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PRESENTED ALARM report by the prEUgovor Coalition for the period May-October 2023

Today, November 22, 2023, at the Hotel Metropol Palace, the prEUgovor coalition presented the latest Alarm – an independent semi-annual report on Serbia’s progress in Cluster 1 (Fundamentals) for the period May-October 2023, focusing on political criteria and chapters 23 (Judiciary and Fundamental Rights) and 24 (Justice, Freedom, and Security) of the accession negotiations with the European Union.

Speakers at the event included Jasmina Krunić from ASTRA – Action against Trafficking in Human Beings; Nemanja Nenadić from Transparency Serbia; and Bojan Elek from the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy. The discussion was moderated by Jelena Pejić Nikić, the coordinator of the prEUgovor coalition.

The reporting period – from May to October 2023 – saw Serbia in a kind of state of emergency. Two mass murders among minors and young people in early May traumatized Serbian society and prompted the government to take a series of reactive measures that sidelined planned reform activities. These tragic events exposed systemic failures in the country revealed the most severe consequences of fostering a culture of verbal and physical violence in public spaces, and triggered mass civic protests and demands for accountability, to which the government partly turned a deaf ear and partly unleashed repression. The end of October also marked the anniversary of the government’s term, which then entered a technical mandate by calling for snap parliamentary elections on December 17, 2023.

All presenters agreed that, in the case of the May events, the state showed a lack of accountability, tolerance for ruling violence, an inability to introduce measures to improve the safety of the most vulnerable, and a tendency to introduce formal solutions that contribute nothing.

The mass murders that occurred in May this year revealed that the institutions of Serbia are not ready to take responsibility for the widespread violence in our society – explained Jasmina Krunić from ASTRA briefly.

Mass protests “Serbia against violence” in Belgrade and other cities in Serbia showed that citizens are aware of systemic problems and their potential and real consequences. The lack of substantive reforms in the areas of freedom of expression and media, as well as in police reform and the fight against corruption and organized crime, is regularly noted by the European Commission and the prEUgovor coalition, among others, as stumbling blocks for Serbia in achieving the rule of law standards required within the framework of European integration. The problematic functioning of democratic institutions, monitored within the political criteria, hinders progress in these areas of chapters 23 and 24. There was no willingness in these institutions to address key and already identified problems, while responsibility was avoided.

Combating and fighting against human trafficking (May-October 2023)

We present some of the main insights from this edition of the alarm. The publication in its entirety can be found HERE!

During the reporting period, increased activity was finally recorded regarding the overall state framework for combating human trafficking in Serbia. However, the adequacy and quality of implemented and announced activities are highly questionable. In addition, a review of the achievement of indicators of the impact indicator of Transitional Measure 8 related to combating human trafficking (AP 24) indicates a significant deterioration in key indicators: the average number of filed criminal complaints, discovered criminal offenses, perpetrators, and victims for the past four years shows very modest performance, while a comparison of the last two observed years (2021-2022) shows that the number of discovered criminal offenses has decreased by more than a third, there were twenty percent fewer filed criminal complaints, and a quarter fewer discovered perpetrators, while the biggest drop was recorded in the case of those who are most vulnerable, i.e., nearly half as many victims were discovered.

After four years without a session of the Council for Combating Trafficking in Persons, a key body for managing, coordinating, and supporting the cross-sectoral response to human trafficking, a shift finally occurred – an updated decision on the establishment of the Council was adopted. The Ministry of European Integration was added to the composition of the Council, but the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technological Development was removed.

Before starting the process of developing a planning document, a report was prepared: An external assessment of the strategy to combat human trafficking, which is intended to serve as a basis for further work and planning because, among other things, it maps key challenges and obstacles recorded in the implementation of the previous Strategy and Action Plans. As stated in the report, more than two-thirds (63.6%) of the institutions invited to participate in focus groups and interviews organized for the purpose of the External assessment did not respond or otherwise participate in the process even after repeated invitations.

Regarding one of the few achieved activities from AP 24, the introduction of an independent rapporteur for human trafficking, through the amendment of the Law on the Protector of Citizens (2021), there is still no visible progress in establishing and functioning this function of the Protector of Citizens, almost two years later. Regarding the case of potential labor exploitation of Vietnamese workers at the Linglong tire factory in Zrenjanin, the report was finally published on October 12, 2023. The basic conclusion of the report is in line with the assessments that the Protector of Citizens made two years ago, namely that there were no elements of the criminal offense of human trafficking in this case. The support team for victims of human trafficking ASTRA still possesses hundreds of pages of data collected in communication with workers, copies of documents (contracts, agreements, etc.), and official responses from state institutions that leave many questions from this case unanswered.

