to know where they can turn to, to help the women or children who are victims of trafficking," Bonner said.

The Balkans serve as the main transit point for trafficked women and children in the global slave trade. Women, mostly from the destitute former republics of the Soviet Union, are kidnapped or tricked into prostitution. Moved through the porous borders of southeastern Europe, the women often languish for months, imprisoned and brutalized, in countries like Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia, and Albania. Many are then passed on to the sex industry in Western Europe or the United States.

Local police and border officials often work closely with criminal gangs, so women trapped as sex slaves have little chance to escape their servitude.

Jelena Bjelica is a Serbian journalist who has been following the Balkan trafficking route for close to a year. She says that the trafficking of women earns smugglers "quick and easy money" with almost none of the risk involved in moving other "goods," like guns or drugs.

"We are speaking, of course, about the organized criminal network. They are regional, international. And this type of organized crime [human trafficking], is much cheaper and much safer than trafficking in drugs and weapons. You have a woman you smuggle across the border. There is no danger of having your goods confiscated," Bjelica said.

Yugoslavia is not just a country of transit for traffickers. It also serves as a final destination and a country of origin. Like many other countries in the region, Yugoslavia suffers from a severely depressed economy that has left many women desperate for any opportunity to work abroad. Answering false advertisements for employment as waitresses or domestic workers in Western Europe, the women end up brutalized and trapped into forced prostitution, their passports confiscated.

Sandra Lubenkovec is an activist with the Anti-Sex-Trafficking Act in Serbia. She calls the sex-slave trade the "feminization of poverty" because it preys on desperate young women who are eager to reach the West.

"All the young women I work with in prevention, they all have this fantasy of reaching the West. They are very eager to go somewhere and live better and earn fast money. This is the situation in Serbia today among young people," Lubenkovec said.

The International Organization of Migration (IOM) estimates that some 200,000 women from Eastern Europe and Russia are trafficked each year. Although a small percentage of women are rescued and moved to IOM shelters, Bjelica said women who have been trafficked are generally not perceived as victims, but as voluntary prostitutes.

"We don't have the social awareness that we are speaking about victims. We are not speaking about prostitutes. As you know, prostitutes are a marginalized part of the society. So it's much easier for people to accept that these are just some prostitutes from Ukraine or Russia who came here to offer sex, than to accept them as victims. [But] they are forced into prostitution against their will. They don't have freedom of movement," Bjelica said.

Even worse, the tragedy of the slave trade continues once the women return to their home countries. Already psychologically scarred by the trauma of enslavement, many women return home to find themselves rejected by their communities.

Bjelica said: "They find themselves in the situation where they were forced into prostitution. Now they find themselves in a terrible psychological condition. Their life and destiny have been totally changed. It was totally unexpected. Now they fight another struggle to become again a part of normal society."

Bjelica hopes that the anti-trafficking law in Yugoslavia will open a new chapter in the fight against sex slavery in the Balkans. But she said that laws are just one part of the fight.

"We must work to prevent women from ever entering the trade to begin with," she said. "And we must accept those coming home as victims, not as criminals," Bjelica said.