The vulnerability of Roma children to commercial sexual exploitation.

In a village near Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina, there is a majority Roma settlement where exploitation of children for various purposes, including begging and sexual exploitation, has been reported.

In a village near Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina, there is a majority Roma settlement where exploitation of children for various purposes, including begging and sexual exploitation, has been reported.

Photo: Bahrudin Bandic

Commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) is a serious concern across the Western Balkans. An upcoming research report from the GI-TOC, which is expected to be published in April 2021, shows that children are exposed to diverse and often multiple forms of exploitation. They are most commonly exploited in local bars and hotels, but there are also reports of sexual exploitation of children on the move and in cyberspace. While the upcoming report focuses generally on children’s susceptibility to CSEC online and in the travel and tourism industry, our field research has also offered insights specifically on the vulnerability of Roma children, who are among the most endangered groups for CSEC across the region.

Roma across the Western Balkans often live in informal settlements where spaces are overcrowded and there is limited access to infrastructure and sanitation facilities. Indeed, in Albania, less than 50 per cent of all Roma households have access to piped water.1 Formalization of these settlements has been slow, and many Roma communities continue to live as closed-off groups, with little access to the formal economy or government services. In Kosovo, for instance, only 10 per cent of Roma above the age of 16 are reported to have access to health insurance.2 This marginalization has also facilitated the persistence of stereotypes around their way of living and their culture, language and traditions, which has made their integration into local societies more difficult.

The historical exclusion, marginalization and discrimination experienced by Roma has led to low levels of education and high unemployment. Only a small percentage of children have regular access to education. Primary and preschool enrolment rates are especially worrisome. In Serbia, preschool education covers less than 4 per cent of Roma, while in Bosnia and Herzegovina, only 2 per cent of Roma children aged three to five are enrolled in educational programmes.3 Employment rates range between 11 per cent in Bosnia and Herzegovina and 22 per cent in North Macedonia (with the rest of the Western Balkan countries located somewhere in between).4

These factors, among others, make Roma adults – and their children – vulnerable to various forms of exploitation. Most prominently, several reports have researched the role of Roma children in forced begging within the Western Balkans and in Western Europe.5 Roma children are allegedly forced to beg in most big cities and the region’s capitals. Roma children are also reportedly trafficked to seaside towns and touristic areas and are sometimes forced into sexual exploitation, especially sex work in local bars, restaurants and hotels.6

As described in the upcoming research report, a significant percentage of Roma children are forced into marriage by close family members or influential people in the community. Although data is inherently difficult to obtain and to access, previous reports have argued that more than 22 per cent of all Roma girls aged between 15 and 19 are forced into marriages in North Macedonia, while the figure for Kosovo stands at 10 per cent. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, 50 per cent of all Roma women get married before the age of 18 – a figure that very likely underrepresents real dynamics.

Girls (and, to a lesser extent, boys) aged between 10 and 167 are sold for marriage to men either in the same community or in Roma communities in neighbouring countries.8 Although many of these marriages take place within the broader Roma community, experts maintain that forced marriages can also be the beginning of a life of exploitation, composed of tasks ranging from begging and pickpocketing, to sex work in bars and nightclubs.9

Monetary compensation for girls forced into marriages within their own community or within other communities across the Western Balkans can be low, ranging from €200 to €500. However, such transactions do not always take the form of cash, as there are also reports of families selling their daughters for appliances such as a coloured TV, a used refrigerator or a second-hand car.10 More money, however, can be earned by selling children abroad, especially to Roma communities in Western Europe. Families are deceived into sending their children abroad in the hope of a better life for them (and themselves) but may not be aware of the implications.

Indeed, according to experts interviewed in December 2020, many of the children that are forced into marriage abroad are in fact sold to members of organized criminal groups and forced into organized sex work across Western Europe.11 This was most prominently observed in the so-called ‘Hamidovič case’ in 2015, where French and Bosnian authorities discovered more than 500 Roma girls and women who were trafficked from Bosnia and Herzegovina to France and forced into pickpocketing and sex work.12

There are few official statistics across Western Europe on CSEC in general or on Roma children as victims of human trafficking for sexual exploitation in particular. However, the Hamidovič case was not the only one brought to the attention of the media and judiciary in recent years. Operation Golf, a joint operation between the London Metropolitan Police Service and the Romanian National Police from 2007 to 2010, identified more than 1 000 Roma children from one Romanian town that were trafficked to Western Europe for forced labour and sexual exploitation.13 Investigations carried out in Austria identified 91 possible child victims of sexual exploitation in 2016, with 73 of those being from Bosnia and Herzegovina, most of whom were suspected to be Roma.14 Similarly, the 2020 US Human Trafficking report underlines the vulnerability of Roma children trafficked for sexual exploitation to various Western European countries, including France and Germany.15

