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Preliminary observations on the visit to Montenegro by the UN Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, Mama Fatima Singhateh 8-16 September 2021

Montenegrin version

Podgorica, 16 September 2021

Good morning and thank you for coming.

Let me start by thanking the Government of Montenegro for the invitation extended to me to undertake my first country visit from 8 to 16 September 2021, and the full cooperation extended to my mandate prior to and during my visit. The objective of my visit was to assess the situation of the sale and sexual exploitation of children and measures adopted to prevent and combat the phenomena with a view to making recommendations to prevent and eradicate all forms of sale and sexual exploitation of children and assist in the care, recovery and reintegration of child victims. 

During my eight-day visit, I had the opportunity to meet with representatives of the executive, legislature and judiciary, as well the Child Rights Council, Deputy Protector of Human Rights and Freedoms, Members of the Parliament, children, civil society organizations, child protection service providers, and United Nations Agencies, Funds and Programmes, as well as members of the international community present in Montenegro. I also had the opportunity to visit children’s homes and shelters for children and child victims of trafficking, including the registration and reception centre for foreigners and asylum seekers in Spuz, the centre for children and youth in Ljubovic, as well as a Roma settlement in Niksic.   

I am grateful to the Government of Montenegro for their excellent collaboration during these extraordinary times amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. I would like to thank all State interlocutors for the constructive dialogue and look forward to continuing my engagement and receiving additional information, including the much needed data and statistics.

To everyone who met with me, and especially the children, service providers and representatives of civil society organizations, I want to express my gratitude for their readiness to engage in an open dialogue on the issue of sale and sexual exploitation of children in the country. I commend their dedication and commitment to providing protection and assistance to child victims and children in vulnerable situations.

I also wish to express my gratitude to the UN Country Team for its support throughout the mission. 

Positive steps and developments

Montenegro has made significant efforts to improve policy, legal and institutional framework for adequate prevention and protection of children and women from violence and exploitation. Montenegro has ratified some of the major international documents of relevance to the sale and sexual exploitation of children. It has also adopted a number of strategies and protocols including the Strategy for the Prevention and Protection of Children from violence (2017-2021), with a view to provide enhanced protection from all forms of violence, including neglect and exploitation, for all children in Montenegro by 2021, with a corresponding national action plan to implement this strategy and a multisectoral commission established to monitor the implementation of the strategy. 

I was pleased to learn about the 24-hour toll-free SOS hotline service for victims of domestic violence, as well as the SOS hotline for children I was also encouraged by the dedication and the commitment of the personnel at the facilities for children I had the opportunity to visit. 

For the purpose of my preliminary observations, I have identified the below outlined issues. These preliminary observations will be further elaborated in my final report to be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2022.  

Child trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation including child marriage 

Montenegro remains a transit country for persons subjected to trafficking and sale for sexual exploitation and forced labour, among other purposes. 

The law in place addresses the sale of children in the context of trafficking in human beings. Moreover, the Strategy for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings 2019–2024 uses the term "trafficking in human beings/children” and the crime of sale is not addressed separately. I recommend the distinction in law between the sale of children and child trafficking in line with the UN Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography.   

From the discussions held, it appears that a small number of cases of sexual violence against children are reported. This suggests underreporting and under-identification of victims. The discussions also revealed a culture of silence or tolerance towards such crimes, and that children are often disbelieved, not trusted or blamed for having fallen victim of sexual violence. 

With regard to child marriages, which may amount to sale of children for the purpose of sexual exploitation, forced labour and financial exploitation such as forced begging, it is difficult to establish its prevalence. However, it appears that this practice is significant among the Roma and Egyptian communities mostly due to their social exclusion, discrimination and poverty, among other vulnerabilities. This affects both boys and girls, but girls in particular. 

From the discussions held, child marriage is not always considered as a criminal offense, but rather part of tradition and customs. The negative impact of this practice on children’s health and education is undeniable. Children should not be exposed to arranged, early or forced marriages but rather should be nurtured to develop their full potential. The Government should ensure continual sensitisation and awareness raising programmes on this issue and step-up implementation of policies that will result in the total eradication on this practice. 

Online child sexual abuse and exploitation

The problem of online child sexual abuse and exploitation exacerbated following the lockdown during the pandemic when children had to resort to remote learning. This increased their exposure to the risks of online sexual exploitation and grooming. The lack of available data however makes it difficult to determine the extent of this phenomenon in Montenegro. Although the Criminal Code was amended to prohibit the use, procurement, or offering of children aged between 14 to 18 for the production of pornography, there is no appropriate legislation to criminalise grooming, including online grooming.

While the creation of the Group for Suppression of High-Tech crime within the Police Directorate is positive, such a unit should be strengthened by recruiting and training more experts in this field. I also strongly recommend the formulation of legislation and strategies to address online child sexual exploitation and abuse through the use of various forms of technology. Collaboration with law enforcement agencies within the region on this issue is highly recommended.

