In the words of Marija Andjelkovic: “The girls are getting younger…poverty is driving trafficking in persons”
In the 1990s, Marija Andjelkovic worked at a call centre for girls experiencing violence, when she received a training on human trafficking. In those days, trafficking was not a known, researched and understood phenomenon in Serbia which left an institutional vacuum in addressing the needs of survivors. The training opened her eyes, says Andjelkovic, speaking to UN Women during an event at the 62nd session of the Commission on the Status of Women: “I realized that some of the girls I had spoken to were probably victims of trafficking!” She was one of the first civil society activists to raise the issue of human trafficking in the Balkan region, and went on to become the founder and Director of the Serbian NGO, ASTRA-Anti trafficking action. Since 2016, ASTRA is supported by the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women, which is managed by UN Women on behalf of the UN system, to provide direct assistance to survivors of trafficking, and works with the government and service providers to advocate for better policies, referral mechanisms that include specialist support service provision and prevention efforts.
Poverty is driving trafficking of persons. Nearly 80 percent of the victims are women and girls, predominantly trafficked for sexual exploitation. The unemployment rate is high, and all they want is a better life, but they cannot identify the signs and risks. Some of them fall in love with men—we call them “lover boys”—who are recruiters.
I started working on prevention of trafficking with a project that gave people information about safe migration and how to identify risks of trafficking. We had a hotline where people could call in. One day, we received a call from a trafficking victim, calling to report extreme violence. It was a rare case, because she was still in a trafficking situation, but had managed to get hold of a phone and explain her location. We called the police, and she was rescued.
We realized that prevention was not enough, we also needed to provide direct support and services to the victims.
As of 2003, 90 per cent of state officials in Serbia didn’t know what trafficking [entailed] and didn’t perceive it as a problem within the country. Now, with the support of [the] UN Trust Fund, we have trained over 1,200 officials—social workers, police officers and judges—on how to identify victims, respect their rights and how to address trafficking.
This work also helps us understand the new trends—the girls [victims] are getting younger, as young as 13-14 years old, and trafficking within the border of Serbia is becoming more common. The internet is the newest recruitment mechanism. We set up a “virtual girl” experiment—a profile of a 15-year-old girl, using the internet as any 15-year-old girl would. Within 24 hours, this profile received over 3,000 requests, including offers for jobs and explicit sexual offers from adult men.
We are organizing workshops and peer-to-peer education in schools so that young people know the signs and risks of trafficking. We are trying to involve teachers, from primary level to high schools, and we want to include information on trafficking in the school curriculum.
There’s a long way to go still. In Serbia, we are yet to have a comprehensive national law on gender-based violence.
The issue of compensation for victims of trafficking is also pending a sustainable solution—only two out of all identified victims (just 500 identified in Serbia) have received a decision of compensation in their favour. In the meantime, most traffickers get off with a few years—or even few months—of jail time.
I have been working on this issue for 18 years now. I go on, because I cannot say to a victim that my project is finished and the funds are finished, so they can’t go to a lawyer or a doctor. I want a sustainable system in place, supported by the Government, so that the victims of trafficking don’t need Marija or ASTRA.”