In-depth | Human Rights

Kosovo’s battle with human trafficking

By - 04.12.2018

Issue prevails beneath the radar, despite improved response.

As the end of the year approaches, and authorities begin assessing and comparing their data from the past year, the directorate of the Kosovo Police that is responsible for investigating human trafficking is proud of its progress.

In fact, it looks as though 2018 may turn out be its best year yet.

With 15 victims identified by police until now, no year has seen less human trafficking victims officially identified in Kosovo. Of course, as with all crime statistics, a reduced number of reported incidents can be caused by a number of factors, including a lower level of policing, criminals getting better at avoiding detection or even changes in reporting methods.

But the Department is adamant that in this case, the number of victims — which is half that of the number identified in the same period last year, and 100 percent lower than a decade ago — points to a success story, and is indicative of a declining phenomenon that they are starting to get on top of.

Regardless of how the data is interpreted, the numbers do point to one thing: Kosovo still has a battle on its hands when it comes to eradicating human trafficking.

K2.0 looks into the phenomenon of human trafficking in Kosovo, from the changing profile of victims to the ongoing battle to prosecute perpetrators and the attempts to reintegrate victims into society.

A moving phenomenon

Similarly to other phenomenons in Kosovo, records of human trafficking generally extend back only as far as the aftermath of the 1999 war. Amidst an atmosphere of reconstruction and the establishment of UN agencies and international missions, the global criminal issue immediately became an issue of serious concern in the months and years that followed the cessation of hostilities.

Its lack of legislative infrastructure, fragile authorities and institutions, and virtually non-existent rule of law made Kosovo fertile breeding ground for traffickers to ply their nefarious trade.

By January 2000, human trafficking had already been identified as a problem as Kosovo became a major destination for women and girls trafficked into forced prostitution.

Various international human rights organizations, such as UNIFEM and Amnesty International, began to raise the alarm, and for several years after 1999 it was continually highlighted as a huge concern that needed to be tackled. Activists and organizations repeatedly highlighted that the widespread presence of the international community generated a high demand in the sex trade; for instance organized prostitution was reported to have been set up in locations close to major concentrations of NATO’s KFOR troops.

The women and girls were predominantly from Eastern European countries, such as Moldova and Ukraine, and brought to Kosovo by local traffickers, working with organized crime groups in the countries of origin. In addition to locations close to international missions, bars, restaurants and clubs were often sites at which trafficked women were coerced into working in forced prostitution.

A 2004 Amnesty International report, which includes findings based on interviews with victims of human trafficking, gives a glimpse into the life of a victim at the time: Although some women were abducted or coerced, many started their journeys from their home countries voluntarily, believing that the work they had been offered, usually in Western Europe, would enable them to break out of poverty or escape violence or abuse. During the journey they would realize that the work was not what they had been promised; their documents were taken away from them and they were sometimes beaten or even raped.

Riza Murati, who heads a section within Kosovo Police’s Directorate for Investigation of Trafficking with Human Beings, says that Kosovo declaring independence in 2008 contributed to a change in the nature of trafficking.

He says that as Kosovo started to apply visa regimes for nationals of some foreign states, and citizens of neighboring countries and those in Eastern Europe gradually began to receive visa liberalization — enabling them to more easily travel to Western Europe — Kosovo became less appealing for criminal networks who redirected their focus toward the EU.

“The trend of trafficking with human beings changes globally in the way in which victims are used depending on economic developments, or changes in that country, either in terms of prevention or law enforcement and punishment of traffickers,” Murati says. “Then they [the traffickers] find new means.”

“Traffickers understood that trafficking within the country is easier and turned toward Kosovar women.”

Teuta Abrashi, Center for Protection of Victims and Prevention of Trafficking in Human Beings

In Kosovo’s case, the improvement of its legislative framework and the tightening of its borders led to traffickers finding new victims — from within the country; in recent years, Kosovars have made up the majority of victims, transforming Kosovo from being predominantly a ‘destination country’ for trafficking victims to a ‘country of origin.’ Although, Murati explains that technically Kosovo remains as both in international eyes, since even identifying one trafficking victim from abroad is enough to continue constituting the country as a ‘country of origin.’

The Center for Protection of Victims and Prevention of Trafficking in Human Beings (PVPT) has been working in the protection of human trafficking survivors that have been sexually exploited for almost two decades; since 2000, the NGO has been providing them with shelter and rehabilitation services.

