Hopes Betrayed: Trafficking of Women and Girls to Post-Conflict Bosnia and Herzegovina for Forced Prostitution

Hopes Betrayed: Trafficking of Women and Girls to Post-Conflict Bosnia and Herzegovina for Forced Prostitution

Hopes Betrayed: Trafficking of Women and Girls to Post-Conflict Bosnia and Herzegovina for Forced Prostitution

From 1992 through 1995, thousands of women and girls suffered rape and other forms of sexual violence during the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina, including abuse in rape camps and detention centers scattered throughout the country. With the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement in December 1995, violence against women and girls in Bosnia and Herzegovina did not cease. The grim sexual slavery of the war years has been followed by the trafficking of women and girls for forced prostitution.

According to experts of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the United Nations Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina (UNMIBH), trafficking first began to appear in 1995. As of October 2002, UNMIBH suspected 227 of the nightclubs and bars that dot Bosnian cities and towns of involvement in trafficking in human beings. Experts from the U.N. mission’s Special Trafficking Operations Program (STOP) stated in a 2001 press conference that approximately 25 percent of the women and girls working in nightclubs and bars were trafficked. NGO experts working to stop trafficking in Bosnia and Herzegovina, cautioning that the statistics remain woefully unreliable, estimated that as many as 2,000 women and girls from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe have found themselves trapped in Bosnian brothels.

Trafficked women and girls are held in debt bondage, forced to provide sexual services to clients, falsely imprisoned, and beaten when they do not comply with demands of brothel owners who have purchased them and deprived them of their passports. In dozens of interviews with Human Rights Watch and other NGOs, women and girls, mostly trafficked from Moldova, Romania, and Ukraine, described brutality—including physical violence and rape en route to Bosnia and Herzegovina—at the hands of traffickers. Such victim testimony is confirmed by internal reports of the International Police Task Force (IPTF, UNMIBH’s police monitoring force) and local police reports. Many of the women and girls had expected that they would travel to Italy or other Western European countries to work legally. Their ages ranged from seventeen to thirty-three years. The International Organization for Migration (IOM), which arranged for temporary shelter and voluntary repatriation of 498 trafficking victims from Bosnia and Herzegovina between August 1999 and October 2002, has reported victims as young as thirteen.

In an investigation from 1999 through 2001, Human Rights Watch uncovered conclusive evidence of widespread trafficking of women and girls into the sex industry throughout both Bosnian entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska. Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed five trafficking victims from Ukraine, Romania, and Moldova and reviewed thirty-one other trafficking cases obtained from NGOs, court documents, and verbatim victim statements to identify trends and common abuses along the trafficking chain. Researchers obtained: twelve verbatim (or handwritten), signed transcripts of victims’ interviews by IPTF officers after a series of well-publicized raids in Prijedor in November 2000; five sworn witness statements provided under oath by trafficking victims to local courts in criminal cases; twelve case summaries provided by Lara, an anti-trafficking NGO in Bijeljina; and two IPTF case summaries drawn from official, confidential IPTF incident reports. Human Rights Watch also interviewed dozens of UNMIBH officials, IPTF officers, representatives of international organizations, leaders of NGOs, as well as Bosnian judges, prosecutors, and police officers. In addition, Human Rights Watch reviewed hundreds of pages of documents, both open source and internal UNMIBH and U.S. military documents.

The interviews and transcripts revealed with few exceptions that traffickers, most of them local Bosnians, needed harbor little fear of criminal prosecution or punishment for their crimes: trafficking laws went largely unenforced, providing no protection for the victims of these serious human rights abuses. Corruption within the Bosnian police force allowed the trafficking of women and girls to flourish. Local police officers facilitated trafficking both directly and indirectly—as part owners of nightclubs and bars holding trafficked women, as guards and employees in those establishments, as clients of the brothels, and as informants to brothel owners. Trafficked women and girls reported that brothel owners forced them to provide free sexual services to police, particularly to officers employed in the foreigners’ department, the unit responsible for issuing work and residency permits. Brothel owners received tip-offs about raids and document checks from local police, allowing them to hide the trafficked women and girls before a police sweep. Some local police participated in the creation and validation of false documents for trafficking victims. Such participation by the police often made it impossible for trafficking victims to turn to the police for help.