The ‘Hamidovič case’

In 2015, French law enforcement agencies working together with the European Union Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation launched an investigation into Husmet Hamidovič, who was suspected of leading an internationally organized human trafficking network. Hamidovič, a Bosnian national, was found guilty of trafficking more than 500 mostly Roma girls and women from Bosnia and Herzegovina to France for the purpose of sexual exploitation, begging and pickpocketing. Another 22 girls belonging to his network were found in a house in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The network was also active in Austria, Belgium, Italy and Spain.

Many girls had been forced into marriage with members of the criminal networks to facilitate their journey between Bosnia and Herzegovina and France. Forged visas were obtained under false names primarily from the Bosnian Embassy in Paris, which charged between €500 and €1 200 for each document. The girls are reported to have travelled regularly between the two countries as they were tasked with bringing the money back into the Western Balkans.

Despite these cases, awareness on the commercial sexual exploitation of children in the Western Balkans, its links to organized crime and the vulnerability of the Roma community to this phenomenon is still low. The upcoming research report attempts to close this gap by providing a cross-regional overview of the topic. For example, it explores how forced marriages are often regarded as traditional in the Roma community and therefore are not investigated and followed-up as human trafficking cases by the authorities responsible. Roma are not recognized as minorities in all countries and many marriages and births are not registered, making it difficult for the community to obtain the documents and the institutional support needed in their country of residence.

There is much that must and can be done to better detect the vulnerabilities of Roma children across the Western Balkans and prevent CSEC in the region in the first place. This includes, among other initiatives, the need for more awareness raising, the opening of national referral mechanisms to the Roma community and the provision of specialized training for law enforcement and the judiciary. The full set of recommendations and steps forward were discussed at an expert group meeting on 11 and 12 March 2021 and will be made available in the report.


  1. Stephan Müller et al, Roma: Europe’s neglected coronavirus victims, BIRN, 1 April 2020,

  2. Ibid. 

  3. World Bank, Bosnia And Herzegovina—Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey 2011, 2013,

  4. Stephan Müller et al., Roma: Europe’s neglected coronavirus victims, BIRN, 1 April 2020,

  5. Zana Vathi, Children and Adolescents Engaged in Street Work in FYROM: Mobilities, Vulnerabilities and Resiliencies, Mario project, Budapest, December 2014,; Fatjona Mejdini, Coins and risks: The harsh reality of Roma beggars in Kosovo streets, 13 November 2018,; Anti-Slavery International, Anti-Slavery, Trafficking for Forced Criminal Activities and Begging in Europe. Exploratory Study and Good Practice Examples, September 2014, 21,; and many others. 

  6. Upcoming regional GI-TOC report on CSEC in spring 2021. 

  7. No age reference available. 

  8. World Bank, Bosnia And Herzegovina—Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey 2011, 2013,; and Kosana Beker, Regional report on compliance with UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention) relating to discrimination of Roma women in the area of healthcare, child marriages and offering support and protection to Roma women in cases of domestic abuse, Bibija Roma Women Center, 2019,

  9. Interview with civil society experts in the Western Balkans region, November/December 2020. 

  10. Reports provided by a civil society organization working with the Roma community in Bosnia and Herzegovina in January 2021; UNICEF Belgrade, Child marriage among the Roma population in Serbia, October 2017,

  11. Interviews with civil society experts in Bosnia and Herzegovina, December 2020. 

  12. Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Indictment S1 2 K 028556 18 K—Salčinović Elvis et al. 

  13. Anti-Slavery International, Anti-Slavery, Trafficking for Forced Criminal Activities and Begging in Europe. Exploratory Study and Good Practice Examples, September 2014, 21,

  14. Arbeitsgruppe Kinderhandel (AG-KH), Bericht 2015–2017‚ Prävention von Kinderhandel und Schutz der Opfer von Kinderhandel,; and Betteln, Prostitution und Diebstahl: Wenn Kinder zur Ware werden, Tiroler Tageszeitung, 14 October 2015,

  15. United States Department of State, Trafficking in Persons report 20th Edition, June 2020,