Trafficked Along the “Balkan Route”

This photo essay originally appeared on June 9, 2016 on Medium.

Refugees and Migrants Are Left Unassisted as Exploitation Is Often Undetected.

In recent years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of refugees and migrants traveling on the “Balkan route” — the path stretching from the Middle East to the European Union through Turkey and South East Europe — in search of a better life in the European Union. The journey, via the choppy and often deadly waters of the Aegean Sea, is fraught with risk and many people find themselves exposed to exploitation, including human trafficking.

A family fleeing the war in Syria. Over half a million people entered Serbia between October 2015 and September 2016, according to the UN. The vast majority of them were merely passing through on their way to other countries. Photo: Peter Biro/ECHO.

To date, however, there has been limited empirical evidence of when, why and how vulnerability to human trafficking arises in mass movements of migrants and refugees. Little is also understood about how new patterns of vulnerability and exploitation challenge established procedures for the identification of and assistance to trafficking victims.

Hundreds of trafficked migrants and refugees — from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere — who have moved to and through Serbia over the past two years have provided a unique insight into their experiences in a new report by NEXUS Institute and Fafo in partnership with Serbian non-governmental groups Atina and Centre for Youth Integration.

Syrian refugees in a makeshift camp in Lebanon. Restrictions on refugees’ ability to work legally in Lebanon, as well as strict enforcement of visas and residence permits, has increased refugees’ vulnerability to sex trafficking and forced labor. Photo: Peter Biro/ECHO.

Our research highlights the exploitation and trafficking of migrants and refugees who have moved to and through Serbia over the past two years. Reported human trafficking cases included male and female victims, adult and child victims and individuals trafficked for different forms of exploitation. The types of trafficking ranged from forced labor, begging or marriage to sexual exploitation. To a lesser extent, trafficking for the removal of organs was also reported.

“Several migrants and refugees have been forced to provide sexual services as a means of continuing their journey toward the EU,” said Rebecca Surtees, NEXUS Senior Researcher and the report’s co-author. “In some cases, they were forced to sell sexual services to survive. In other instances, smugglers forced migrants or refugees into prostitution in order for them to earn money to fund the onward travel.”

“Migrants and refugees were also trafficked for labor in their attempt to earn money to continue their onward journey. They often had their passports seized and held by ‘employers’, were not paid and subjected to threats and physical violence. This included men, women and children.”

Among refugees and migrants who are staying temporarily in Serbia there is a great fluidity in the identities of “migrant”, “refugee” and “trafficking victim”. Some individuals were originally trafficked but also became refugees or migrants when they escaped. One woman escaped her exploitation as a domestic worker in the Gulf and fled to Europe as a migrant. Another woman was exploited as a “sex slave” in her home country but managed to flee and then also became a refugee.

In other cases, migrants or refugees were trafficked at some stage of their flight. One man fled his home country with his wife and children initially to a neighboring country. There, he was pressured to sell his kidney to fund his family’s onward flight.

“People have also been vulnerable to exploitation in settings where they have been stranded or unable to move on because they lack resources to pay smugglers or others to help them to continue their journey,” said Anette Brunovskis, Fafo Senior Researcher and co-author of the study.

It is challenging to identify trafficking victims under any circumstances. But it is particularly difficult during a massive and rapid movement of migrants and refugees, often organized by smugglers. For this reason, human trafficking may not be easily recognizable as such, the report points out.

“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 Brunovskis.

“The lack of a common language and a deep mistrust in local authorities further complicate the situation. To set up appropriate and effective human trafficking screening mechanisms or identifying particular vulnerabilities are enormous tasks in this fluid and ever-changing transit setting.”

Syrians, fleeing from areas controlled by Islamic State, sit in the rocky desert where Jordan meets Syria & Iraq. For some refugees and migrants, it was the situation they had ended up in as a result of trafficking — either in their home countries or in refugee camps — that led them to flee in the first place. Photo: Peter Biro/ECHO.

Typical indicators and signals of trafficking risk, which front line responders have been trained to identify, might not be relevant when it comes to trafficked migrants and refugees. There is an urgent need to develop more responsive tools to identify and assist trafficked migrants and refugees. But it is also important to consider other forms of vulnerability and exploitation that migrants and refugees face, which may be caused by or lead to human trafficking.

Syrian refugees warm up in their makeshift shelter in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Photo: Peter Biro/ECHO

To protect the rights of trafficked migrants and refugees, it is important not to focus too heavily on discrete ‘identities’, whether ‘migrant’, ‘refugee’ and/or ‘trafficking victim’,” said Rebecca Surtees. “Paying attention to this complexity and the overlapping identities will not only allow for a more holistic assistance response for individuals, but also a more inclusive social protection response generally in this country and beyond.”

Read the full report here. You can follow the work of NEXUS Institute at www.NEXUSInstitute.net and @NEXUSInstitute. You may follow the work of Fafo Institute at www.Fafo.no and @FafoInfo.