Human Rights Watch also found evidence of involvement in trafficking-related offenses by individual members of the IPTF. The unarmed IPTF monitors do not have an executive mandate to carry out police work, but the U.N. Security Council has mandated that the IPTF supervise local police and ensure that investigations into police violations of human rights receive appropriate attention. Deployed to promote the rule of law, a small number of IPTF monitors instead have engaged in illegal activities, either as customers of trafficked women or as outright purchasers of trafficked women and their passports. Rather than request that U.N. headquarters waive the immunity from criminal prosecution enjoyed by IPTF monitors in Bosnia and Herzegovina, UNMIBH has merely repatriated police monitors accused of involvement in trafficking, acting under the legal fiction that countries will prosecute or reprimand their own nationals. Eighteen monitors who purchased trafficked women, visited brothels, or faced trafficking-related charges have returned home, either voluntarily or through disciplinary repatriation for “sexual misconduct,” but as this report goes to press in November 2002, Human Rights Watch has not yet confirmed a single case in which an IPTF officer accused of activities related to trafficking faced criminal investigation or prosecution.

IPTF monitors who attempted to alert their superiors to evidence of trafficking or involvement by fellow IPTF monitors alleged that they faced retaliation. Investigations stalled when high-level UNMIBH officials failed to assign investigators, or ordered investigators—in the words of one internal affairs investigator who worked on trafficking cases—“not to dig too deep” into allegations.

UNMIBH took positive steps between 1999 and 2001 to protect the human rights of trafficked persons, particularly through support for an IOM program to shelter and repatriate victims and the creation of the STOP anti-trafficking law enforcement units. The STOP units began to intervene more aggressively to identify potential trafficking victims during raids of brothels and nightclubs. The STOP teams claimed some success, including identification of victims and an increase in prosecutions.

However, serious problems remained. Some NGO experts charged that the STOP raids simply pushed the trafficking underground, with trafficking victims moved into private apartments or houses. Until mid-2001, UNMIBH continued to use a definition of trafficking that contravened the international legal definition and excluded trafficking victims who knew that they would work in the sex industry. In addition, UNMIBH failed to provide the necessary shelter to trafficked women and girls outside the capital, Sarajevo, a measure that would not only have offered them a degree of safety while their status was being determined, but would have allowed them the time and opportunity to testify against their traffickers. In September 2001, the IOM stepped in to provide temporary safehouses, one each in Banja Luka, Mostar, Bihac, and Doboj. Lara, a local NGO, continued to provide shelter to women and girls in Bijeljina. These temporary safehouses allowed women and girls to remain in the local region while UNMIBH determined their status. If a woman or girl gained acceptance into the IOM program and expressed a wish to return to her country of origin, police then escorted her to one of two shelters in Sarajevo, one for women and girls facing high risk and one for trafficking victims facing low risk.

Human Rights Watch investigators also found evidence that some Stabilization Force (SFOR) contractorsCcivilians hired to provide logistical support for military forces based in Bosnia and HerzegovinaCengaged in trafficking-related activities. Evidence indicated that some civilian contractors employed on U.S. military SFOR bases in Bosnia and Herzegovina engaged in the purchase of women and girls. Although these U.S. employees enjoyed only “functional” immunity (immunity only for acts related to their official duties), as of October 2002 not one had faced prosecution in Bosnia and Herzegovina for criminal activities related to trafficking. Instead, when they came under suspicion, they returned to the United States almost immediately. Their brisk repatriation precluded Bosnian prosecutions and prevented the SFOR contractors from serving as witnesses in criminal cases against the owners of the establishments engaged in trafficking. Under a U.S. law passed in 2000, the U.S. government gained jurisdiction over these citizens but had not brought any prosecutions as of October 2002.

As for U.S. IPTF monitors, existing U.S. law as of October 2002 did not permit their prosecution for criminal offenses committed while part of a U.N. mission; therefore, even after they returned to the United States, U.S. courts had no jurisdiction over IPTF monitors who engaged in the purchasing of women or girls abroad.

Despite some progress, UNMIBH, U.N. member states, and the Bosnian government have failed to combat trafficking effectively and to end impunity for this modern-day slave trade.

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