Bosnia and Herzegovina: Vanja and Anna find refuge in Mostar
Vanja* and Anna* have a lot in common, but nobody could have predicted their paths would cross in the southern Bosnian city of Mostar.
Vanja’s journey ended at a bar where nine other women, all trafficking victims, were kept locked inside. “I was very frightened when I saw where I was,” Vanja, 26, said. “I saw what the other girls were doing. Then I was told I was expected to do the same.”
Anna had responded to an advertisement in the local paper promising jobs abroad and was told she would be working as a dishwasher in a restaurant. After changing hands several times she arrived in Sarajevo where she was told by the bar owner she owed a thousand dollars, the price he’d paid for her.
“We were never given money and weren’t allowed to leave the house,” she said. “Only one woman was allowed to go out. She would bring back food and new girls."
Finding refuge at La StradaMore than two years after their ordeals began, Vanja and Anna have another thing in common – new hope for the future. After escaping they were brought by the police to Mostar and a shelter run by La Strada. Today, they’re both training to be hairdressers.
La Strada has been working to prevent the trafficking in women and children since it was formed in 2001. Its shelter houses up to 18 women, who are given psychological, medical and legal support. Most of the women, many under the age of 18, have been trafficked from poorer countries such as Albania and Bulgaria. They want to return home, but with no passport or visa and no rights within the Bosnian legal system the process can take months. Vanja, who is anxious to return to her five-year-old son, has been at La Strada for more than half a year.
“Bosnia has traditionally been a country of destination for the traffickers,” said Vildana Milvic, La Strada’s social assistance manager. “But internal trafficking within Bosnia is on the increase. Women and girls from poor areas are being trafficked to the cities or sometimes outside the country.”
Raising the public’s awareness of human trafficking is central to La Strada’s work. Workshops and discussions are regularly held across the country where promotional material featuring the organisation’s 24-hour hotline is distributed. “People are more informed now about trafficking,” said Vildana Milvic. “The message is getting out to women. But that means the traffickers look for other vulnerable groups such as young girls."
Like La Strada, UNICEF takes a human rights approach to combating trafficking in women and children. Rather than see trafficking as merely a criminal problem, UNICEF and its partner agencies are actively involved in policy coordination and advocacy to press for an overall improvement in the protection of victims’ rights.
The trafficking picture in Bosnia and HerzegovinaIn Bosnia and Herzegovina, UNICEF has assisted the government in developing a national plan of action to counter trafficking and in successfully advocating for the establishment of a national coordinator. A sub-group to combat trafficking in children was established within the State Commission in 2003.
UNICEF BiH also contributed to the development of regional guidelines for the protection of the rights of child victims of trafficking. The guidelines were officially endorsed by the government in December 2003 within the Stability Pact Taskforce on Trafficking in Human Beings.
Research undertaken by UNICEF and Save the Children Norway together with 12 local NGOs to determine the dimensions of child trafficking in BiH was concluded in the same month.
Bosnia also faces some particular challenges in the fight against trafficking. Its 14 separate political units span national, entity and cantonal governments. “That can make it difficult to get people to take responsibility for the issue,’ said Alexandra Savic, who manages La Strada’s shelter. “Then there’s the economic situation. Many of the staff working in the centres of social work haven’t been paid in months and don’t feel they have the resources to deal with the issue of trafficking.”
Few firm figures on the incidence of trafficking in Bosnia are available. Between 2001 and 2002, the United Nations Police Mission in BiH conducted 713 raids on bars and massage parlours where trafficking victims were believed to be working. Nearly 150 businesses were closed, but only 143 people were prosecuted.
"I came to La Strada and learned that I have real value. And I’m not afraid anymore.”The women, who work and live in the bars, are generally only taken away if they identify themselves as trafficking victims and request assistance. Either out of fear or helplessness, most don’t. Of the more than two thousand women who were interviewed during the UN raids, just over 200 asked for help.
A police raid on the Sarajevo bar where she was imprisoned was Anna’s route to freedom. She was able to find work as a cleaner, but continued to live in fear of her former captors. “I thought I was worth nothing, just the thousand dollars the bar owner paid for me. Then I came to La Strada and learned that I have real value. And I’m not afraid anymore.”
Svetlana has been given some money by La Strada so that when she returns home she can claim she had a regular job and avoid unpleasant questions. “I didn’t know there were people like this,” she said. “I didn’t know something good could happen to me.”
*Not their real names for security reasons
By Tim Irwin
For more information:
Erna Ribar, Communication Officer, UNICEF Bosnia and Herzegovina