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Balkans: Traffic in women and girls 'on rise'

Publish Date: 18 Dec 2003

FINANCIAL TIMES

The "white slave trade" - the sale of women and girls into prostitution and children into forced labour - is growing in the Balkan region, according to a report published yesterday by the United Nations and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

International efforts to stop the trafficking of women and children in and through south-east Europe have yielded "no actual decline" in the illegal trade, even as tougher police and border patrolling have succeeded in cutting off some transit routes from the region to the European Union. Instead, ringleaders of the illegal trade have abandoned old trade routes and adopted new methods.

For example, where overland routes are now blocked, Moldova-based gangs have begun transporting victims by air into the EU, the report alleges. Crime bosses operate with impunity in the region and elected leaders are sometimes complicit in their crimes, it says.

The alarm sounded by the report, backed by facts and figures from the region, will be an embarrassment to Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Albania and countries of the former Yugoslavia.

Romania and Bulgaria may be hit particularly hard, having been encouraged by the European Commission to prepare for membership in an enlarging EU as early as 2007.

Liberalised visa regimes with the EU mean that citizens of both countries, along with citizens of Moldova allowed to carry Romanian passports, can be smuggled more easily into the EU but cannot be traced because they carry legitimate papers.

The report also reflects poorly on international efforts to fight the stubborn influence of Balkan criminal gangs, increasingly perceived as a serious security threat not just in their home countries but in western Europe.

"The reality is that there is no time to rest on our laurels," Helga Konrad, head of anti-trafficking affairs for the EU-sponsored Stability Pact for South East Europe, says in the report's foreword.

A new collective security strategy adopted by leaders of the EU's member states at last week's summit in Brussels accuses "Balkan criminal networks" of illegally trading 200,000 women.

The document notes a further need to increase crime fighting efforts already boosted earlier this year, during the Greek presidency of the EU, which placed a high priority on fighting Balkan crime.

But traffickers resist direct international pressure. In Kosovo, Serbia's breakaway province run by the UN and occupied by Nato, the report warns of increasing illegal migration including the slave trade.

Such difficulties mirror those faced in efforts against heroin smugglers.