How to Talk about This to the 'Outside'?

by Mirjam Karoly1

In her latest report on Trafficking in Human Beings in South Eastern Europe, Ms Barbara Limanowska criticises the Romani community’s attitudes towards trafficking. According to her research in 2003, many practitioners involved in combating trafficking emphasised “...the involvement of some Roma people in trafficking, the lack of critical voices from within Roma communities and of Roma involvement in anti-trafficking work. NGOs working on trafficking issues complained about the lack of access to this group, the lack of interest on the part of the Roma community to address the issue and lack of co-operation between organisations – inside the community and between Roma and non-Roma NGOs.”2

In recent times, attention is increasingly paid to the involvement of Roma either as perpetrators or as victims of trafficking in human beings (THB). In particular, the appearance of “street children” in Southeastern Europe and in Western European cities seems to be a rising issue. However, with few exceptions, 3 such discussions are based more or less on anecdotal information and assumptions. There is a considerable need for a broader analysis of the extent to which Roma are affected by human trafficking. 4 Lack of documentation and analysis also helps sway public opinion towards the stereotypical views that Roma “traditionally undertake illicit activities” and carry on “outdated customs”.

On the other hand, if we look at the possible root-causes of human trafficking such as poverty, lack of economic opportunities, crisis situations, and the pervasive discrimination against Roma and their overall exclusion, several communities definitely would fit into a “high risk” group. Moreover, as a consequence of the wars in the Balkans, many Roma are internally displaced, lacking any access to legal job opportunities, health services or proper education. All these factors might influence the vulnerability of Romani men, women and children, to human trafficking for sexual purposes, labour exploitation, illegal adoption and removal of organs.

The fact that Roma are often believed to be among the traffickers influences the reluctance of Romani activists to address the topic. Dealing with the issue as such is assumed to reinforce existing prejudices. Another problem arises from the broader interpretation of the term “trafficking in human beings”, which is no longer narrowly interpreted to refer only to women forced into prostitution, but also includes a wide range of issues affecting both sexes, and including children. A broader view on the human trafficking problem is also offered by Barbara Limanowska, who stated: “In 2004, increasing indications that trafficking is conducted by and within Roma communities became evident. Some argue that it is part of traditional Roma cultural practices, such as early, arranged marriages, unequal position of the family members, using child labour- especially for begging – others, that it is a consequence of belonging to the most highly discriminated and poorest group in the society where trafficking is used as a survival strategy”. 5 This interpretation touches topics which are understood to be taboo in several communities. For many Roma they are very sensitive issues, hardly, if at all, to be discussed within the community and particularly not with “outsiders”.

How can respect for universal human rights be reconciled with the desire to keep a distinct ethnic/cultural group identity, which requires from its members the maintenance of traditional customs as a basic condition? This question was raised during debates among Romani participants in the regional training workshop “Trafficking in Human Beings: Its Effects on Romani Communities”, held in Belgrade in 2004. The training, implemented in co-operation with the non-governmental organisation Roma Information Centre, based in Kragujevac, was developed within the Contact Point for Roma and Sinti Issues (CPRSI) of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) project “Awareness Raising for Roma Activists on the Issue of Trafficking in Human Beings”. 6

Trafficking in children for labour exploitation and customary marriage provoked serious debate intertwining a number of issues such as state responsibility, individual and/or parent responsibility, customary practices which violate individual rights and customary practices versus criminal activities.

Trafficking in children for labour exploitation was presented through examples of children being exploited for the purpose of begging, washing windshields at cross-roads, and selling small items on the streets, either alone or accompanied by adults. The examples also included children who were sent away and were taken across borders or transferred to different places within a country. In particular, the findings of the child trafficking study in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH)7 prompted a debate on the different opinions on child labour and child labour exploitation. On the one hand, participants stressed that Roma might resort to sending their children to work due to poverty, and therefore in some situations child labour may be the only solution for the survival of the family. One participant explained that he himself had to support his family when he was underage -- a reality for many poor families. On the other hand, the parents' responsibility was also addressed. One participant told stories of parents who "rent out" their children to work off the family's debts. This was understood to be firstly, an abuse of the children, and secondly, an example of lack of parental responsibility.

