The trafficking of men and women—whether for forced labour, or sexual exploitation—continues to haunt Albania. Why have successive governments failed to solve the problem?
In 2001, Daniel Renton—writing for Save the Children—mapped the trend of human trafficking in Albania. Other charities across Europe had noted the cases of Albanian men and women who had been taken abroad by criminal organisations—where they were often abused, imprisoned, coerced in to performing manual labour, or forced in to prostitution and sexual slavery.
Renton’s report is tremendously important, because he intricately discusses the issues surrounding this phenomenon, in interviews with both victims and perpetrators—across 9 key districts of Albania.
At the time of publication, Renton concluded [that]:
“…trafficking has been and still is widespread in the country and the majority of victims are children. Trafficking is usually conducted through offers of false marriages and jobs, or abduction and selling. In some parts of Albania, there is hardly a village that remains untouched. While the trend has shown a slight decline since 1997-98, trafficking of children for prostitution continues on an almost daily basis and the risks of recruitment remain high, especially for the poor and ill educated.”
In context, the years between 1996-1998 were particularly traumatic for Albania. The country’s notorious pyramid schemes collapsed, swallowing savings equivalent to one third of the nation’s gross domestic product. Riots, looting and state collapse, rendered many institutions corrupt and ineffective. A heavily armed and furious population vented their frustration against authorities. Italian peacekeepers were deployed to restore order and avert civil war. Almost simultaneously, open conflict began in Kosovo—displacing thousands, and rendering remote areas even more lawless than before.
A combination of economic trauma and supranational brutality left Albania susceptible to criminal networks. Albanians were uniquely vulnerable to the offers of a better life overseas which people smugglers often made—but, after 5 decades of isolation, they were also unprepared for the reality of the life which they imagined abroad.
Sixteen years after the publication of Renton’s report, Albania’s problem with trafficking remains unsolved. Studies conducted in 2010 by the United Nations suggest at least 140,000 victims of human trafficking in Europe. Based upon analysis by Italian authorities of identity, anywhere from 12.5% to 40% of the victims trafficked to their jurisdiction were of Albanian origin.
The United Kingdom identified 3,266 victims of trafficking in the UK during 2015, of whom the highest number—600 victims—came from Albania. This implied a rise in victims from previous years. Moreover, Albania represented the group most likely to be trafficked to Great Britain—constituting 18% of the referrals which authorities made to the country’s database. There have been minor improvements to the dire portrait which Renton delivered in 2001—but why is the situation still largely unchanged?
Firstly, those who reside in remote areas of the country still remain vulnerable. Many of the methods used by criminal organisations remain unchanged—although internet saturation arguably adds an additional dimension to this problem. For instance, the NGO TRACE—who have undertaken in-depth studies in to the role of technology in human trafficking—show that criminals deploy technology as a tool. Fake job advertisements are still posted—only now this is via social media. Certain perpetrators even initiate dialogue with prospective victims via messaging applications.
Secondly, Europe’s refugee crisis has also provided traffickers with new methods of diversion—as the mass movement of people has allowed victims to be mixed with other migrants en route to Western Europe. Yet there’s a far bigger problem here. Albania itself is not seriously contemplating and addressing the social, legal and cultural crises which still make the country highly susceptible to trafficking. Regrettably, we’ve made too little progress—and, too often, the blame for this inertia falls squarely at the feet of our own parliamentarians.
While the Albanian state is certainly stronger in 2017 than it was in 2001, trafficking remains widely misrepresented and poorly acknowledged. The Albanian Criminal Code is reasonably comprehensive in its definition of the offence, with articles 110 (a) and 128 (b) of the Criminal Code prohibiting sex and labour trafficking, and mandating penalties of 8 to 15 years imprisonment. The U.S State Department regards these penalties [to be] “…sufficiently stringent and [to] exceed those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape.” These charges may be considered sufficiently severe—but are strictly theoretical, unless they are actually enforced.
Proximity to power also buys perpetrators immunity from prosecution. Upon review of mandatory disclosures in July 2016, it was approximated that 19 of Albania’s 140 MPs had past or pending criminal charges—whether at home, or overseas.
Meanwhile, the Serious Crimes Prosecutor’s Office apprehension rate for trafficking is falling. Approximately 39 suspects were investigated in 2014. This fell to 25 suspected traffickers in 2015. Of 90 traffickers identified by the state police in 2014, just 18 were prosecuted. In 2015, this fell to 15. This means that a total of 11 traffickers were convicted in 2015. Only 8 received sentences within the range of eight to 17 years—as mandated by the constitution. This means that 3 of the perpetrators were given sentences more lenient than the constitution itself prescribes.
Government services and NGOs identified just 125 victims of trafficking and potential trafficking in 2014—a figure which fell to 109 individuals by 2015. Of the mere 4 shelters for victims of trafficking in Albania, only 1 is run by the government. While 12 new staff members were employed, and funding was dispersed to renovate this single facility, recent figures show that funding has practically halved in real terms. The budget allowance fell from 19,770,000 lek ($163,000 USD) in 2014, to 11,300,000 lek ($93,000) in 2015.
The aforementioned statistics do not even begin to represent the number of men, women and children who fall victim to trafficking in Albania. Even the most conservative statistics imply that tens of thousands of Albanians are implicated—yet our country provides support to just over 100 of the returning survivors. Our disregard for their reintegration in to life in Albania is expressed clearly through our spending patterns. Of the 25 million lek ($206,000) allocated to the government’s Special Fund for Crime Prevention, 5 million lek ($41,000) was disbursed to NGOs to support victims of crime. Not one single lek (nor dollar) went to support providers of services to trafficking victims.
The chaos of the late 1990s has cooled. However, the systemic faults highlighted by Renton now collude with a new set of problems—some constitutional, others related to misspending and corruption—which fundamentally ignore the scale of this problem. We’re still not sure who the victim is in this situation. They are poorly defined by both courts and society. They are repatriated to Albania as either a vagrant, a beggar, an illegal migrant or a prostitute. Until we truly acknowledge their status as a victim of human trafficking, Albania’s problem will remain unchanged.
 Lek/USD equivalent(s) correct per 2015 FOREX rates
Cover photo credit: Simon/flickr/some rights reserved.