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Human Trafficking in the Balkans

A Roma girl from Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina was lured across Eastern Europe by a Bosnian security minister who told her that she would be given a scholarship for school in the West. But instead, she was dragged off to the Balkans and forced into human trafficking to be a prostitute. 

Every year hundreds of thousands of Syrian, Iraqi and Afghani migrants and refugees go through the “Balkan route”-  the path stretching from the Middle East to the European Union through Turkey and South East Europe- so that they are eligible to enter the European Union to create a new life or seek asylum. (See map below). 

There has been an increase in migrants and refugees heading into Macedonia and Serbia from Turkey and Greece, since 2015. Countries in the West Balkans kept their borders open to allow migrants and refugees to continue traveling through them to a better life in western Europe. But the EU countries did not want this large migration to continue. By September of 2015, Hungary had built a wall along its southern borders with Serbia and Croatia to block further migrant and refugee crossings. In October of 2015, Hungary officially closed its border crossing with Serbia, blocking the route from Serbia into Hungary.

The journey is rough and often deadly, and many people find themselves exposed to different risks, vulnerabilities and exploitation, including human trafficking. Because so many people go through the Balkan route, it is not possible to estimate the exact number of victims related to human trafficking. 

(This image shows Syrian refugees traveling the Balkan trail. Crossing the border from Greece into Macedonia.)

When, why, and how vulnerability to human trafficking emerges in mass groups of migrants and refugees is still an open question. “The fast movement of an extraordinarily high number of migrants and refugees of mixed nationalities make it difficult for police, aid groups and other front line responders to identify cases of trafficking,” said Anette Brunovskis, Fafo Senior Researcher. Human trafficking is harder to recognize when there are huge and very mobile crowds. 

More knowledge and evidence of these risks and vulnerabilities are essential to better inform improved policy and programmatic responses in the fields of migration, asylum and human trafficking. The media can shape the public’s awareness and knowledge of human trafficking. “Current discussions and media coverage often conflate human trafficking and human smuggling, which are not only separate legal categories but also require fundamentally different policy and practical responses.”

Balkan countries are the main source to meet the demand for trafficked women in Western Europe. The reasons for the high demand are divided into three components. The first factor that increases demand is the men (and occasionally women) who seek out women for the purpose of purchasing sex acts. The second factor is the profiteers in the sex industries including the traffickers, pimps, brothel owners, and supporting corrupt officials who make money from sex trafficking and prostitution. The third factor is the culture that indirectly creates a demand for victims by normalizing prostitution. All three factors overlap in the Balkans, hence causing a high demand for women.

A young woman or girl in the Balkan region can be bought for between €500 and €5,000, and once she is forced into prostitution, she can earn her owner as much as €15,000 a month. Then she can be resold and replaced by another victim.

The Roma girl eventually found shelter, and told authorities that she was raped by local police and even a Bosnian security minister. The girl testified against the minister in the shelter easily because she has photographic memory and was able to describe all the details, proving that she was lured for human trafficking and not for educational reasons. The minister was arrested and put in jail.