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Southeastern Europe: Governments Shift Their Focus In Fighting Human Trafficking

Representatives of 14 Southeastern European governments have signed a joint declaration to better assist refugees and displaced persons in need of asylum or rehabilitation due to human-trafficking experiences. The document represents a shift in perspective toward focusing more on the victims of trafficking crimes.

Tirana, 13 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The statement of commitment obliges countries to stop the immediate deportation of trafficked persons and to offer them shelter, as well as social, health, and legal assistance.

The signing came on 11 December during the third meeting of the Stability Pact Task Force on Trafficking in Human Beings in the Albanian capital, Tirana. The statement was signed by officials from Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Moldova, Yugoslavia, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Turkey, Slovenia, and Hungary. Greece and Romania did not sign, but officials at the conference said the two countries agree with the message of the statement.

Helga Konrad, the chairwoman of the task force, spoke of the need for serious approaches to the crime of human trafficking, which affects hundreds of thousands of women and children each year, many of whom are forced into prostitution. "I believe that we are all aware of the ineffectiveness of existing approaches to human trafficking and that we urgently need to rethink and restructure our strategies, responses, our programs, and also legislation. A generic approach to human trafficking has disastrous effects," Konrad said.

Some 700,000 to 2 million women and children are trafficked each year around the world, with 300,000 to 500,000 said to be trafficked through Southeastern Europe into the European Union. Task-force documents said human trafficking generates up to $12 billion in profits for organizers -- the third-largest criminal activity worldwide after drug and weapons trafficking.

Konrad said the lack of adequate programs to protect victims and witnesses has resulted in the reduced efficiency of investigations, prosecutions, and court proceedings. "The inclusion of victims is absolutely essential to addressing trafficking in an effective manner. We must switch from an exclusive law-enforcement approach to a victim-centered one," Konrad said.

Acknowledging that some progress has been made, stability-pact officials called on the countries of Southeastern Europe to better address the problems of the more than 1 million people who still live as refugees or displaced persons.

Soren Jensen Petersen is the head of the Stability Pact Migration and Asylum Initiative and the Regional Return Initiative. He said that without a solution to the refugee problem, there can be no regional stability or economic recovery. "Many solutions are not sustainable in the absence of employment, schooling, and housing. Seven years after the end of the war, it is time that words such as refugees and minority returns be replaced by approaches linked to citizenship, economic reform, and overall stabilization," Petersen said.

Petersen said a better visa system and stronger border controls are needed and said the best approach for Southeastern European countries is what he called "a judicious balance between human rights, economic development, and security."

He urged the countries in the region to promote legal migration in order to combat trafficking and other criminal activities. As Petersen put it, "Stability-pact activities must be complementary to, and coordinate closely with, the [European Union] association and stabilization process."

If this challenge is not met, he said the region will be facing a new era of isolationism. "With the hopefully successful conclusion of the [European Union] accession talks in Copenhagen today, there is also a risk that new borders may be drawn in Europe leaving 25 million citizens of the western Balkans isolated and behind as the rest of Europe moves forward," Petersen said.

Petersen noted that in Kosovo, security problems are still preventing more than 200,000 displaced persons from exercising their right to return.