USDOS – US Department of State (Author)
The Government of North Macedonia does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so. Despite the documented impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on its anti-trafficking capacity, the government demonstrated overall increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period; therefore North Macedonia remained on Tier 2. These efforts included convicting more traffickers and issuing significant sentences. The government identified more victims and increased overall prevention efforts, such as drafting the 2021-2025 National Strategy and National Action Plan and regularly convening coordinating bodies for virtual meetings. However, the government did not meet the minimum standards in several key areas. The government diverted funding for victim protection towards pandemic response efforts, which jeopardized the continuation of mobile identification teams (mobile teams) and operations at the shelter for trafficking victims. Police did not have adequate funding and equipment to conduct proactive investigations, and the Organized Crime and Corruption Prosecution Office (OCCPO) lacked sufficient resources, including staff, to handle all cases under its jurisdiction. Inadequate identification efforts and corruption put potential victims at risk of being penalized for crimes they were compelled to commit. Official complicity in trafficking crimes remained a concern.
Vigorously investigate, prosecute, and convict traffickers, including complicit officials, and impose adequate penalties with significant prison terms. • Allocate sufficient resources to victim protection, including specialized services for adult male victims, and ensure the sustainability of the mobile identification teams and the shelter for trafficking victims. • Increase proactive identification efforts for trafficking victims and screen for trafficking among individuals in commercial sex, irregular migrants, refugees, and other at-risk populations. • Allocate sufficient resources to the police and prosecutors to proactively investigate trafficking. • Fully implement written guidance to prevent penalization of trafficking victims for crimes their traffickers compelled them to commit. • Establish access to alternative housing to accommodate victims when the shelter is full. • Provide accommodation to foreign potential trafficking victims in safe and appropriately rehabilitative settings and allow victims to leave shelters at will. • Institutionalize advanced training for judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement on trafficking investigations and prosecutions. • Train first responders on standard operating procedures (SOPs) for identifying and referring victims, and consistently include social workers in all potential trafficking cases. • Improve compensation mechanisms for victims and inform them of their right to seek compensation.
The government maintained law enforcement efforts. Articles 418(a) and (d) of the criminal code criminalized sex trafficking and labor trafficking and prescribed a minimum penalty of four years’ imprisonment, which was sufficiently stringent and, with regard to sex trafficking, commensurate with those for serious crimes, such as rape. The OCCPO investigated five cases involving five suspects (four cases involving 10 suspects in 2019), and the anti-trafficking task force investigated one criminal group with at least eight individuals suspected of child trafficking (six suspects in 2019). The government did not initiate new prosecutions with only 17 percent of courts regularly holding trials due to the pandemic (nine defendants prosecuted in three cases in 2019). Courts convicted nine traffickers for child sex trafficking and two for child sex trafficking and forced labor (five convicted for child sex trafficking in 2019). Judges issued zero suspended sentences; all convicted traffickers received sentences between four and seven years’ imprisonment (four traffickers received seven to 11 years’ imprisonment, and one trafficker received a three-year suspended sentence in 2019). Appellate courts upheld three convictions (appellate courts upheld four convictions and increased a sentence of one trafficker from 13 years’ imprisonment to 17, two sentences from 12 years’ imprisonment to 14, and one sentence from four years and six months to eight years in 2019).
The Combatting Trafficking in Human Beings and Migrant Smuggling Unit’s Anti-Trafficking Task Force (task force) within the Ministry of Interior (MOI) led specialized investigations. The OCCPO prosecuted trafficking cases but continued to report a lack of resources with only 10 prosecutors in the office to handle all cases under its jurisdiction. Additionally, the task force did not have adequate funding and equipment to conduct proactive investigations, and prosecutors did not routinely grant specialized investigative measures for trafficking investigations. As a result, authorities relied almost exclusively on victim testimony with little corroborating evidence. As in previous years, local police officers lacked an understanding of trafficking and did not consistently notify the task force of potential trafficking cases. Observers reported cases languished or were mishandled due to the absence of a digital case management system to transfer trafficking cases between different police and prosecutors’ offices.
