Podgorica, 8 November 2019 - Following an invitation by the Government of Montenegro, I conducted an official visit to the country from 1 to 8 November 2019 to assess the situation of trafficking in persons, especially women and children, and identify the progress made and remaining challenges in combating this human rights violation.
I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the Government for this invitation, as well as the full cooperation extended to me prior and during my visit. The fact that the Government welcomed my visit demonstrates the country's commitment to combatting trafficking in persons.
In my eight days in Montenegro, I had exchanges with a number of Ministers and government officials from the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Human and Minority Rights, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Health, the office of the State Prosecutor, the Supreme Court, the Police Directorate as well as members of Parliament and the office of the Ombudsman. I visited the registration and reception centre for foreigners and asylum seekers in Spuz and the alternative accommodation centre for asylum seekers in Konik. I also met with civil society organisations, working on the issue of trafficking in persons and related matters, and had the opportunity to visit two shelters, one in Niksic and one in Podgorica. Finally I also had discussions with representatives of the United Nations Agencies, Funds and Programmes, as well as members of the diplomatic community present in Montenegro.
According to my preliminary findings, and despite the fact that insufficient official information is available, Montenegro is a country of transit and destination for migrants following the so called Balkan route; given their situation of vulnerability, some of them can get trafficked and exploited during their journey. However, internal trafficking is also present, especially affecting Roma communities. Most probably, trafficking is particularly present in the coastal part of the country and primarily during the summer season, in which a probable incidence of trafficking in persons for the purposes of sexual exploitation, labour exploitation, domestic servitude and begging has raised concerns. In fact, a recent case identified concerns two Pakistani men victims of trafficking in persons for the purposes of labour exploitation within the context of the hospitality industry. Civil society expressed their concern that cases are more numerous than those that are currently identified.
Children, particularly from Roma communities, are vulnerable to forced and organized begging, while girls, both from Montenegro and abroad, have reportedly been sold into marriages in Roma communities in Montenegro and other countries. Some of the cases identified in the last year, in which prosecution has been initiated, include the case of a girl of the Roma community sold by her father for 5000 euros into an arranged marriage. Regarding trafficking for begging, another case was identified concerning four minors of the Roma community, forced to beg in the framework of an organized begging context. I welcome the prevention strategy adopted by Montenegro dedicated to Roma minorities, and especially commend education programmes aimed at discouraging early marriages, preventing drop outs from school, and ensuring that Roma children attend early childhood education, and primary and secondary school. Many other programmes aim to social integration of Roma communities including education, accommodation and employment opportunities.
Since 2017 Montenegro has become a significant transit country for migrants following the Balkan route. Through the so called Southern Balkan route people transit from Albania, through Montenegro and towards Bosnia Herzegovina. According to official statistics, the number of migrants in transit increased from 799 migrants in 2017, to 4580 migrants in 2018, and to 6380 from January to October 2019. Only within the month of October 2019, the number of migrants in transit reached 1038.This implies that also the number of potential trafficking victims is probably on the rise. Migrants in Montenegro see the country merely as a transit zone. While many express a first intention to seek asylum in the country, only very few stay long enough to complete the procedure for the determination of their refugee status. Reported information indicates that these migrants would only stay in the country for the necessary time to be able to find means to continue the journey towards other European countries.
In these circumstances, identification of cases of trafficking among migrants in transit is challenging. Migrants are not likely to reveal to officials elements that could lead to an identification of trafficking in persons, under fear of being delayed in their journey towards other European countries. However, interviews of asylum seekers that wish to obtain a refugee status in Montenegro can be a good opportunity to assess vulnerabilities to trafficking in persons. The collaboration of the asylum system and the system of protection envisaged for trafficked persons can add a layer of protection and ensure that appropriate measures are taken for those who in their journey are or can become victims of trafficking and exploitation.
I welcome legislative initiatives such as the law establishing a fund for compensation to victims of violence, which will facilitate trafficked persons’ access to compensation. However, this legislation, passed in 2015, will only enter into force after Montenegro’s accession to the European Union. I strongly recommend that the government and the Parliament bring forward the date of entry into force of this law, which is essential to social inclusion of victims and survivors.
During my visit I expressed concerns regarding the low number of victims identified and supported, and the low number of criminal proceedings. The government of Montenegro has recently changed its operational structure to combat trafficking in persons. Since August this year, an operational team, headed by the State Prosecutor in the Higher State Prosecutor's Office in Podgorica has been formed to lead operational activities regarding initiation of criminal proceedings. The operational team has initiated investigation and/or prosecution in relation to several cases.
