Cooperation in the protection of victims of violence and human trafficking cannot wait

Cooperation in the protection of victims of violence and human trafficking cannot wait for the achievement of any formal agreement between the two parties

Stepping forward in the protection of women and girls in Kosovo* and Serbia

We are sharing an article published in Bulletin 57 of the Working Group for Chapter 35 of the National Convention on the EU; Atina became a Working Group member in December 2023. 

Due to the lack of formal relations between the official Belgrade and institutions in Prishtina, women and girls victims of human trafficking cannot expect adequate, comprehensive, and timely support if the women from Kosovo find themselves in Central Serbia or vice versa. This practically means that citizens of Kosovo who have been identified as victims of human trafficking in Serbia, and citizens of Serbia identified as victims in Kosovo, cannot resolve issues crucial for their recovery and integration - from reporting the situation of exploitation to resolving legal status, participating in court proceedings, to accessing support services. In other words, victims who find themselves between the two systems remain invisible, exposed to additional risks of human trafficking and violence, and without much chance of exercising their rights, accessing social protection and other necessary services, and recovering. Thus, even after a quarter of a century since the war actions ended in Kosovo, the most vulnerable individuals, which victims of human trafficking undoubtedly are, still face grave danger to their own safety and life prospects.

In the course of the dialogue on the relation Belgrade-Prishtina, with the mediation of the European Union, so far, the issue of the rights of vulnerable groups, social protection, and social policy in general, did not merit particular attention, nor found its place in any of the technical agreements that have been reached in the last ten years within the dialogue. This issue was also mentioned only in passing concerning forming the Community of Serbian Municipalities (CSM) in the Second Agreement from 2015, which states within its objectives that the CSM will exercise complete overview “to improve local primary and secondary health and social care.“ More is said only in the Draft Statute of the CSM, which was leaked to the media in November 2023 and prepared by the “Big Five''[1]. There, in Article 23, it is stated that the CSM will “exercise full functions and overview within its municipal competences related to the local improvement of primary and secondary health and social care,“ that it will “finance or collect funds to support the social protection of residents of its member municipalities,“ and “through a joint committee with the central authorities, facilitate the social assistance payments from Serbia to beneficiaries residing in member municipalities''. And yet, as the CSM has not been formed ten years after it was agreed upon, nor has its Statute been harmonized, it remains unclear whether and how it will exercise this overview function in social policy.

During that time, the social protection system in Kosovo remained fragmented and had an unclear status. Centers for social work within the system of the Republic of Serbia continue to function in specific Serbian communities. In contrast, others (from municipalities where Serbs are not the majority) have been relocated to Central Serbia. On the other hand, according to the Kosovo system, the Centers should also provide social protection services, and they are under the jurisdiction of the municipal directorates for health and social policy. However, there is no publicly available data for many centers within the Kosovo system, so it is unclear whether and how they work. Such a dark situation opens problems in practice, starting with questions of jurisdiction, through the scope of work, to the provision of individual social protection services, and, as we have stated, especially services for multiple vulnerable and marginalized groups.

And yet, the lack of cooperation between the institutions under the jurisdiction of official Belgrade and Prishtina is certainly not, and cannot be, an excuse for the lack of cooperation of other actors who provide support to victims of human trafficking and other vulnerable groups, and who provide services in the field of social protection in Kosovo or Central Serbia. The issue of cooperation in the protection of vulnerable groups, persons at risk of violence and exploitation, victims of human trafficking, or gender-based violence cannot wait for the achievement of any formal agreement between the two parties but is dictated by the daily needs of these persons.

Bearing this in mind, NGO Atina, which has been actively fighting against human trafficking for twenty-one years now and providing comprehensive support to the victims in Serbia, 2023 started a joint project with the organization PVPT from Prishtina entitled “BRIDGE – Stepping forward in the protection of women and girls in Kosovo and Serbia,” intending to strengthen cooperation in this area. These two organizations, Atina and PVPT, have been actively cooperating for the past 20 years, primarily to provide direct support to victims of human trafficking and address their needs. The cooperation is aimed at “bridging” the space that was created due to the lack of formal relations between Belgrade and Prishtina, as well as paving the way for the development of that relationship in the future, primarily taking into account the practical needs of victims and persons at risk.

The joint project “BRIDGE” envisages the implementation of specific activities, from providing direct support to victims and the services necessary for their recovery through the analysis of the current situation in this area to connecting and raising the capacities of various actors who fight against human trafficking in the territory of Kosovo and Central Serbia. The planned analysis should, among other things, shed light on all the challenges in the existing victim referral mechanisms and make recommendations to overcome them when there is no formal cooperation between the two systems. As for connecting the actors, this will be carried out through study visits with representatives of relevant institutions and civil society organizations that support vulnerable groups and work in municipalities along the administrative line. Several thematic trainings will also be implemented to raise their capacities, as well as workshops and promotional activities with youth. The intention is to establish a network of actors from both sides to exchange information and opinions regarding supporting specific cases.

The results of this project include improved quality of life of women and girls who are victims of human trafficking and gender-based violence, as well as improved capacities of civil society organizations from Kosovo and Central Serbia to adequately respond to the challenges of protecting the victims in a situation where there is no formal institutional cooperation. Raising the awareness of youth from different municipalities and cities in Serbia and Kosovo about the prevention of human trafficking and ways to respond to risks that can lead to exploitation is another result that should be achieved through this project.

Ultimately, the sole initiation of cooperation in this field and networking of experts and experienced professionals will be considered a success. Especially as they have been invisible to each other until now, and their joint effort can assist the victims in exercising their rights and reaching support services more efficiently. Cooperation between the actors who are not burdened by solving formal issues but are focused on providing concrete support and work on the ground can be a way to thaw relations between the two parties. If it does not lead to formalization, this path will undoubtedly bring about the normalization of these relations and open a space where it is possible to discuss and search for necessary and practical solutions in the lives of all people, especially those who are particularly vulnerable, such as victims of various criminal acts. Representatives of both organizations, Atina and PVPT, believe it is high time that the two sides openly discuss the existing issues and try to find mutually acceptable solutions. At the same time, social issues, social protection services, and social policy in general in Serbian communities in Kosovo must find an appropriate place both in the negotiation process conducted in Brussels and in the future institutional arrangement of the Community of Serbian Municipalities, so that this critical issue does not remain stuck in the “zone of no jurisdiction and responsibility,” and push persons from vulnerable groups to an even more significant margin.

Milan Aleksić, Analyst in NGO Atina

The original text can be found here:

* All references to Kosovo, whether the territory, institutions, or population, shall be understood in full compliance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 and without prejudice to the status of Kosovo.

[1] Big Five – representatives of the EU and the U.S., mediators in the dialogue


Funded by the European Commission. The article has been created within the project BRIDGE - Stepping Forward in the Protection of Women and Girls in Kosovo* and Serbia.
Views and opinions expressed are however those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Commission nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.