Sexual exploitation in the context of travel and tourism  

Montenegro is a well-known tourist destination. I was informed that during the tourist season one third of persons entering the country are not registered at the border. This increases the risk of trafficking for sexual exploitation of children and sexual exploitation in the context of tourism. I was encouraged to learn that a register for all persons entering Montenegro will be put in place in the near future. Considering the importance of this issue, I would recommend the appointment of a focal point on tourism in the Ministry of Interior to facilitate cooperation and communication between respective ministries. I also strongly encourage the Government to formulate policies, strategies and legislation to raise awareness on, detect, prohibit and punish offences and activities relating to the sexual exploitation and abuse of children in the context of travel and tourism. 

Vulnerable groups 

i. Children in disadvantaged and vulnerable situations, including Roma and Egyptian children 

Socio-economic disparities, poverty and exclusion create unequal opportunities and access to social services for children in the most marginalised communities, particularly children in the Roma and Egyptian communities. While the Government has carried out several initiatives to facilitate social inclusion and increase access to education for such communities, Roma and Egyptian children continue to experience discrimination and exclusion. This exposes them to exploitation and risks of being trafficked for the purpose of forced begging, sexual exploitation or early and forced marriage. 

I strongly encourage Montenegro to continue investing in social, economic and other measures for the Roma and Egyptian minority, provide awareness raising and education programmes as well as make efforts to promote gender equality, combat violence against girls and child marriage, and support policies for the empowerment of women and girls as a means of combatting the root causes of trafficking and sale. 

ii. Migrant children 

I had the opportunity to visit the Asylum Centre in Spuz, a State-run reception facility where men, women and families are accommodated in separate wings. Montenegro is a transit point for human trafficking of migrant children, including unaccompanied and separated children. I was informed that it appears to be a longstanding challenge to identify potential cases of child victims of trafficking and sale among the migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. This matter needs further attention. 

iii.    Children with disabilities 

From the discussions held with interlocutors, there is no specific data on incidences of violence, sexual abuse or trafficking of children with disabilities. The discussions further indicate that reports made on abuses against children with disabilities are not adequately investigated and the absence of data make these issues and incidences invisible. Montenegro has day care centres, home assistance for adult persons with disabilities but not for children. Such support, as well as psychosocial and counselling support should be provided for children where needed. I encourage the Government to collect disaggregated data on this vulnerable group and in addition, establish a register at the national level to inform policy development and strategies to prevent the risk of any sexual abuse or exploitation.   

Prevention and Response

I had the opportunity to visit homes and shelters for children and other victims of violence.  

In Bijela, I visited the Children’s Home “Mladost”, which is a national institution for children without parental care. While I commend the dedication of the staff to their work and to the children, I note that the centre is rendering services to children beyond its capacity and the mandate it was established to service. The issue of sale and sexual abuse and exploitation of children requires a holistic and multidisciplinary approach for the care, rehabilitation and reintegration of victims of this scourge. A dedicated centre would be highly recommended in this regard. I also hope that such new centre will adopt a multidisciplinary, holistic and interagency approach where all services are coordinated in a child-friendly and safe environment and provided in one facility.  

Gaps  

i. Data 

There is a lack of adequate and systematically collected reliable, centralised and disaggregated data on the phenomena of child sexual abuse and sexual exploitation, as well as a relatively low number of prosecutions and convictions related to child sexual abuse and exploitation. Data collection and coordination continues to be a challenge due to the lack of a unified centralised database. A large part of information in the child protection sector is dispersed among different institutions responsible for various child-related policies. It is of utmost importance to set up a proper system for comprehensive data gathering, including data on reported cases and prosecutions relevant to the sale and sexual exploitation of children. I also recommend establishing a confidential database of children who have been supported by the system, in order to keep track and follow up on their situation and provide them with the support the children are entitled to, as needed.  

ii. Cooperation 

I am also concerned about the lack of coordination among institutions and data sharing between child protection services, the police and the judiciary. This is an obstacle to ensuring holistic interventions, provision of long-term care, rehabilitation, accessible and sustainable counselling and follow-up of children victims of sexual abuse. I would thus strongly recommend establishing a coordination mechanism to identify and protect child victims, and strengthen the capacity of police officers, border officials and social workers to identify, assist and protect child victims.  

iii. Training and awareness raising 

During the discussions held, I learned that there is a lack of specialised professionals dealing with child trauma. For example, at the time of my visit, Montenegro had only three child psychiatrists. Specialised capacity building training is necessary to build a pool of experts to work with severe cases of abuse in a holistic manner, ensuring integration of children in the community and in education.  

I would strongly encourage the Government, through the Institute for Social and Child Protection, to design a comprehensive programme on child sale and sexual violence for accreditation, especially for case workers who work with victims and potential victims of abuse and exploitation. 

Conclusion 

Let me conclude by reiterating that I am grateful to the Government of Montenegro for inviting me to visit the country. This invitation and the cooperation provided during my visit indicates that there is a commitment to address the scourge of the sale and sexual exploitation of children, and provide victims with the vital care and support. I am encouraged by the significant work already done and hope that my visit and my forthcoming report will assist the country in making further progress in this area.

Thank you for your attention.