Competent government authorities have established good cooperation with international organizations, such as IOM, with whom they have developed Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for the identification of victims of trafficking. The main objective of such SOPs, which are expected to enter into force soon, is to change the identification and support model. Under the current system assistance to victims is provided when the police formally identifies a victim, in the course of an investigation. With the new SOPs, formal identification of potential victims will be performed by a team including doctors, psychologists and police officials, regardless of whether an investigation or prosecution has been initiated.
I welcome the adoption of these SOPs, which have many positive implications. First, in the new model victim identification and early support will be the result of a collaborative process involving persons with different skills and backgrounds; secondly, assistance and support will be ensured to victims and potential victims of trafficking. Thirdly, and importantly, identification and early victim support will not be necessarily linked to the existence of an investigation, as it happens now in practice. Criminal proceedings can be terminated for many reasons, such as insufficient evidence. Still, the victim has rights that must be respected and needs that must be met. Regarding the composition of the operational team, I would like to encourage the inclusion of the labour inspectorate, to ensure a multi-disciplinary approach that is relevant for cases of labour exploitation, an area where identification has been particularly modest. I strongly encourage the government to adopt and implement SOPs immediately.
Regarding assistance and support to victims, there are weaknesses to be addressed as a matter of priority. I welcome the government approach to cooperate with NGOs and fund them to run shelters, for this is the most effective and victim friendly solution. According to information received during my visit, I understand there are four shelters in the country, out of which one is for children in Bijela, one is for men and victims at high risk in Bijelo Polje, and two are for women in Podgorica and Niksic. However, the last two shelters, run by licensed NGOs, are only supporting domestic violence survivors, also as a consequence of the low number of identified potential victims of trafficking. The only specialized shelter for trafficked persons operating for many years is currently closed as a consequence of the concerned NGO not fulfilling licensing criteria. I would like to underline that experience gained in the concrete running of the specialized shelter for victims of trafficking cannot be lost, and on the contrary must be valued, eventually through a transitional measure. Furthermore, the whole accommodation system should be prepared to operate on a regular basis for a higher number of potential victims of trafficking, which hopefully will be increasingly identified in the future as a consequence of recent changes in the operational structure.
Therefore, I strongly recommend the establishment of a more efficient and permanent system of support for victims. In the current situation, NGOs running shelters could not survive without the support of external and/or private donors. Therefore the whole funding system should be made more efficient, and anti-trafficking should be prioritized, in order to improve the country’s victim support record in the near future. Support to NGOs service providers should not be based on a victim by victim basis. Under the current system, civil society organizations providing assistance for victims including accommodation, are awarded a lump sum per victim per month, in addition to funds obtained through projects. This clearly does not suffice to cover victim assistance expenses and it is certainly in detriment of the sustainability of the system. An assistance system, including specialized shelters for trafficking victims, needs to be established on a permanent basis and its sustainability needs to be ensured by government funding. This is key also to improve and increase identification rates, as victims will more likely come forward if assistance measures, especially regarding adequate accommodation, are readily available as soon as they are identified. The new model of identification under SOPs, accompanied by a strong and permanent support system, can lead the country to achieve important results.
I commend Montenegro for the adoption of the Guidance developed in cooperation with the OSCE, regarding the non-punishment of victims for illicit activities they have been involved in as a direct consequence of their trafficking situation. In order to encourage potential victims to come forward, they must be reassured about the fact that that they will not be prosecuted. The principle of non-punishment of victims, contained in the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, is rarely implemented in the whole CoE region. In this regard, Montenegro can be an example, and show an innovative and effective approach.
In conclusion, I acknowledge that the country has recently developed innovative regulations and policies, which could offer the opportunity for Montenegro to take the lead in the region, especially regarding the soon to be adopted Standard Operating Procedures for victim identification and support, the Guidance on the implementation of the non-punishment of victims, and the Compensation scheme for victims of violence. However, such innovative measures need to be implemented, and this will ultimately be the real challenge. I urge the government authorities to establish an effective support system for victims and potential victims, in cooperation with experienced NGOs, including by allocating adequate funding. Some changes in the structure of responsibilities and tasks, in particular the replacement of the National coordination with an anti-trafficking unit within the Ministry of Interior, could give the impression of a de-prioritization of trafficking. Montenegro authorities at the highest level should show renewed political will to tackle trafficking as a matter of priority. The new government structures, in particular the operational team - which has already reached promising results - and the anti-trafficking unit must now prove that preventing and countering trafficking, even more than in the past, is a strong commitment of the whole government structure, and will produce concrete results in the near future.