The government, mostly with technical and financial support from donors, international organizations, and NGOs, trained judges, prosecutors, and officers in the task force on various anti-trafficking issues. The government did not conduct any international investigations or extraditions. Corruption and official complicity in trafficking crimes remained a concern, but in 2018, the government amended Article 418(a) to reduce the prescribed minimum of eight years’ imprisonment for convicted complicit officials to a minimum of five years’ imprisonment. Officials and observers continued to report low-ranking police officers may be complicit in trafficking, including hiding evidence, bribery, changing patrol routes to benefit perpetrators, tipping off perpetrators before raids, and/or direct involvement in organized crime. The government charged a civil servant with complicity in trafficking in 2017 and a municipal inspector for trafficking in 2016; the OCCPO reported that both individuals were standing trial before the Skopje Criminal Court for migrant smuggling. The government did not report any new investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees complicit in human trafficking offenses.
The government maintained victim protection efforts. The government identified seven victims (six victims in 2020); five were victims of sex trafficking and two were victims of forced labor, including one of forced begging (four victims of sex trafficking, one of forced labor, and one of forced begging in 2019). Of these, six victims were girls, and one was an adult male (four girls and two women in 2019); none were foreign victims (one foreign victim from Bosnia and Herzegovina and two from Kosovo in 2019). The government, in cooperation with NGOs, also identified six potential victims (124 potential victims in 2019); of these, there were five adults and one child (39 adults and 85 children in 2019); five were female and one male (91 females and 33 males in 2019); and the boy was a foreign potential victim (29 were foreign potential victims in 2019). Ministry of Labor and Social Policy (MLSP) maintained mobile teams comprised of social workers, law enforcement officers, NGO workers, and psychologists in five regions for vulnerable populations, including trafficking victims; mobile teams assisted 362 street children (mobile teams identified 86 potential victims and assisted 316 individuals in 2019). Mobile teams identify the majority of potential victims every year, and experts viewed the teams as a best practice in proactive identification and cooperation between civil society and government; however, sustainability of the mobile teams remained in doubt with their international organization-provided funding ending in 2020, and the government reallocating promised resources to pandemic responses. In addition to funding constraints, the pandemic mitigation efforts limited mobile teams’ ability to proactively identify potential victims. MLSP continued to dispatch social workers to screen vulnerable populations at border crossings and transit centers, and MLSP social workers and police continued to identify potential forced labor victims among predominately Romani children engaged in street begging and street vending. The government placed identified child victims in daycare centers and warned or fined their parents; in cases where courts deemed parents unfit to care for their children, the state placed the children in orphanages. Government and civil society actors raised concerns about the low number of identified victims, and experts reported most government agencies lacked proactive identification efforts. For example, border agents did not consistently screen for trafficking indicators at border crossings, and reports documented police abuse and authorities conducting illegal pushbacks to Greece. Police did not consistently screen for indicators during raids in casinos, nightclubs, and bars. The government maintained SOPs for the identification and referral of victims, and the Office of the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) within MLSP remained responsible for coordinating the identification and referral procedures. First responders referred potential victims to the Anti-Trafficking Unit and/or the NRM, which were authorized to officially identify victims. NRM officials and social workers participated in interviews with potential victims, but law enforcement did not consistently include NRM officials and social workers at the outset of identifying potential trafficking cases.
The government allocated 1.76 million denars ($35,040) to the MOI for protection and security of trafficking victims, particularly those staying at the shelter for trafficking victims, compared to 2.21 million denars ($44,120) in 2019. While the government planned to allocate 1.5 million denars ($29,920) to MLSP for social services, NGO activities, mobile teams, and other types of victim protection efforts (2.7 million denars ($53,860) in 2019), it diverted all funding to pandemic response efforts. The government still provided 810,000 denars ($16,160) for direct victim assistance at the shelter for trafficking victims, compared to 1.2 million denars ($23,940) in 2019; however, this covered only a small percentage of the shelter’s operating expenses, and the shelter relied heavily on funding from the international community to continue operations. The government and NGOs provided potential and officially recognized victims with protection and assistance, including food, clothing, medical assistance, psycho-social support, rehabilitation, and reintegration services. However, foreign potential victims required official recognition to receive support at the shelter for trafficking victims. MLSP assigned a guardian from a social welfare center to victims while they were at the shelter, and MLSP-run social service centers maintained one social worker at each of the 30 centers dedicated to providing assistance to trafficking victims, including psycho-social support, reintegration assistance, education, and job placement. The government and NGOs provided assistance to 14 official and potential victims (89 in 2019), including basic necessities to five (89 in 2019), counselling and medical assistance to seven (30 in 2019), legal assistance to four (seven in 2019), and vocational training for four (three in 2019). The government did not provide specialized assistance for adult male victims. The shelter for trafficking victims accommodated female and child victims with the capacity to house five victims, but the government did not have additional capacity to accommodate victims if the shelter was full. In 2018, the government amended legislation to accommodate domestic and foreign potential trafficking victims at the shelter; however, the transit center continued to accommodate most foreign potential victims. The shelter allowed victims freedom of movement, but the transit center did not permit foreign potential victims to leave without a temporary residence permit. Observers reported poor living conditions at the transit center. During 2020, the shelter housed five victims (five in 2019), and the transit center did not house any victims (one foreign victim in 2019). The law permitted foreign victims a two-month reflection period to decide whether to testify against their traffickers, followed by a six-month temporary residence permit, regardless of whether they testify; no foreign victims requested residence permits in 2019 and 2020.
