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Sexual exploitation and human trafficking in Serbia: the hidden taboo



This article will explore a taboo subject in Serbia, which the domestic Police and authorities deny exist and international actors know nothing about. It is about the recruitment of Serbian and other women in the region for the purposes of selling sexual activities involving them for money. The phenomenon is at its most concentrated in Belgrade, but it affects other parts of the country, in both larger cities and smaller settlements.


The premise of this problem is the extreme social conservatism of Serbia, in which issues of sexual exploitation, paedophilia, incest and domestic violence - which is rife - are unmentionable subjects. Yet they all take place in the Republic of Serbia, just as they do everywhere else. The Serb culture is such that everyone refuses to talk about it.


Women occupy a subservient role in Serbian culture, denied promotion and access to the best jobs and often working for peanuts in the service industry in higher concentrations than is proportionate to their gender. Serbian society gives high priority to the family, which is typically patriarchal and is dominated by the authority of a single male member of the family. Women do not feel able to speak up about the violence and sexual crimes committed against them in such circumstances, that are prolific and far higher than in other European countries. The fact that the Police fail to respond to complaints by women about sexual and other violence perpetrated against them by men compounds the problem.


Men routinely refer to women as 'bitches', including to their faces. Sexual violence by men against women is commonly observed in nightlife venues, with no consequences or protests from any of the witnesses.


It occurs more frequently than it ought to that women in higher education are propositioned by their professors into sleeping with them in exchange for higher grades. Sex with the boss is also a fairly common condition of the informal employment relationships which dominate the Serbian labour market.


The social norm against speaking about sexual violence against women is so ingrained in Serbian society and is so all pervasive that it is very hard to learn the nature of a still more sinister array of commercial arrangements that often underly patterns of sexual violence. It has taken the brave observations and openness of small number of Serbian women, to which full anonymity is being provided, for this author to be able to uncover underlying financially motivated patterns of abuse.


There are various models of abuse. The more traditional one was to get young women addicted to highly addictive drugs such as amphetamine and cocaine, and then have them visit certain well known nightclubs where they would have sex in nightclub toilets in exchange for more drugs; the 'pimp' (i.e. the male supervisor) taking a fee for the woman's sexual services.


A less serious but also concerning example of the same kind would involve having drug addicted women attend Belgrade nightclubs with men they do not know, with amphetamine or MDMA (two so-called 'party drugs, that relax inhibitions) in their drinks. The pimps would take a fee for this. The payors would typically be Serbian Gastarbeiters (i.e. Serbian men working abroad). This remains a continuous phenomenon.


Another common business model is to traffic so-called 'supermodels' (i.e. very attractive and only semi-dressed) Serbian women to jurisdictions such as Switzerland, Monaco and Turkey, to spend the weekend or longer with high-paying clients in exchange for a proportion of the high fees charged and a continuous supply of drugs.


A more recent model has been to force Serbian women into prostitutuion in Belgrade with foreign men to pay their drug debts after getting them addicted to some or the most serious and addictive drugs, such as heroin and crack cocaine.


Foreign women are also potential victims of scams like this, in particular women from Eastern European countries. Unscrupulous Serbian men pull unfamiliar foreign women into drugs and sex scams.


These problems are compounded by a taboo against psychiatry and against receiving psychiatric treatment; and an acute shortage of psychiatrists as a result.


Another aggravating factor is the absence of refuges or treatment centres for women who are the victims of sexual violence in the Republic of Serbia.


Nor are there drugs rehabilitation clinics in substantial quantities whose details are known to the general public. They do exist in small numbers, but there is significant social stigma associated with using them, including by the people who run them who often have conservative attitudes that intimidate their would-be patients.


Serbia suffers from a regressive drugs policy, and a policing and courts system in which witness and forensic evidence are both given insufficient weight. The Police generally only give credence to evidence of their catching someone 'red-handed'. They are too mechanical in their approaches to investigating serious crimes and in particular dealing with complex criminal networks, who may keep the Police on their payroll to turn a blind eye.


Widespread poverty is a major aggravating factor, as is endemic drug use.


The government is progressive on these issues and Prime Minister Brnabic is doing her best. But she does not control the institutions of the Police and internal security whose work is necessary to fight these sorts of plague.


Finally the Orthodox Church can be responsible for covering up such crimes and the activities or organised crime groups, and individual members of the Church may participate in such crimes themselves.


There is a huge amount of work to be done in combatting sexual exploitation and the trafficking and exploitation of women in general in the Republic of Serbia.