Countries in South-East Europe are failing to take successful measures against people trafficking, says a UNICEF report. Meanwhile the European Union continues to treat the victims as illegal immigrants.
The victims of child trafficking are often left with nowhere to turn
While no one can say exactly how many people fall victim to the secretive, complex and extremely lucrative business of people trafficking, organized crime is estimated to earn between $7 billion and $12 billion (5.4 billion euros and 9.2 billion euros) a year from trafficking in human beings.
However, UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, does know what kind of people are trafficked – girls between the ages of 15 and 17 are sold for sexual exploitation and children under 13 are trafficked for forced labor and begging.
Existing laws ineffective
Many countries in south-east Europe have harsh laws against trafficking, but they focus on preventing illegal migration, cracking down on prostitution and organized crime Long-term strategies to root out the causes of trafficking are sorely lacking. The young people at risk often do not have a clear idea of what trafficking is or how to protect themselves.
"People felt that it was a stranger, that they were going to get grabbed in the middle of the night on the street so prevention to them meant not going out at night, not going to discos. In fact preventing them from having a normal life," said Deborah McWhinney, a UNICEF regional adviser on trafficking.
Young people need to know traffickers are often friends and sometimes even family members. Vulnerable young girls are targeted by young men who often start off as seemingly normal boyfriends, but who actually have the intention of selling the girl into prostitution.
Let down in the EU
Smuggled children are often treated as illegal immigrants and prostitutes
Once trafficked, the new country, often a member of the European Union, lets these girls down too. Instead of treating them as the victims of a major human rights violation, they are often handled like illegal immigrants, and prostitutes. Even they decide to testify against their traffickers, the law offers them little protection.
The children hardly ever have a say in what happens to them, according to Madeleine Rees, director of the of human rights commission’s office in Bosnia Herzegovina.
"You said you will go through the system, but then you have no choice about what will happen to you," she said of the plight of trafficked children. "Before you know, there you are back in your own country, back in the same situation you were before with the threat those people you may have given evidence against know exactly where you are."
What this all adds up to is a system which is not really helping the victims of trafficking, UNICEF's McWhinney said.
"Definitely children are being failed. Both children suffering from abuse and neglect those who are living in institutions, those who have been abandoned as well as those who end up being trafficked," she added.
Moldavian success story
There are one or two success stories, Moldova, Europe’s poorest country, has set up community services for abused children, and introduced family and life skills classes for those most at risk.
UNICEF wants to scale up this kind of strategy, because repressive laws alone won't work. Education and awareness raising are the most likely ways of prevent trafficking in the long term.