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Sex Trafficking in Southeastern Europe Thrives, So Does the Effort to Combat It

September 14, 2006

Southeastern Europe's human-trafficking industry continues to thrive as it learns to adapt to new efforts to thwart its operations.

As Southeastern European countries move closer to their goals of EU integration, their images remain tainted by reports that sex-trafficking is thriving in the region. While greater local and international efforts are being made to stop human trafficking, the industry has not been abolished - rather, it has adapted and transformed itself. Reports from international organizations and law enforcement agencies confirm that human trafficking, particularly the sexual exploitation of women and girls, is still thriving in the region and the rest of Europe. However, the structure of sex trafficking is different now than a few years ago. While some changes have been positive, others have not, representatives of governments, international organizations, and nongovernmental organizations tell ISN Security Watch.

In recent years, states around the world have changed their penal codes and criminalized sex trafficking, or the sexual exploitation of people through coercion and deception.

One of the main trafficking regions has been Southeastern Europe. Women and girls who come from the region have been forced to prostitute themselves in Western Europe, often falling victim to false advertisements promising lucrative jobs abroad. Sex trafficking in Southeastern Europe has also been boosted by the presence of tens of thousands of international staff tasked with maintaining stability in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Macedonia. Most peacekeepers are men, many of whom visit the brothels in these countries - brothels in which some of the prostitutes have been victims of sex trafficking.

Stories of women and girls sold like chattel on "slave markets" across Europe, and then exploited, tortured and sometimes killed have transformed sex trafficking to a prime security concern.

Anti-trafficking laws, the training of police officers and border guards, campaigns alerting women to the danger of human trafficking and zero-tolerance policies of the UN, NATO and other organizations who have "internationals" on the ground have reportedly led to a decline in human trafficking.

There are no reliable figures on sex trafficking, given its clandestine nature and the fact that the distinction between voluntary and forced prostitution is often blurred. The 2003 European Security Strategy of the European Union (EU) asserted that Balkan criminal networks were responsible for some 200,000 of the 700,000 female victims of the sex trade worldwide. Such figures are not based on systematic empirical research. They merely reflect the hysteria over organized crime and the successful instrumentalization of the trafficking issue by an unlikely coalition of mainly US Christian conservatives and feminist groups who want to abolish all forms of prostitution.

While no one knows how many women and girls are trafficked, few observers see an emergency situation now, in contrast to a few years ago.

Criminologist Jana Arsovska, whose research focuses on ethnic Albanian trafficking networks, told ISN Security Watch in Skopje, Macedonia, that the situation in the country had improved. Zero-tolerance policies in Kosovo have lowered the number of internationals spending their weekends in brothels on Lake Ohrid. The termination of military and policing missions in Macedonia has additionally reduced demand. Trafficking has also become less visible since the 2003 arrest of a prominent trafficker in Macedonia.

According to Philip Gounev, a researcher at the Center for the Study of Democracy in Sofia, Bulgaria, with about 100 brothels, prostitution is thriving in Sofia, and “some internationals are coming from Kosovo to Sofia to visit strip clubs and brothels.” However, he says that the number of Bulgarian women trafficked has always been exaggerated, and that a drop in unemployment and poverty mitigate against trafficking since fewer women are pushed into prostitution or take risky migration decisions.

Moreover, falling birth rates means that traffickers will have a harder time finding Bulgarian women in the future. Last, the Bulgarian public no longer seems willing to blindly accept official corruption - an inevitable by-product of organized crime. Another positive trend in Europe is a change in the way the police forces, border guards, prosecutors and judges perceive trafficked women. A few years ago, governments saw trafficking primarily as an organized crime problem. Trafficked persons were seen as passive victims, deprived of their ability to make decisions, with no questions asked about their motivations to search for a better life abroad.

In Western Europe, trafficked persons were often deported to their home countries for illegal migration or for breaking anti-prostitution laws. Now, due to the pressure of international organizations and NGOs, anti-trafficking strategies take more of a human rights approach. Shelters, psychological and medical counseling services, the re-integration of women in their home communities, the granting of temporary residency permits in countries of destination and awareness campaigns help trafficked victims and prevent others from becoming victims.