It was further stressed, that parents are often unaware of what their children are forced into and the possible risks children face. Albanian children who are “rented out” and trafficked to Greece 8 for labour exploitation are exposed to threats, physical and psychological violence, and are an easy prey for other forms of maltreatment such as sexual exploitation. As reported by Terre des Hommes, “Many children described us the ill-treatment suffered, such as cigarette burns on the body, blows, verbal abuse or the obligation to swallow a solution of shampoo to make them ill or being made to sleep outside…” 9 In addition, according to the Albanian participant, parents are unaware that they may “lose” their children, who, when detected as unaccompanied minors by Greek authorities, can be placed into youth centres. 10 It was commonly agreed, that informing and co-operating with parents is essential for combating child labour exploitation. Moreover, there is a need to educate the parents about the right of the child to education. As explored through a particular case, presented in a film documentary 11 promoting education of Romani children in BiH, child labour exploitation is often linked to the absence of legal remedy, failure of social assistance, shortfall of youth welfare offices or failure of health and school institutions to act in the interest of the child.

Customary marriage versus “selling the bride”. The issue of customary marriage (here also referred to as arranged marriage, early marriage and dowry system 12 ) among some Romani groups gave rise to two types of discussions: on the one hand, participants weighed traditional practices against individual rights; on the other hand, they drew a clear line between traditional practices and criminal activities, pointing to unfair labelling of customary marriage as “buying and selling brides”. Such labels blur the distinction between the traditional practices and criminal activities such as trafficking in women for labour or sexual exploitation and eventually lead to the perception that Romani traditions are of criminal nature.

Some participants insisted that arranged marriage is part of their tradition; they defended it as being of crucial importance for the group identity and stressed that this topic should be debated within the community rather than in public or in front of outsiders. Their fear was that an open discussion on this issue would cause misunderstandings, lead to the criminalisation of traditional practices of some Romani communities and bring harm to Roma in general.

Other participants, however, strongly objected this position and insisted that the issue of customary marriage should be discussed openly. They expressed the need to change the custom of early, arranged marriage and insisted on respect for the right to education and personal autonomy of Romani girls and women. Participants pointed out that traditions are always subject to change and advocated abandonment of traditions which deny Romani children the right to education and prevent the advancement of Roma. One participant illustrated the changing traditional patterns by way of a personal example: she was married according to the tradition at the age of thirteen. Her father-in-law, however, provided her with an opportunity to finish secondary school and then law school.

The discussion also revealed that sometimes purely criminal activities are perceived by the majority as traditional practices within the Romani communities, thus reinforcing the stigmatisation of Roma. Some participants, for example, felt that the description of the traditional marriages as “buying and selling brides” was humiliating. In their view, abusive practices such as buying Romani girls and/or women and then forcing them to earn back the money spent on them should not be taken as examples of the Romani tradition to pay a dowry for the bride.

OSCE and UNICEF representatives used specific examples to explain the cases of human trafficking and how to distinguish them from cases in which the traditional dowry system is involved.

Human trafficking takes place when all three elements (below) are present. However, in cases of child trafficking only the first and third elements have to be present. ?Means? are not taken into consideration. In case of the dowry system, it would be a clear trafficking case when one element of the purpose (sexual exploitation, forced labour, services, slavery, servitude, removal of organs) is present.

1) ACTIVITIES: Recruiting, transporting, transferring, harbouring, receiving
2) MEANS: Threat, force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power, exchange of money (goods to obtain the consent of the ?guardian?)
3) PURPOSE: Sexual exploitation, forced labour, services, slavery, servitude, removal of organs

A number of broader issues surfaced throughout these discussions: on the one hand, it was acknowledged that certain traditional practices are harmful and that despite being customary for some groups, they should be changed in order to remove the barriers for the development of the individual members of the Romani communities. On the other hand, participants articulated the danger of blurring the distinction between purely criminal activities, traditional practices, and survival strategies among Roma with the effect of stigmatising Romani communities in the public perception. Finally, the discussions made clear the particular vulnerability of the Romani communities to trafficking crimes caused by the general exclusion of Roma and by the state's abandonment of responsibility with regard to Roma.

The debate on customary marriage reflected the diversity of Roma and showed a clear distinction between female and male participants’ reading and interpretation of traditional patterns. While men emphasised the importance of custom law marriage for the group identity, women stressed the importance to ensure the right of personal autonomy and education.

