The Challenge of Human Trafficking Along the Balkan Route

26 June 2019
Research Innovation

Claire Healy  | Research Officer, International Centre for Migration Policy Development

The Balkan route has been used by over a million people since 2015 to enter a European Union (EU) country and apply for asylum. The lack of attention to people travelling along the Balkan route (see map below) as potential victims of trafficking has prevented them from accessing the protection and justice that they are entitled to, as well as leading to a severe underestimation of the issue.

Trafficking and the Balkan route

Throughout 2018, we conducted research in countries along the Balkan route: Greece, Bulgaria, North Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary, as well as in Germany and Italy. A team of researchers interviewed a total of 91 people on the move and 245 key informants—people with responsibility for, and/or with direct access to, the affected population, including government authorities, civil society and international organizations. We then analysed the interviews, together with statistics, legislative and policy documents and relevant literature.

Official statistics indicated a minimal incidence of trafficking among people using the Balkan route, with Greece as the exception. Greek authorities identified 90 people who were presumed or identified as trafficked and presumably travelled via the Balkan route in 2015–2016. In addition, around 200 people who entered North Macedonia and 75 who entered Serbia during 2016–2017 were considered potential trafficking victims by the authorities, though there is no information about their profiles or about any follow-up. Only one woman and one girl who travelled the route were officially identified as trafficked in Serbia. In Bulgaria and Hungary there was no information on any potential, presumed or identified trafficking victims using the Balkan route.

Trafficking in the context of the Balkan route

Our research found many indications of trafficking among people using these migration routes. Given the challenges related to identifying trafficking, it was not possible to estimate the exact prevalence of trafficking among people travelling along the Balkan route. Though not an indication of prevalence in itself, specific details about a total of 69 potential trafficking cases involving one or more potential victims were identified in the course of our research, as well as 14 cases of deprivation of liberty for extortion­. There were 42 potential trafficking cases involving men and boys and 27 involving women and girls. Only a small minority of the cases indicated had been officially identified as trafficking, or even considered as potential trafficking cases by the authorities or non-governmental actors.

Sex trafficking of women and girls is prevalent, and men and boys are also affected. The exploitation sometimes does not involve prostitution per se, but rather “survival sex”—the exchange of sexual services for a needed good or service.

Men and boys trafficked for forced labour are mainly exploited in agriculture in Iran, Turkey, Greece and Germany. In transit countries like Serbia and Hungary, people on the move are exploited in the services industry, and there are signs of women being trafficked for domestic servitude in Turkey Bulgaria and Germany.

Apart from sex and labour trafficking, the main form of trafficking among people who travel the routes is forced criminal activities, particularly forced migrant smuggling. Unaccompanied Afghan and Pakistani boys and men are recruited by migrant smugglers and forced to provide smuggling services overland. Men and boys are also forced by smugglers to navigate boats from Turkey to Greece and from Libya to Italy. Some of those involved are also exploited by the same groups in other forced criminal activities, especially drug smuggling and sale. Isolated cases of trafficking for sale of a child/illegal adoption and for removal of organs were also indicated.

Afghan, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Syrian people travelling the Eastern Mediterranean and Balkan routes are deprived of their liberty for extortion in Iran and Turkey and along the route in Greece, Bulgaria, North Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Deprivation of liberty for extortion is widespread in Libya, perpetrated either by isolated actors or when people are forced to stay in prison camps not only for the purpose of extortion, but also for forced labour.

While there is an ongoing debate at an international policy level and among researchers as to whether deprivation of liberty for the purposes of extortion should be considered human trafficking, the findings of our study presented the modus operandi of the perpetrators, the experiences of the victims and the existence of acts and means, and showed that extortion involves the abuse of a person’s rights in order to obtain a financial or material benefit. 

The difficulty of identifying human trafficking on the Balkan route

In Greece, North Macedonia and Serbia during 2015–2016, the high numbers of people travelling prevented an adequate response to cases of potential trafficking. In a context where people transit through countries within a relatively short time period, there is little time for the identification of trafficking and vulnerabilities to trafficking. According to Frontex, in 2015, the numbers of people arriving in Greece did not allow for effective screening, registration, identification and provision of assistance to those in need, exacerbated by the fact that people transited quickly through the country.

There is also a general lack of capacity among European authorities to identify potential trafficking cases among asylum applicants. Asylum authorities in Serbia and Hungary, for example, have limited training on anti-trafficking and lack standard protocols for trafficking identification or identification of vulnerabilities in the asylum process in the Transit Zones. Delays in the asylum process also contribute to an overall distrust in the authorities by asylum applicants.

Social workers, police and other professionals who work with people on the move on identifying trafficking and protecting vulnerable groups also lack proper training. Trafficking cases often taken place outside the country that they are identified in, making it difficult for authorities to investigate cases.

Migrants’ desire to continue their journey as quickly as possible also discourages them from reporting their case to the authorities or NGOs, as they fear that it would delay them or lead to their arrest or deportation. Many migrants also fear retaliation by their traffickers, who often reside at the same accommodation centre as they do.

Clearly, the lack of official trafficking statistics does not mean that there is a low prevalence of trafficking among people travelling along these migration routes. But this lack of data should not be an excuse for a lack of action to prevent trafficking, particularly by allowing people to travel and transit regularly, thereby avoid dangerous routes.

Dr Claire Healy is Trafficking Research Coordinator for ICMPD’s Anti-Trafficking Programme.

This article has been prepared by Claire Healy as a contributor to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.

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