Inadequate identification efforts and corruption put potential victims at risk of being penalized for crimes they were compelled to commit. Observers reported local police deported foreign potential victims before their two-month reflection period expired. Additionally, local police detained and deported individuals in commercial sex without screening for trafficking indicators or notifying the task force, according to experts and government officials. The government, in cooperation with an international organization, trained 19 judges on non-punishment of trafficking victims. Victims voluntarily cooperating in court proceedings generally cannot leave North Macedonia before testifying in court; however, prosecutors, with the consent of the defense, can make exceptions and allow a victim to leave the country prior to testifying in court, upon giving testimony before a prosecutor, and in some cases, before a pre-trial procedure judge. Six victims gave statements against their alleged traffickers (eight in 2019). The government reported no victims required witness protection services in 2019 and 2020. Judges did not issue restitution as part of criminal sentences, and while victims can claim compensation through civil proceedings, the complexity of the process often dissuades victims from pursuing action. One trafficking victim was successfully compensated in 2020. The government and civil society continued efforts to develop a victim compensation fund which allowed authorities to allocate compensation to victims from seized criminal assets.
The government maintained prevention efforts. The government implemented the 2017-2020 National Strategy and National Action Plan, and the National Commission (NC), composed of 12 government agencies led by the national coordinator, regularly met virtually, published its 12th annual report on government anti-trafficking efforts, and drafted but did not adopt the 2021-2025 National Strategy and National Action Plan. The NC also supported seven municipal-level anti-trafficking commissions in implementing their local action plans. The Anti-Trafficking Secretariat, composed of government agencies, the international community, and civil society, operated under the NC and held regular meetings virtually. In the previous reporting period, the government established an independent office of the national anti-trafficking rapporteur within the Ombudsman’s Office, selected a new national rapporteur, and hired staff for the office. The national rapporteur drafted a report on the government’s anti-trafficking efforts and, in December 2020, signed a memorandum of understanding with an NGO to cooperate on monitoring government efforts. The NC distributed anti-trafficking brochures and leaflets, organized workshops and lectures at schools, and implemented an awareness campaign for the general public.
The law prohibited illegal and unreported employment and set out criteria for labor recruitment, defining the terms of employment, employer obligations, and employees’ rights. The NC maintained a “Codex of Cooperation” with hospitality and hotel companies to prevent forced labor in the tourism industry. The Labor Inspectorate conducted regular inspections to verify compliance with labor laws, issued warnings and fines, and sanctioned businesses; labor inspectors inspected 16,892 businesses in the first six months of 2020 (11,749 businesses in 2019) and issued fines ranging from $1,080 to $8,630 for labor law violations ($625 to $7,800 in 2019). The government did not operate a hotline, but MOI managed an application to report various offenses, including trafficking; the application received three trafficking-related reports (three trafficking-related reports in 2019). Observers reported cases of Romani children not registered at birth, so the parents lacked the registration and identification documents to access health care, social protection, and education. The government did not make efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex.
As reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in North Macedonia, and traffickers exploit victims from North Macedonia abroad. Women and girls in North Macedonia are exploited through sex trafficking and forced labor within the country in restaurants, bars, and nightclubs. Sex traffickers recruit foreign victims, typically from Eastern Europe and the Balkans, including Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Romania, Serbia, and Ukraine. Citizens of North Macedonia and foreign victims transiting North Macedonia are exploited for sex trafficking and forced labor in construction and agricultural sectors in Southern, Central, and Western Europe. Traffickers exploit Romani children through forced begging and sex trafficking within forced marriages. Irregular migrants and refugees traveling or being smuggled through North Macedonia are vulnerable to trafficking, particularly women and unaccompanied minors.