It is estimated that there are 21 million victims of human trafficking in the world, and the Balkan countries are joining forces to fight this crime.
By Bojana Milovanović for Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 26/11/13
It was a strange scene in downtown Belgrade:
A teenaged girl sat in front of a shop with bruises on her face, her hands tied together.
Another young girl stood next to her with tape over her mouth, holding a sign that said, "She can't ask for help."
A third girl, dressed in doctor scrubs, "operated" on a mannequin, removing its heart.
The October event was staged to mark European Anti-Trafficking Day as part of the Red Cross Red Bell Campaign to raise awareness and educate the population about human trafficking.
Human trafficking in the Balkans is still prominent, but regional countries are working, both jointly and independently, to address the issue.
The Walk Free Foundation released its 2013 Global Slavery Index in October, which provides an estimate of the number of people in modern slavery in 162 countries.
On the index, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and Serbia shared 59th place, Croatia ranked 61st, Macedonia was ranked 80th and Montenegro was ranked 53rd.
"The economic crises increased the number of victims of human trafficking in the region, that's a fact. There are more and more young girls looking for a well-paid jobs across the border of their country, and that is the main problem,"
Elena Krsmanović, a spokesman for Belgrade-based NGO Astra, told SETimes.
A 2011 report by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe said that when human trafficking emerged in the Balkans, the profile of the victims was determined by the presence of foreign soldiers and aid workers.
But the crime has changed in response to new socio-economic conditions, law enforcement strategies and political situations.
"Today, the typical victim of trafficking is often a citizen of the country where traffickers offer their services and is below the age of 18," the report said.
The International Labour Organisation estimates that around the world there are about 21 million victims of forced labour, including sexual exploitation.
Experts said police co-operation between the Balkan countries is necessary to stop trafficking in the region, both in the countries of transit and the countries of origin.
Mitar Djurašković, the co-ordinator of a regional anti-trafficking programme in the Serbian Ministry of Internal Affairs, said that without the joint efforts of police, the number of trafficking victims in Southeast Europe would be greater.
"We are constantly in touch with all the regional police centres. Our priorities include monitoring and control of the borders, as well as exchanging information on suspicious individuals and their activities," Djurašković told SETimes.
Teenagers in Banja Luka mark European Day Against Human Trafficking on October 18th. [Mladen Dragojlovic/SETimes]
In September, the Balkans Against the Crime of Trafficking Now! agreement was signed by representatives of four organisations from Croatia, Serbia, BiH and Macedonia.
The aim of the partnership is to further develop national, regional and international co-operation, and to promote concrete measures, standards and mechanisms in tackling the issue of human trafficking.
The partnership will also address downfalls in the countries' justice sectors, including the inefficient investigation and prosecution of perpetrators and the ineffective protection of victims in compliance with fundamental rights and EU standards.
Rein Dekker, the national director of World Vision in Albania and Kosovo, said it is important to strengthen anti-trafficking efforts "through public awareness and reporting possibilities."
In October, Dekker launched a new smartphone app to provide faster reporting of human trafficking cases.
"Increasing response is what this project is about… multiplying the eyes of communities watching and responding," he said.
"Today's technology gives us the opportunity to send information by pressing a 'reporting' button from your car, your home, your office and this is what this project will make possible."
Countries have also been acting nationally against human trafficking.
Sasa Rasic, the Kosovo co-ordinator against trafficking, said the government has taken concrete steps to increase the capacities of the institutions in order to be more efficient.
An EU-financed project in Kosovo called "Open eyes, be careful," gives children and other potential victims information in order to recognise signs of human trafficking, and who can help them.
"The main intention is to have as few victims of trafficking as possible and to save as many lives of people as possible," Rasic said.
Muedin Kahvedzi, state secretary at the Macedonian Ministry of Labour and Social Policy, said officials in Skopje are working to implement an action plan to curb trafficking.
Albania Prime Minister Edi Rama (far right) and other officials attend an anti-trafficking conference in Tirana. [Linda Karadaku/SETimes]
"The ministry of labour and social policy will conduct special training for guardians of children who were victims of human trafficking, raise public awareness, economically empower vulnerable groups by facilitating the access to the labour market, and organise campaigns to reduce vulnerability, especially in young people," Kahvedzi said.
Samir Rizvo, a co-ordinator for Sarajevo-based NGO Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, told SETimes that activities aimed to stop human trafficking in BiH are focused on three objectives: prevention, protection of victims and prosecution.
"Bosnia and Herzegovina is trying to find a solution to human trafficking, and has signed and ratified the relevant international conventions and protocols," Rizvo said.
Croatia adopted a national plan to combat human trafficking for 2012 to 2015, which reinforces the co-operation between the state attorney's office and the ministry of interior, improving methods of identifying victims of trafficking and ensuring the best interests of victims.
"If one person ends up as a victim of human trafficking, it is too much," Croatia Minister of Social Policy and Youth Milanka Opacic said on October 18th, the 7th European Day Against Human Trafficking.
The battle against human trafficking is not just limited to the Balkans.
Europe's foreign ministers are expected to discuss a request from Italy for a Mediterranean-wide campaign against human trafficking.
"We suggest that all possible options of an EU-led common security and diplomatic policy operation against trafficking of human beings across the Mediterranean should be explored,"
Italian foreign and defence ministers, Emma Bonino and Mario Mauro, said in a recent letter.
They said such an operation should aim "to discourage criminal organisations, to bring traffickers to justice" and should be staged in collaboration with coastal nations and international bodies.
Correspondents Ana Lovaković in Sarajevo, Kruno Kartus in Osijek, Linda Karadaku in Tirana and Marina Stojanoivska in Skopje contributed to this report.
This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.