Another broad issue addressed was the attitude towards Roma of the various individuals involved in research on Roma. Together with the reports presented by Romani activists from Serbia and Montenegro, Macedonia and Romania, 13 professional research methodology was introduced to the participants, prompting a debate on the methodology of research and problems encountered by Roma and non-Roma. For non-Romani researchers the most challenging problem was the lack of trust on the part of the Romani communities they had approached. Roma participants stressed the importance of inclusion of and consultations with Romani NGOs. They further emphasised the following concerns related to research in Romani communities: For many “outsiders” Romani communities often appear “closed”, culturally homogeneous and reluctant to establish contacts with the outside world. Researchers should be prepared to understand and recognise the variety of the Romani communities, which are not comparably vulnerable to trafficking. Hence, researchers should be aware that ethnicity can be one, but not the only factor which puts people in a particular vulnerable position to fall prey to traffickers. The correlation of ethnicity with other factors such as poverty, socio-economic position, lack of education, access to the job market, social benefits or other remedy, level of integration as well as the special country or regional features of human trafficking, must be taken into consideration. There was common agreement that more documentation is needed in order to draw conclusions based on facts rather than assumptions. The necessity of a common approach of Roma and non-Roma to combat THB within Romani communities was also agreed upon.

For most of the Roma participants the topic of THB was new. However, they showed high interest in combating THB. They emphasised that the issue as such is difficult to assess within the community, in particular when the cases concerned might challenge the community itself, for example forcing the community to re-think its position towards child labour or women’s rights. Several Roma activists expressed the wish to address the issue of combating THB within their community but recognized the need for a specific training to address it properly. Some expressed the need to establish a regional task-force or network. The Macedonian participant from the non-governmental organisation PHURT wished to follow-up this activity by discussing her report findings at a national round-table in order to prompt common actions. It was recommended to promote awareness raising campaigns on risks and dangers of THB for communities which lack access to other mainstream campaigns. The need was emphasised to build capacity among Romani activists, in order to assist Romani NGOs in starting to address the issue at the community level as well as to facilitate the inclusion of Romani NGOs in mainstream anti-trafficking networks. The importance of mainstreaming the issue of Roma victims of THB was stressed, as werethe need to raise awareness on the gender aspect of THB and the necessity of addressing the issue of Romani women victims of human trafficking.

The ODIHR-CPRSI regional roundtable showed that the Romani activists are aware of the problems related to human trafficking and willing to tackle the issues by working to raise awareness within the Romani communities. The event also showed that there is much work ahead, particularly when it comes to defining a position within the Romani community. This has the potential to be especially painful when individual human rights might conflict with traditional customs or when the perpetrators of human rights violations against Roma are also individuals of the Romani communities. As illustrated by the training, the very first step is an open discussion. This might lead to a common language on how human rights abuses can be addressed, irrespective of where the perpetrator comes from. With respect to the victims, we have to acknowledge the given facts as a pre-condition in order to effectively develop measures to prevent and combat human rights abuses, in this case human trafficking.


Limanowska, Barbara (2005) Trafficking in Human Beings in South Eastern Europe published by UNDP with the support of UNICEF, UNOHCHR, OSCE-ODIHR.

OSCE-ODIHR CPRSI: Assessment Trip to Albania on Trafficking in Children from Roma and Egyptian Communities. Report, 6-21 June, 2003

Surtees Rebecca (2005) Regional Clearing Point’s Second Annual Report on Victims of Trafficking in South Eastern Europe published by IOM. (publication planned for July 2005)

Terre des Hommes (2003) The Trafficking of Albanian children in Greece.

UNICEF, Save the Children (2004) Research on Child Trafficking in Bosnia and Herzegovina.