The National Office for the Coordination of Activities in the Fight against Human Trafficking (Office), whose role is to submit reports and initiatives to the Council, finally got a director after several months.

The proposal for amendments and supplements to the Law on Social Protection, especially significant for the National Referral Mechanism for Victims of Human Trafficking (NRM), finally reappears in the Government’s Work Plan (May 2023). This document should redefine certain rights, types of services, institutions and service providers, user groups, mechanisms for quality control, and responsibilities in establishment and financing. The deadline for the proposal is December 2023. Although the deadline is approaching, public debate on the proposed amendments has not yet started, nor is the document with the proposed amendments publicly available.

For almost three years, Serbia has not officially adopted a document in the field of combating human trafficking, as AP 2021-2022 was not adopted due to irregularities in the financial part of the plan. In the meantime, two important international reports, the Evaluation Report GRETA, and TIP report, have sent a series of worrying assessments and recommendations to the state of Serbia in the field of prevention, combating human trafficking, and protecting victims. The inclusion of both these reports in the initial documentation set in preparation for the process of adopting a new planning document in the field of combating human trafficking was positively assessed by some participants and representatives of civil society organizations. Unfortunately, as the experiences of ASTRA representatives show, in the process of preparing and implementing the creation of a new planning document, it is almost certain that most of the lessons learned from the previous period will not be applied. In a very short period, from the public call to NGOs to apply for participation in the process (July 2023), the formation of the Working Group (August 2023), and the accelerated conduct of workshops (September and October 2023), we recorded very worrying phenomena. It seems that the document (of unknown classification so far) will be rushed, of poor quality, and most importantly, it will again be “no one’s” or – only the Ministry of the Interior’s. Read a more detailed explanation in the report itself.

Data on the work of the Center for the Protection of Victims of Human Trafficking in the first nine months of 2023 are largely not available on this institution’s website. From the data that was available (February-May period), it was seen that the Center identified a total of 23 victims during that period, of which 13 were underage victims.

ASTRA – the Victim Support Team, through the licensed SOS phone, processed 3169 calls and preliminarily identified 18 victims in the period from January to the end of August 2023 (8 months). The support team for victims of ASTRA in this and previous periods has a number of observations on the violation of victims’ rights in the practice of institutions: from secondary victimization, deprivation of the right to reflection, bypassing the two-step decision on granting victim status, lack of knowledge of the essence of the criminal offense of human trafficking by competent authorities, to the lack of proactive investigation in these cases, etc.

The observations of the Support Team coincide with a broader analysis of the context of protection and support for victims of human trafficking in Serbia. This is also evidenced by the findings of an annual analysis of judgments for the criminal offense of human trafficking and related offenses, conducted by ASTRA for more than a decade. The analysis shows that during 2022, a total of 16 first-instance judgments were rendered (one-third less than in 2021).

Only five first-instance judgments were rendered in connection with the criminal offense of human trafficking. More than half (56%) of the total number of judgments (nine) were rendered with the acceptance of plea agreements, indicating a continued increase in the number of court decisions made with a plea agreement.

As in every ALARM so far, a series of RECOMMENDATIONS are presented to mitigate these shortcomings:

  • Urgently revise the approach to the method of drafting a planning document in the field of human trafficking;
  • Consider options for changing the operational framework for combating human trafficking in Serbia;
  • Continue to monitor relevant EU strategic and operational frameworks and initiatives and change domestic frameworks accordingly;
  • Change the way progress is reported on the fulfillment of activities from the Action Plan for Chapter 24;
  • Adopt sub-legal acts ensuring the minimum activities and standards that institutions must meet when addressing issues related to human trafficking;
  • Improve the capacity and resources of the Center for the Protection of Victims of Human Trafficking;
  • Enable market and labor inspections to monitor high-risk sectors and suppress unethical and exploitative practices;
  • Further improve the victim referral system;
  • Conduct a proactive, independent investigation into the complex case of Vietnamese workers at the “Linglong” factory in Zrenjanin.
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