Human trafficking in Serbia: Interview with NGO ASTRA.

Marija Anđelković, founder and executive director of ASTRA.

Marija Anđelković, founder and executive director of ASTRA.

Photo: Supplied

In Serbia, sexual exploitation has been the dominant form of human trafficking for 20 years. Women and girls, the latter typically between 12 and 13 years old, are the main victims. In recent years, however, the country is seeing increasing cases of labour exploitation. Between 2020 and 2022, a total of 77 victims of human trafficking were reported, with 43 of them being subjected to forced labor. The majority of these victims were men originating from India and Vietnam.

The GI-TOC spoke to Marija Anđelković, founder and executive director of ASTRA, a Serbian civil society organization countering human trafficking through victim assistance, education, prevention and research. ASTRA runs helplines for human trafficking and missing children.1 Anđelković spoke about ASTRA’s achievements, human trafficking trends, the work of insitutions, and the possibility of introducing a new public-warning system for missing children in Serbia.

It has been over two decades since ASTRA was founded. What are you most proud of?
In 20 years, close to 57 000 people have called our helpline and we supported almost 600 human trafficking victims. We received over 4 000 calls to assist in finding missing children and confirmed 143 cases. The children were found in almost all cases. We were among the first to raise human trafficking issues in Serbia, which led to policy changes. Twenty years ago, the police did not even have data on sex trafficking. Today, this topic is addressed by experts. Through two decades of education, research and networking, we have helped support victims. We are respected as a partner and our organization is credible.

In the 2021 Global Organized Crime Index, Serbia received a score of 5 (out of 10) on human trafficking. The score is slightly lower than the global average of 5.58. Have you noticed new trends and forms of human trafficking in the country?
Sexual exploitation continues to be the dominant form of human trafficking in Serbia. The victims are predominantly women and girls. However, labour exploitation has increased following economic crises and migration flows. According to our data, from 2020 to 2022, 43 of 77 human trafficking victims were specifically subjected to labour exploitation. These are mainly workers from India and Vietnam.2 In addition, the number of minors among the victims and domestic trafficking within Serbia are increasing.

What can you tell us about regional trends?
Sexual exploitation is the most prevalent form of human trafficking in the Balkans, representing 80% of the 520 recorded human trafficking cases in the region. Forced begging, forced marriage and labour exploitation follow. Over 80% of victims are women and girls. However, the number of male victims is increasing, mostly in the realm of labour exploitation. Over 40% of victims are children under 18 years old and the median age is getting lower. For girls, it is 12 or 13 years old. Domestic trafficking is also increasing. The number of identified victims by state authorities varies, but most cases go unnoticed.

How are human traffickers perceived in Serbian mainstream media?
Due to sensationalism in the media, convicted human traffickers are promoted as businessmen, ordinary people who are wrongly understood and accused. One of them has even been nicknamed the ‘pop pimp’ and has become a prominent speaker on legalizing prostitution. With this approach, potential sexual exploitation victims are being placed in the entertainment domain. The names of women sex workers were published, along with prices for their sexual services. Civil society appealed for an investigation on these media outlets but, as far as we know, the prosecution did not respond to it.

You mentioned labour exploitation as an emerging issue. The case of a Filipino woman has currently drawn the public’s attention in the country, raising conflicting opinions. Prosecutors claim that there are no elements of human trafficking. What is this about?
In the case of this foreign worker, there are clear indications of labour exploitation. The employment contract is unlawful because the job description does not correspond to the victim’s work. Her employer took her passport. It was returned when the employer decided to send her back to her home country, dissatisfied with her complaints about poor working and living conditions. Instead of the agreed 8 hours, she worked 14 to 16 hours daily. Her duties were constantly expanding and her salary was not paid regularly. On top of that, her movement was restricted. She was not allowed to leave her employers’ house without their permission.

