In the period from September 2 to 5, 2023, within the framework of the “Pilot project for the early warning system for missing children”, implemented by Journalists for Human Rights and managed by the partner organization ECPAT-Austria, a study visit was conducted for Austrian journalists for capacity building and networking and exchange of experiences for journalists reporting on social issues and raising awareness on the issue of missing children.

Two journalists from Austria, Florian Bayer, a freelance journalist and Martin Tschiderer, journalist from Der Standard, came to North Macedonia for a four-day study visit. Although the group was planned to consist of four Austrian journalists, unfortunately due to unpostponable obligations two other confirmed journalists had to cancel their participation right before finalizing the travel arrangements, and although efforts were made by them to find replacements in their media, and in other media by the teams of JHR and ECPAT Austria, the limited period of one week was not enough to confirm other participants. However, several Austrian journalists expressed interest in the project and willingness to arrange a visit and report on the topic in coming months.

Austrian journalists Florian Bayer and Martin Tschiderer started the study visit in the afternoon on October 2nd with a networking dinner with four journalists from North Macedonia, Pelagija Mladenovska from Radio Free Europe, Elizabeta Najdeska from MIA news agency, Sonja Delevska from Sakam da kazam – online media and Srgjan Stojancov from Telma TV, along with Austrian attaché Mag. Harald Fugger from the Federal ministry of Social Affairs, Health, Care and Consumer Protection, Aleksandra Radevska, project coordinator from JHR and also president Filip Spirovski, Natasha Dokovska and Andrea Nakova. The participants exchanged experiences on how the social topics and especially child trafficking and missing children are covered in the media locally but also regionally and also where the networking could help in developing stories in the future. Also the issue of access to information and cooperation with institutions was discussed, as well as the activities implemented in North Macedonia with the support of the Federal ministry of Social Affairs, Health, Care and Consumer Protection of Republic of Austria. The meeting was fruitful and all the journalists shared the willingness and need to network and cooperate in the future in developing stories that contribute to the improvement of child safety and public awareness on the topics of missing children, trafficking of children and risks like poverty, absence from school, online predators etc.

The second day started with a visit to the Ministry of Interior of North Macedonia, where Austrian journalists were welcomed by representatives from the Sector for Criminal Investigations, Department for Suppression of Organized and Serious Crime, and the Property and Violent Crime Unit, Criminal Police Department. Nikola Ristovski, Independent inspector in the Unit for fight against migrant smuggling and human trafficking, Sector for Criminal Investigations, Department for Suppression of Organized and Serious Crime in the Ministry of Interior presented the National Unit for Suppression of Migrant Smuggling and Human Trafficking (Task Force). He presented the trends and the cases, where North Macedonia is defined as transit country because of the geographical position, the existence of organized criminal groups and mixed refugee and migrant groups in illegal migration. It is a country of origin because of economic and social position, unemployment, hope for a better life abroad, and as a country of final destination (victims of trafficking in persons) in a small percentage, for work in bars, restaurants, nightclubs, seasonal workers, but also forced marriages, modified modus operandi.

His colleague Vane Nakov, Unit for fight against migrant smuggling and human trafficking, Sector for Criminal Investigations, Department for Suppression of Organized and Serious Crime, referred to the exchange of information which is going well through different channels like secure channels of Europol/Interpol/Selec in the fight against organized criminal groups for trafficking in persons and protecting the victims. As he explained there is a noticeable increase of sophistication of organized criminal groups.

Baže Dimitriovski, Chief Inspector in the Property and Violent Crime Unit, Criminal Police Department, Ministry of Interior, gave an overview of the organizational unit whose basic description and list of responsibilities is the undertaking of activities related to the problem, first of all, of the disappearance of persons, including children. Units of MOI that work on missing persons are the Sector for international police cooperation-Searches, Interpol, the Department for Suppression of Organized and Serious Crime, all sectors for internal affairs in the country, the Department of the Crime Police with the sector for general and violent crime. In that sense, the Criminal Police Department coordinates activities together with the relevant Units, Departments, all Sectors for internal affairs on the territory of the Republic of North Macedonia for the detection, elucidation, proof and prevention of this type of crime. He mentioned also ways of disappearing children: by committing a crime or by self-abandonment and leaving home. Motives for disappearance of children due to a crime are: illegal deprivation and abduction as a basis for extorting money, forcible abduction of child and adoption of child by one of the parents due to problems in marriage – divorce and assignment of the child, human trafficking and other modes. Self-initiated departure and abandonment can happen due to dissatisfaction with family life of spouses, disturbed relations between parents and children, forbidden love, health problems.

They also answered questions that journalists had regarding children in risk and living in precarious conditions, as well as the numbers of children going missing and solved cases, but also about the cooperation with JHR and how it can help in prevention of children going missing as well as spreading through different channels a missing persons profile in order to speed the search and successful outcome.

In the afternoon the journalists went on a field visit to an informal settlement where they got to talk to a family that was part of the case studies conducted in the project to identify risks of children missing schools and possible risks of going missing. They had a chance to get familiar with the social, economic, infrastructural challenges of the people in these settlements and what institutional support they get. They were interested to know more about the actions the institutions take or should take care of families with people that lack basic health and social benefits, while children attend school or are about to, but also lack school allowance over two years because of administrative bank mishaps.

Some of these questions were topic of the discussion on the third day of the study visit when the journalists met with representatives from the Ministry for labor and social policy of North Macedonia, and representatives and the director of the Public Institution Inter-municipal Center for Social Work of the City of Skopje, Izeir Memedi. Journalists were introduced to the work of Centers for social work that function on the territory of the city of Skopje and are coordinated by the Intermunicipal center and services they provide on social care for families and children in need without parental care. It was also mentioned that there are three Daily centers for children in risk that function in the city of Skopje which give services for assistance in education, health and social habits. Journalists were interested in the process of cooperation between the Ministry of labor and social policy and other institutions, like schools, municipality, police in the efforts to prevent children from missing school or even going missing in cases where family care is not efficient, or there is social and economical risk that might inspire families to search for better life in European countries sometimes periodically sometimes permanently. They were also informed about the work that MLSP is doing along with other institutions when risk of a child is perceived, by taking calls 24/7 and going onsite with the intervention teams to assess the situation and take further action.

In the afternoon the journalists had the opportunity to visit a peri-urban area of Skopje where they heard the story of a family in social risk and the challenges they face because they still do not have documents although born in the country like their parents, but are in process of getting them now. Because of this they do not have social benefits or health benefits, lack education as well as their children, and have no way of entering the labor market except doing informal work in waste collection and separation not earning enough for basic needs while paying for a rented room. They also explained there is need for spaces for accommodating homeless and challenges for finding a location from municipalities as well as financial support long-term.

The study visit concluded on the fourth day with a visit to CSO Kindness – helping homeless and socially disadvantaged families and persons, where journalists hear about different actions and mechanisms for help like free meals, assistance in obtaining legal documents, social services, housing and saving habits, but also preparation and prequalification to enter the labor market.

All the meetings and discussions during the study visit gave journalists insight into the situation of families in risk, and challenges for institutions and the wider public to minimize the risks for children missing school or even going missing. Their stories that will be developed for two media in Austria are with the goal to shed a light to the topic, familiarize the public with risks that are sometimes not perceived as well as inspire more interest and more space for social topics in media both locally and on European level. The study visit will also give a chance to networking among journalists to develop stories that will get a wider reach and greater impact.