The history of the organization itself illustrates the changes in human trafficking trends in Kosovo. Until 2008, it operated as a closed shelter — with heavy security and no access by external parties — and gave assistance to survivors who would generally stay hidden there until their documentation had been arranged, allowing them to return to their home countries.

However, deputy director Teuta Abrashi says that since 2008, over 90 percent of victims have been Kosovars, requiring that the organization change its approach. The new situation created the need to support survivors over a longer period, and meant the organization transformed into a semi-closed one, still with high security measures but with slightly less stringent rules on access. While foreign victims tended to travel back home after fixing their papers, local ones with nowhere to go required longer recovery and rehabilitation programs.

“This shift points out the tragic thing that Kosovo became a country of origin,” Abrashi says. “Traffickers understood that trafficking within the country is easier and that they don’t need to invest a lot of money to fix the documentation for abroad, and turned toward Kosovar women.”

Statistics from the Kosovo Police also show that more recently, human trafficking has increasingly been focused on internal trafficking by criminal groups within Kosovo, while victims from Eastern European countries, including Moldova, Ukraine, Russia and Bulgaria, have decreased since 2007.

Abrashi and Murati explain how most of the victims that are internally trafficked are done so for sexual exploitation, but that there are also still a small number of women from abroad being forced into prostitution.

"A number of massage parlors have the required work permits — and massages are offered — but human trafficking cases have been identified as being behind them."

Riza Murati, Kosovo Police

Women and girls are subjected to sex trafficking in private homes and apartments, as well as nightclubs, while massage parlors are the most widespread new trend.

Meanwhile, children from Kosovo, as well as Albania and other neighboring countries, are being forced to beg within the country. Children from Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian communities are particularly vulnerable to enforced labor, usually in the form of street begging and washing car windshields at traffic lights. Murati highlights that harsh socio-economic conditions — which tend to particularly affect minority communities — push parents into sending their children onto the streets.

Regarding sexual exploitation, Murati says that government corruption creates an environment that enables some trafficking crimes and that more stringent checks are required when licensing particular businesses.

“Prostitution is not legal. But then there are a number of massage parlors, that have the required work permits, where massages are offered but where human trafficking cases have been identified as being behind them [the parlors], ” Murati says. “These are challenging for us because there is a business that is allowed to function but that exercises unlawful activities. And there aren’t just a few.”

Murati says that a lack of stronger preventative checks by licensing authorities and inspectors tends to reduce interventions to retrospective action by police, limiting their ability to be effective.

Murati and Abrashi say that a typical profile of a victim of human trafficking in Kosovo today is that of a girl, usually under the age of 18, who has been forced into prostitution. This is in contrast with the typical profile, in previous years, of foreigner victims, who according to them were generally over 20.

“Being under 18 one can fall more easily into the trap of fraud and being manipulated,” Murati says.  

Institutional response

Although the traits and trends of human trafficking have changed in Kosovo over the years, one thing has been a constant: When it comes to combating the issue, Kosovo has always remained in the U.S. State Department’s Tier 2 category.

In other words, it stills struggles to eliminate trafficking.

Like other countries in the Tier 2 category, such as Ecuador, Greece and Cambodia, Kosovo’s government is assessed as not fully meeting the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, but having made significant efforts to do so.

Compared with other countries worldwide, Kosovo is a way off Tier 1 category states such as Finland, Argentina and Estonia, whose governments fully meet the minimum standards set out in the U.S.’s Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA). But it is assessed as doing much better than Russia, Venezuela, Iran and other Tier 3 countries that aren’t seen to have made any effort in combating trafficking.

In the Western Balkans, Albania, Macedonia and Serbia are positioned together with Kosovo in Tier 2, while Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina are positioned lower in what is called a Tier 2 Watch List; in these countries, the absolute number of victims of severe forms of trafficking is seen to be very significant or is significantly increasing.

International monitoring reports and experts working in this field indicate that enforcement by police units dealing specifically with human trafficking in Kosovo and the creation of coordinated mechanisms by relevant institutions since independence in 2008 have led to a better institutional fighting of the issue.

A National Authority against human trafficking, headed up by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, now brings together representatives of relevant ministries and NGOs, and has contributed to the development of mechanisms and action plans that specify the roles of each member in fighting human trafficking.

According to a State Department report published in 2018, law enforcement arrested 28 trafficking suspects in 2017 and 10 people suspected of “utilizing sexual services from a trafficking victim”; the previous year, the numbers were 62 and 18 respectively. Twenty-one criminal reports for trafficking were filed to the Prosecution in 2017, and 31 in 2016.

