Acting together in the face of crisis
Protecting children from trafficking and exploitation in the Western Balkans
22-23 June 2021
Organised in the framework of the joint European Union - Council of Europe programme Horizontal Facility II for the Western Balkans and Turkey (2019-2022), the regional conference took stock of trends and new challenges in child trafficking, identified positive initiatives, and discussed areas where improvements can be induced through capacity building, co-ordination and co-operation.
Child trafficking in the Western Balkans region has continued to increase, despite a number of legislative and practical measures taken over the years. In the context of mixed migration flows, the number of unaccompanied or separated children in the region has grown, and there are challenges in ensuring their protection from trafficking and exploitation. The COVID-19 pandemic has made children even more vulnerable to trafficking, and there are reports of increased grooming and exploitation of children online.
The online event gathered over 130 participants from the region and beyond, who underscored the importance of placing the rights and best interests of the child at the heart of policies and practical measures to prevent and combat human trafficking.
Acting Together in the Face of Crisis
The Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings requires States Parties to take specific measures to reduce children’s vulnerability to trafficking, notably by creating a protective environment for them. Monitoring of the Convention by the Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA) reveals that gaps persist in the prevention of child trafficking and in the identification and protection of child victims of trafficking and their rights.
The structural vulnerabilities to human trafficking have been amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic. Lockdown measures and movement restrictions have contributed to a surge in sexual exploitation online, and there are reports of increased grooming and exploitation of children online through gaming sites and social media platforms. The pandemic crisis is likely to have long-term negative economic and social effects, further aggravating the root causes of human trafficking, amongst which are poverty, unemployment and gender inequality, and disproportionately affecting people in vulnerable situations. Reduced family incomes and school closure increase the risk of child labour.
A joint report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and UNICEF, “COVID-19 and Child Labour: A time of crisis, a time to act”, indicates that the pandemic may cause millions of children worldwide to fall into child labour, slavery, trafficking and prostitution. The ILO has declared 2021 as the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour. The Council of Europe, working with national governments and civil society organisations, is committed to contributing to the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals which relate to ending human trafficking and child labour in all its forms.
Protecting Children in the Western Balkans
In the Western Balkans, the overwhelming scale of the crisis exacerbates pre-existing inequalities, putting vulnerable populations at even greater economic and social risk. Data from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Serbia and Kosovo* show that children represent the majority of the presumed and formally identified victims of trafficking (around 66% in 2020). These children are trafficked within their countries of origin, within the region and/or to European Union or neighbouring countries. Children from disadvantaged communities, children in street situations, as well as unaccompanied and separated children, are prime targets for traffickers and exploiters.
Building on the human rights and anti-trafficking co-operation in the framework of the joint European Union and Council of Europe programme Horizontal Facility for the Western Balkans and Turkey 2019-2022, the regional conference will take stock of the impact of the national anti-trafficking measures on combating child trafficking. It will likewise define areas where improvements can be induced through capacity building, co-ordination and co-operation.
Drawing on existing evidence, in particular the findings of GRETA, the conference discussed new areas for action against child trafficking in the Western Balkans, addressing the full range of vulnerabilities faced by children in the region. The conference seeked to underline the importance of placing the rights of the child at the heart of every measure taken, including responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, while emphasising sustainable solutions that address root causes of exploitation and trafficking.
*This designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with UNSCR 1244 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo Declaration of Independence.