Still, although Southeastern Europe has the most anti-trafficking programs anywhere in the world, the efforts remain unsatisfactory. Greater law enforcement pressure, better border controls intended to identify victims during the migration process and zero-tolerance policies deterring internationals from using the services of trafficked persons have not abolished the prostitution and trafficking industry. Instead, the industry has been transformed.

According to a senior Macedonian police officer speaking to ISN Security Watch on condition of anonymity, “Traffickers have changed their modus operandi: Now they push women into massage parlors and private houses. And they don’t advertise as openly as before.”

Moreover, a decline in reported cases of international trafficking goes hand in hand with a rise in internal trafficking. In Bulgaria and Macedonia, Roma girls are particularly affected, due to poverty and gender discrimination. In Kosovo, police profiling of foreign women between 2001 and 2004 “has shown to bar owners that foreign women are trouble because of higher risks of discovery,” Alma Begicevic of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission in Kosovo told ISN Security Watch in Pristina. An increase in the number of Kosovo-Albanian women and girls trafficked, as well as an increase in women coming from Albania who speak the same language and thus do not catch the attention of the police, may have been a response, she says.

Adaptive responses of criminals are inevitable by-products of law enforcement. Other shortcomings of counter-trafficking efforts, however, could be avoided. One of these shortcomings is a lack of coordination among international organizations, donors, government agencies and NGOs.

Dr Rossanka Venelinova, executive director of the Nadja Center in Sofia, which helps victims of trafficking and domestic violence, says the anti-trafficking landscape is “like a jungle.” Donor governments who want to show that they are active against human trafficking pursue short-term policies while they cut funding for programs against domestic violence, one of the prime causes of human trafficking.

Dobriana Petkova, who works for the NGO CARE in Sofia, told ISN Security Watch: “There is no overall strategy, only a large number of programs that are not properly coordinated. That means that there is no sustainability.”

Anti-trafficking experts in Bulgaria, Kosovo and Macedonia are particularly critical of the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM). They accuse the IOM, which, among other activities, helps to re-integrate victims into their home communities, of creating unhealthy competition for funding among NGOs by setting up their own NGO networks, sidelining existing networks.

The IOM also seems to be duplicating existing activities. An official at the Justice Ministry in Kosovo told ISN Security Watch that the IOM “has a lot of money and doesn’t know how to spend it.”

In December 2005, local and international authorities in Kosovo launched a campaign informing women and girls about the danger of sex trafficking. Two weeks later, the IOM, to general surprise, started a similar campaign, even though there are doubts about the effectiveness of such campaigns, and despite the mantra of anti-trafficking actors to inform each other and to develop common strategies.

IOM offices in the region have not responded to requests for interviews from ISN Security Watch. Still, alongside all of these problems, the socio-economic situation in Southeastern Europe remains the greatest obstacle to anti-trafficking efforts. In Bulgaria and Macedonia, average monthly salaries are less than €200 (US$256), and up to 30 percent of the workforce is without adequate employment. In Kosovo, 70 percent are unemployed or underemployed. Poverty affects particularly women. Add to this gender discrimination, which is particularly prevalent in rural areas and within Roma communities, and it is not surprising to hear Violetta Kandzhikova say that “many women here are desperate.”

Kandzhikova works for an NGO in Sofia that distributes condoms to prostitutes. “Very few women are in prostitution because they enjoy having sex. They do it for economic reasons.” But improving the region’s economy is a difficult and long-term task. In the short- and medium-term, the EU has important means at its disposal to prevent trafficking and re-trafficking: It can offer residency and work permits to actual and potential victims of trafficking. However, widespread migration fears within the EU and appeals by populist politicians means that Fortress Europe will remain inaccessible for poor women for the time being, at least without the help of human smugglers and traffickers.

During the negotiation of the 2005 Council of Europe Convention on Human Trafficking, EU member states opposed using the migration lever to help women from poor countries, despite pressure from international organizations and human rights groups. Often, prevention of sex trafficking is no more than cheap talk.

Cornelius Friesendorf. "Human trafficking thrives amid cheap talk." ISN Security Watch. 18 August 2006. http://www.isn.ethz.ch/news/sw/details.cfm?id=16551

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