  1. Mirjam Karoly is a political scientist. In 2004 she was project manager at the OSCE-ODIHR Contact Point for Roma and Sinti Issues, implementing the programme "Awareness Raising for Roma Activists on the Issue of Trafficking in Human Beings". Before that she worked at the Vienna-based NGO Romano Centro, Vienna. For further information please contact:
  2. Limanowska, Barbara (2005). Trafficking in Human Beings in South Eastern Europe, published by United Nations Development Program (UNDP); the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNOHCHR), the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE-ODIHR) and the UNICEF, p.64.
  3. In general, it is difficult to gather data on THB. Most data rely on secondary information, either from police, shelters or other outreach organisations. In addition, due to data protection, ethnicity is often not registered. However, in recent years some reports were published which give a clearer picture in a number of countries. See for example, Terre des Hommes. The Trafficking of Albanian children in Greece. 2003; OSCE-ODIHR CPRSI: Assessment Trip to Albania on Trafficking in Children from Roma and Egyptian Communities. Report, 6-21 June, 2003, available at:; UNICEF, Save the Children. Research on Child Trafficking in Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2004
  4. However, in the course of finalising this article, I was informed of the forthcoming publication by Rebecca Surtees ?Regional Clearing Point?s Second Annual Report on Victims of Trafficking in Southeastern Europe?, which will also include data on the ethnicity of the victims. This report, based on data of assisted victims of trafficking, may shed light on the correlation of ethnicity and vulnerability to trafficking in some countries of SEE. From excerpts I could read, the report documents a significant vulnerability of Roma within the region. In particular, in two countries a specific pattern of trafficking seems to be interrelated with ethnicity. In 2003, out of 26 assisted Albanian victims of trafficking for begging/delinquency and labour, 20 persons were Egyptians (77%), 3 Roma (11,5 %) and 3 Albanian (11,5%). In 2004, out of 44 Albanian victims, 13 were Egyptian (29,6%), 18 Roma (40,8%) and 13 Albanian (29,6%). Further, there is a significant number of female Romani minors from Bulgaria who are trafficked for labour, begging and delinquency. In 2003, 10 Roma (76,9%) were assisted out of 13 cases and in 2004, 9 Roma (75%) out of 12 cases. Also, among the 122 assisted Bulgarian victims trafficked for sexual exploitation in 2004, 41 were Roma (33,6%), 9 Turkish and 2 Pomak. For the first time in 2004, nine Bulgarian cases trafficked for adoptions were also documented. Out of these 9, 5 are Roma (55,6%), 2 are Pomak (22,2%) and 2 are Bulgarian (22,2%).
  5. Limanowska B., Ibid., p.64.
  6. The OSCE/ODIHR-Contact Point for Roma and Sinti Issues is tasked by the OSCE Permanent Council Decisions, No. 557, Action Plan to Combat Trafficking in Human Beings and No. 566, Action Plan on Improving the Situation of Roma and Sinti within the OSCE Area, to address the issue of trafficking in human beings (THB) among and Roma and Sinti communities. In 2003, the CPRSI issued, in co-operation with the ODIHR-Anti Trafficking Unit, the report ?OSCE CPRSI Assessment trip to Albania on trafficking in children from Roma and Egyptian Communities?. The regional round-table training was organised for 18 participants from the region (Albania, BiH, Bulgaria, Croatia, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Moldova, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro and Kosovo). Further, local and international experts from various anti-trafficking fields participated. For the detailed agenda, please contact the ODIHR-Contact Point for Roma and Sinti Issues (
  7. See UNICEF, Save the Children, Ibid.
  8. Although the participants referred to Romani children only, it must be stressed that according to the existing documentation, the majority of assisted victims belong to the ?Egyptian? community, see Terre des Hommes, Ibid., p.16.
  9. See Terre des Hommes, Ibid., p. 21.
  10. As the authorities have to act in the best interest of the child, the repatriation of the child is based on an assessment of the conditions a child will face upon referral, including the possible risks to be re-trafficked.
  11. ?Absent, Roma in School? produced by the OSCE mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
  12. With regard to the customary marriage, the participants also referred to the terms arranged marriage, early marriage and dowry system, meaning the custom among some Roma groups to arrange the marriage of their children by choosing the partner for them and agreeing on a dowry. Usually the dowry is given by the family of the groom to the family of the bride. As virginity is an important value within the customary marriage, it can be interrelated with the arrangement of the marriage of a minor bridal couple. The term ?customary marriage? means the couple is viewed as married by the community but not necessarily by the administration.
  13. Within the project three Romani activists conducted reports on ?Trafficking in Human Beings: Its Effect on Roma Communities?. All of them were in contact with other mainstream anti-trafficking actors for their research. The reports were conducted in Serbia by an activist from BIBIJA, in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia by an activist from the NGO PHURT and by an independent Romani activist from Romania.

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