More members of working groups than identified victims

Five years since the adoption of the Anti-Trafficking Strategy, little has been done to improve the position of victims

Author: V. Jeremić

Photo: Medija Centar

More members of working groups than identified victims

The five-year strategy adopted by the state to organize its efforts in the fight against human trafficking expires this year.

Representatives of the civil sector, who have been dealing with this topic for decades, will agree - not much has been done in the last five years.

"It is worrying that a victim of human trafficking in Serbia today is less likely to recover and, on average, receives less support than ten years ago," Jelena Hrnjak, from Atina, Citizens’ Association focused on assisting the victims of trafficking and gender-based violence, told to daily newspapers Danas.

According to her, all relevant indicators, from the report of the Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA), through the report of the European Commission, to the State Department TIP report, state the same - Serbia does not meet the minimum standards in this area.

"This is not about us asking for the moon, but satisfying the basic rights and needs – for a person to even be recognized as a victim, to get the access to services - safe accommodation, education, employment. After all, the state report itself shows a number of missed opportunities for our society to deal with this problem in a constructive, and not just declarative, way. And that is crucial, because victims deserve better than what they are getting now, and that must not be forgotten at any moment," stated Hrnjak.

The Strategy for the Prevention and Suppression of Trafficking in Human Beings, Especially Women and Children, and the Protection of Victims was adopted in 2017. It contains a brief analysis of the current situation and outlines the goals to be pursued in the coming years. The objectives were subsequently precisely defined in the action plans adopted for particular years. The strategy foresaw the establishment of the Council for the Fight against Trafficking in Human Beings as the highest body that will take care of its implementation. The Council consists of the Minister of Justice, Health, Education, Labor, and Finance, and is chaired by the Minister of the Interior. According to the strategy, the working group will deal with operational matters, which will also include representatives of the non-governmental sector. The working group will be chaired by the National Anti-Trafficking Coordinator, who is reporting to the Council.

The strategy has also listed some specific problems that need to be worked on in order to achieve the set goal - a continuous comprehensive response of the state to human trafficking. Among other things, it was noted that the system does not have sufficient human and material resources, that there is not enough coordination within the system, no comprehensive data collection system, that there is no Victim Support Fund or Shelter, and that citizens are not sufficiently aware of this issue…

According to Jelena Hrnjak, five years after the adoption of this document, the key levers that should keep this system in function are failing.

"Instead of increasing, the number of identified victims keeps going lower from year to year, which speaks of the inertia of the system to respond to this problem." In proportion to the number of citizens in Serbia and the problems they live with, we have the lowest number of identified trafficking victims of all the neighbouring countries," Hrnjak pointed out.

She emphasized the incredible paradox in the state's attitude towards human trafficking victims – Serbia is the only country in the region where the safe house for victims of human trafficking still does not work, while the state refuses to support civil society organizations providing safe accommodation services for the trafficking victims.

"States in the region have taken care of at least some minimum, but not Serbia. For years, our police have not discovered a single case that connects organized criminal groups and human trafficking, which sends a benevolent message to criminals that they can do whatever they want. Serbia also continued the practice of punishing victims and does not protect their rights during court proceedings. All this is contrary to the goals and principles of the state strategy," stated Hrnjak.

Some points prescribed by the strategy were soon fulfilled. At the end of 2017, the first session of the Council for the Fight against Human Trafficking was held, at which an inter-ministerial working group was formed. The National Coordinator was elected, responsibilities were divided. Among the most significant successes was certainly the opening of the Shelter for Victims of Trafficking in Human Beings in February 2019.

However, although the strategy stipulates that the Council is to meet at least twice a year, according to data available on the Serbian government's website, ministers met only twice in five years to discuss fulfilling the strategy. The working group was disbanded after three years of work, and the Shelter was closed in the summer of 2020.

As Jelena Hrnjak pointed out, despite the fact that more and more state working groups, offices, and services are being established, and that more and more civil servants are being hired to deal with this problem, the state’s response to human trafficking is getting weaker.

"The working group for monitoring the implementation of the Strategy, which consists of institutions and civil society organizations, was disbanded after three years of work without an entirely clear reason, and in our opinion illegally, in the middle of the implementation of the Strategy. It was decided to disband the group and establish a new one. And even while it was working, it was under strange circumstances, for example, there were more members of the working group than identified victims of trafficking on an annual basis," Hrnjak pointed out, adding that the strategy expires this year, while the Action Plan for the last two years (2021-2022) has not been adopted, which brings us to the question of the purpose of forming a new working group.

Problematic relations with the civil sector within the working group were also recognized in the latest report of the Coalition prEUgovor, a group of non-governmental organizations that monitors Serbia's progress in European integration. The report states that civil society organizations are involved only on paper.

"Practice (direct support to victims, monitoring the analysis of convictions for the criminal offence of human trafficking and related acts, analyses, and research) confirms every day that the capacities of state institutions to provide support and services to victims are rather weak, uneven, and unsustainable. Therefore, recognizing the importance of the role, contribution, and results of the involvement of civil society organizations must go much further than formal consultations, during which proposals are collected (but mostly ignored), and the partnership which remains only at the declarative level," the report said.

Danas tried to get an assessment from the Ministry of the Interior on the fulfilment of the goals set by the Strategy yesterday, without any response. This has also left us deprived of information on whether there are any plans to work on the new Strategy for the Prevention of Trafficking in Human Beings, bearing in mind that the current one expires this year.

The greatest burden is on the non-governmental sector

According to Jelena Hrnjak from Atina, civil society organizations continue to bear the brunt of support for victims of trafficking. "If they shut down their programs, the victims in Serbia will be left without support. Although the state has repeatedly announced that it will financially support the services provided by these organizations, this has not happened. Despite the fact that the state fails to provide support to civil society organizations, it relies on their services. There is no real cooperation between civil society organizations and state institutions because there is no responsibility on the part of state institutions for what they did (not) do. Just one example is the tyranny of silence we are exposed to when it comes to Vietnamese workers in Zrenjanin. What is the official response of our state to what happened, what mechanism has been put in place to prevent such situations from happening again?" Hrnjak wonders.

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