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Balkans: Stability Pact Warns That Human Trafficking Out Of Control

A new report on human trafficking in the Balkans has found that criminal groups are changing the ways in which they operate in order to avoid exposure. The report by the Stability Pact Task Force on Trafficking in Human Beings says that traffickers are moving deeper underground despite increasing regional and international efforts to combat this type of crime.

Prague, 2 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe's first annual report on human trafficking in the Balkans warns that organized-crime groups are finding ever more sophisticated methods in order to stay one step ahead of authorities. The document, carried out by the EU-sponsored pact's task force on trafficking in human beings, also issues a caution on the rise of trafficking in children in the region.

The report focuses on Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Macedonia, Moldova, Serbia and Montenegro, and Romania. It provides a regional overview on the status of protection measures and assistance for victims as well as data on the characteristics of victims.

Helga Konrad, who chairs the task force, presented the report on 30 September to delegates of the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). She tells RFE/RL that four countries in the region are most affected by human trafficking.

"As you can see in the report, the problem is huge everywhere. But most of the victims in South Eastern Europe are coming from four countries. These countries are Albania, Moldova, Romania, and Bulgaria," Konrad says.

The report says as many as 92 percent of all identified and assisted victims came from those four countries. Albania is far ahead of the others with 46 percent, followed by Moldova with 23 percent, Romania with 16 percent, and Bulgaria with 7 percent.

Widespread poverty in the region remains the main cause of human trafficking. The report says most victims are women and girls. Some are kidnapped outright, but most are lured by false promises of jobs abroad as waitresses, dancers, or babysitters, but are then forced into prostitution by means of threats, beatings, and even torture. Many times they are kept hostage in houses or brothels without any documents.

The report says more than 5,000 victims were identified and assisted in the region between January 2000 and June 2003. But it cautions that identification of trafficking victims at border points remains a key problem. Some governments have been accused of failing to fight trafficking -- notably Serbia, which did not identify some 1,300 trafficking victims that passed through the country and were later identified in neighboring countries. Moldova and Albania were also blamed for failing to identify large numbers of victims. The report says some 20 percent of the 1,000 Moldovan women who are sent back annually by Turkey through the Ukrainian port of Odesa were not identified prior to their deportation.

The report also notes that the number of victims to be identified and assisted has dropped over the past year by 20 percent. Macedonia was the sole exception. Lower numbers would seem to be a good sign. But Konrad says to the contrary, the drop only signals that traffickers are changing the way they work to better avoid detection.

"We believe it's not a good sign, because it shows that trafficking in human beings is going underground. It shows that the traffickers rapidly react to our responses in the fight against human trafficking. And it shows that the victims are no longer being found in bars and brothels. So therefore, we would have to rethink if brothel raids are the right approach to it, [if they] shift the victims to private locations -- where of course, the access is more difficult, and where it is more difficult to assist the victims," Konrad says.

Konrad says the report also found that organized-crime groups are quick to change trafficking routes once they have been detected by the authorities. "Albania, for instance, has done quite a lot to interrupt the transport from [the port of] Vlora to Italy, and now what the report shows is that this trafficking is re-routed through other countries, like through ports in Montenegro, or over land from Albania to Greece, for instance," Konrad says.

Konrad says Croatia was not included in the report because experts found that Zagreb has not yet developed a method for identifying and assisting victims, and that in 3 1/2 years the country has identified only five trafficking victims.

The report urged governments in the region to step up health care, legal counseling, and shelters for trafficking victims. There are currently 26 shelters in the region, offering more than 300 spaces, but only for short-term stays.

"Most of the shelters we have in the region are just return shelters," Konrad says. "That means victims of trafficking are allowed to stay as long as they prepare for, or as long as their papers are prepared for their return back home. But there are no long-term shelters that would allow the victims to stay for a certain time period -- let's say they would have a recovery period. Maybe they would be granted an extended stay, a temporary residence permit, for instance, in order to better prepare their return back home, but maybe also to find other sustainable solutions for them."

Most shelters are run by nongovernmental organizations and funded by third countries. Only three countries -- Romania, Macedonia, and Bulgaria -- provide partial funding for shelters. Romania, Bulgaria, and Moldova are the only countries that offer reintegration centers that allow longer stays of three months to two years.

The report also shows that traffickers are targeting increasingly younger victims. In Bulgaria, 50 percent of the victims were minors (under 18) when they were first trafficked. In Albania, the number climbs to 65 percent.

But Konrad says even more alarming is the rise in trafficking in children: "There is, in the [Southeastern European] region, a huge problem in trafficking in children. Children are trafficked for many purposes -- for begging, for stealing, and sometimes also for sexual abuse, for the market of pornography. And, unfortunately, we realize that this is increasing and also shows the urgent need to focus on this problem."

Konrad says the report, which was put together by the task force's Regional Clearing Point in Belgrade, deals only with the victims of trafficking. She says information on criminal gangs and traffickers is being gathered by other bodies, such as the Southeast European Cooperative Initiative, a regional transborder crime-fighting center, as well as the European police force Europol and Interpol.

Konrad says the countries in the region are also inching ahead in the fight against human trafficking: "The countries in Southeastern Europe have really made progress. I must also say that trafficking in human beings is high on the political agenda and I believe that all governments, all authorities in South Eastern Europe are aware of the problem and are aware that they also have a responsibility."

But Konrad warns that much remains to be done before human trafficking in Southeastern Europe can be diminished. Konrad says the approach, the initiatives, and the structures to fight human trafficking must be improved, mainly through cooperation "with those responsible on the spot."