As the number of foreign women being trafficked in Bosnia declines, pimps are luring local women into the trade.
Bosnian NGOs dealing with the sex trade say they have detected a rise in the number of local girls falling into the trap of human trafficking and prostitution.
They say poor coordination at government level and inadequate laws are leaving the problem unaddressed.
After the departure of most foreign peacekeepers, the closure of many nightclubs and the tightening of border controls, Bosnia and Hercegovina ceased to be an attractive destination for traffickers bringing in women from abroad. But although official statistics point to a slump in the number of women being smuggled into Bosnia, NGOs say this does not mean the problem has been eradicated.
They say victims these days are more likely to be local women who fall prey to traffickers as a result of the country’s grave economic situation as well as ignorance.
“Since last year we’ve noticed local pimps are refocusing on local girls,” said Mara Radovanovic, president of Lara, an NGO dealing in women’s rights based in Bijeljina. “It’s become more difficult to ‘import’ girls, so the pimps have turned to ‘exporting’ local ones.”
Other experts agree that local women are increasingly being sold for sex abroad and at home as well.
Selma Begic, from the Foundation for Local Democracy, an NGO working with trafficked women in Bosnia, says selling women for sex in the country holds many advantages for the traffickers.
“It’s much easier to traffic local girls within Bosnia as they don’t need any papers or documents,” she said.
Melisa Covic, of the International Organisation for Migration, IOM, adds that this makes it more difficult for law-enforcement agencies to detect what is going on.
“It’s hard to track down a girl who has ended up in the hands of traffickers within [Bosnia],” she said.
The undetected and, some say, undetectable, nature of the internal traffic in women means it is impossible to get reliable estimates of the number of Bosnian girls involved, even if most experts agree the number is rising. The figures used by government agencies and NGO statistics differ significantly.
Samir Rizla, head of the State Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force, which works within the Federation interior ministry, says his office has recorded only 20 cases in seven years.
But the Foundation for Local Democracy, which shelters victims of violence, says it has dealt with nine victims of sex trafficking in the past two years alone.
The IOM says it knows of 21 cases since 2002. Of those, 14 occurred last year, which is why Cosic believes internal sex trafficking is on the increase.
Edin Vranje, of the Federation interior ministry that runs the anti-trafficking task force, says NGOs are dramatising the situation. “The NGO sector is indeed exaggerating the problem and creating panic,” he said.
From their experience, most NGOs believe the average victim is aged 18, and comes from a poor, unsettled family in an urban area.
Pimps flourish amid Bosnia’s dire economic situation, which has left a high percentage of young people without prospects of work and yearning to leave the country.
Mirjana Kramar, head of the NGO Global Transformation of the Family, in Tuzla, said traffickers are becoming more innovative in luring women into the industry.
“It ranges from placing ads in newspapers inviting girls to apply for well-paid babysitting jobs, or looking after elderly people abroad, to classic abductions in the parking lot of a disco club,” she said.
Radovanovic agrees. “Now it is not so much unknown persons who will approach and try to ensnare a girl, but people who are already acquainted with her and who are popular in her environment,” she said. “Pimps will always find a way to get through to a girl.”
Public-awareness campaigns aimed at young people as well as lectures at schools are seen as some of the methods that may help to reduce trafficking.
This year, the government for the first time earmarked 30,000 Bosnian marks (15,000 euro) for NGO activities and public campaigns against trafficking.
But these are preventative measures. They do not address the problems facing women trapped in the industry and wishing to escape. Lack of state financing for so-called safe houses leaves women wanting to get out of the sex trade without many realistic alternatives.
The government runs no safe houses directly but relies on the NGO sector to offer refuge and treatment.
The Foundation for Local Democracy was the first local organisation to set up such places in 2002. “We started tackling the problem when a Bosnian girl came to us with nowhere to go,” recalled Begic. “Back then, there were no state institutions or NGOs in Bosnia taking in Bosnian victims of sex trafficking.”
Lack of punitive measures against pimps is another problem. No legislation in Bosnia deals specifically with human trafficking.
Edin Vranje, of the Federation interior ministry’s human trafficking task force, says it is difficult to prove in court that women are being trafficked.
Most cases come down to a “her-word-against-mine”, he said. Women also drop charges out of fear or shame.
“It is difficult to provide solid evidence in cases related to human trafficking, so the pimps are mostly accused of physical abuse of girls or rape,” added Vranje. “So justice is not done.”
The story was first published by Institute for War and Peace Reporting.