Does this case point to systemic problems in Serbia?
Public institutions responsible for identifying victims did not follow legal procedures, thus violating the rights of the potential victim and putting her in a less favourable position than when she arrived in Serbia. Due to the fact that a politically active family was involved in the exploitation, there is a justified suspicion that external pressures influenced the outcome of this case.

ASTRA has been analyzing court verdicts on human trafficking for 11 years. What are the main findings?
About half of the cases initially qualified as prostitution were reclassified as mediation in prostitution, a lesser offence. The female victim is thereby discredited because it is interpreted that she was acting voluntarily. Out of 587 victims supported by ASTRA, three received a decision on compensation in a civil court procedure, but only one managed to implement that decision. She received €2 000 in three instalments. In the other two cases, the traffickers managed to get rid of the property before the victims received compensation. Victims are also subject to criminal prosecution. The process of rehabilitation and reintegration of victims is lengthy, challenging and often relies on the capacities of civil society and the perseverance of individuals from state institutions.

What are the main challenges for victims of human trafficking in Serbia?
When victims leave the trafficking chain, they are often socially stigmatized and met with prejudice. They may be discriminated against, insulted and faced with suspicion. In public spaces, they may hear degrading comments, such as at the doctor and even in the courtroom, where they do not get the status of a compassionate witness. In trials, some are sat next to abusers. All of this traumatizes and revictimizes them.

In January 2023, an initiative was launched in Serbia to introduce Amber Alert, a system for alerting the public in specific cases of missing children. What are your thoughts?
Child abductions that would meet the criteria for alerting the public via an Amber Alert are extremely rare in Serbia. Also, it is unknown whether an Amber Alert will be declared only if there is a suspicion of child abduction or if the criteria will be expanded. But it is crucial to carefully assess the benefits and potential harms of triggering such an alarm.

Another concern with the Amber Alert system is expanding the video surveillance network that uses biometrics and facial recognition to find a missing child. In our opinion, Amber Alert should not necessarily be associated with enhanced video surveillance because it is primarily directed to activate citizens in a specific region and invite them to pay attention to suspicious circumstances in case a child is missing.

Research shows that Amber Alert has pros and cons. A significant number of missing children have been found, particularly in the US, where the system is mainly used. However, the system also has its downsides. Too frequent advertising in certain territories encourages citizens to tune out, may disturb the public and may contribute to the abductor’s feeling of panic. It can encourage abductors to assassinate a kidnapped child.

The country’s strategy to combat human trafficking expired in 2022. Moreover, the action plan for 2021 and 2022 was never adopted, while the Council for Fighting Human Trafficking did not meet for several years. What does this say about efforts to counter human trafficking in Serbia?
The issue of human trafficking is a low political priority in Serbia. We are disappointed that we have not received any feedback on the action plan outcomes, except that we were informed that it was not formally adopted due to financial resources. As a result, all stakeholders were left without insights into the results. We have repeatedly drawn attention to the fact that the Council has not met for the fourth year in a row despite circumstances that required regular meetings and planning responses to numerous challenges.

What are the main weaknesses of the existing institutional system?
Lack of knowledge, and prejudices and misperceptions from a number of officials from the police, prosecution, judiciary, social protection services and the health, labour and education sectors are the main weaknesses of the current system. This prevents these officials from recognizing the vulnerabilities of people at risk and victims of trafficking, and reacting appropriately to protect their rights and provide support. There is also low awareness of the consequences of exploitation and limited support services for victims.

What is the solution?
The government needs to focus its efforts on designing an intersectoral, comprehensive and targeted prevention programme, because once a person falls into human trafficking and goes through various forms of exploitation, the damage has already been done. Support is weak and life circumstances in Serbia are challenging. Institutions inevitably push victims into further risks.


  1. For more information about ASTRA, see

  2. Indian workers exploited in the Serbian road construction, ASTRA, 2023,; Would you really buy this? The mass case of trafficking in human beings for the purpose of labour exploitation in Serbia, ASTRA, 2022,