But one institution that seems to break the chain is the judiciary.

Despite Kosovo’s Criminal Code prescribing punishments of five to 12 years imprisonment for trafficking, there has been widespread criticism both domestically and internationally of the low sentences handed down by the courts for convicted traffickers.

Observers say that the non-specialization of most prosecutors and judges has resulted in weak sentences or cases being downgraded to lesser crimes, especially cases involving emotional control or psychological coercion of victims.

The U.S. State Department noted that in its most recent reporting period — between April 1, 2017 and March 31, 2018 — one trafficker received five years imprisonment and a fine of 5,000 euros, but 14 traffickers received sentences between 18 months and three years and seven months, while seven traffickers received suspended sentences and seven received fines ranging from 600 to 3,600 euros.

As with proceedings for other crimes, Kosovo’s courts have a backlog of human trafficking cases, which the State Department report says is not being reduced; 88 trafficking cases remained open from previous years in 2017. Meanwhile, 29 traffickers were convicted in 2017, and 24 the previous year.

Picking up the pieces

The exit from sexual exploitation and restoring the lives of survivors of human trafficking can be a very long and difficult process, and it starts the moment that a victim is identified.

In Kosovo, there are are two shelters providing services to trafficked survivors of sexual exploitation, and one providing shelter for children survivors of forced labor.

One of the former is the state-run Interim Security Facility (ISF), which Abrashi explains temporarily accommodates trafficked survivors of sexual exploitation who are assessed as high risk. Authorities usually require survivors to have a police escort when outside of the ISF while court proceedings are ongoing and require an approval from a prosecutor and Kosovo Police for victims to permanently leave the ISF.

“They are traumatized and one needs to spend a good amount of time with them. At least to convince them that it is not their fault.”

Teuta Abrashi, Center for Protection of Victims and Prevention of Trafficking in Human Beings

When the risk to a trafficked sexual exploitation survivor is downgraded to medium or low — usually following the successful detention of the perpetrators — they are moved to the NGO co-run by Abrashi.

“The moment that the police asses she is not endangered anymore, that the traffickers have been arrested and the network has been revealed, then that girl or woman needs to be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society,” Abrashi says.

“When a person is sold and bought many times and exploited in most terrible ways, you can imagine how that person must feel,” she says. “They are traumatized and one needs to spend a good amount of time with them. At least to convince them that it is not their fault. That they have the right to live as everybody else.”

After undergoing a program of rehabilitation, with few employment prospects and the likelihood of being stigmatized back home and rejected by their families and communities, many victims have an insecure future.

Abrashi explains that the profile of victims being increasingly Kosovar requires further institutional efforts for creating conditions for long term integration, from the education sector to vocational training centers, as many survivors need to be accepted into school or to develop skills through various training opportunities.

She explains how her organization has set up employment schemes in cooperation with local companies, with mixed success. Some employers have abused the cooperation, she says, although 97 women and girls are currently participating in such programs.

The reintegration programs still face other significant challenges though, due to both high levels of unemployment in Kosovo and a lack of resources, with PVPT needing to allocate its own funds to pay for professional courses.

And the organization has its own financial struggles.

As an NGO licensed by the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare (MLSW) to offer social services, PVPT is entitled to government funding. But last year saw a decrease in Ministry funding for NGO-run shelters, with 152,870 euros allocated for victim protection, compared to 171,010 euros in 2016.

Abrashi highlights that NGO-run shelters have reported that government funding is inadequate and says that the labored process frequently results in cash flow issues as the MLSW requires funding applications every six months, causing a funding gap while applications are processed and approved.

For instance, in January 2018, due to budgetary delays, the government had to allocate an emergency fund to the shelters offering services to victims of human trafficking and those of domestic violence.

Adile Shaqiri, a senior official within MLSW, says that it is hard for the government to provide full support for NGO-run shelters when they are operating as non-governmental organizations and emphasizes that no victim of trafficking would be left without the shelter they require due to the 24-hour state-run shelter.

“The Ministry of Finance has a rule on public financing of NGOs and every organization needs to go through the selection process,” she says. “So while that happens, it takes time. But the government has always allocated an emergency fund if it has been required.”

Abrashi, however, says that the situation is not sustainable.

“The government needs to have a budget line that helps the centers. We always face the same thing and need to find an ad hoc solution,” she says, saying that NGO-run shelters often have to rely on funding from foreign donors in order to survive. “Instead of having the support in January, we have it in spring and risk having to close.”K

Editing by Jack Butcher.

Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.