After 1991, Albania embarked on the very difficult road towards democracy. What its people discovered was that political freedom came with a price to pay. What once “was free” now had a monetary value. Any goods that were required, a job, a service from the state, now was offered only after money changed hands. The judiciary was weak and often biased in favour of criminal activities, for example, land was occupied illegally, blocks of apartments, shops, restaurants and bars were built without permission, the courts later legitimizing illegal building practices. Also, particularly in the early ‘90s, civil society was far too weak to make both government and citizenry properly accountable.
Under the previous Albanian Communist state, organised economic criminal activity had been well established since the 1960s; undertaken in agreement with the Italian Mafia, with the approval of the Political Bureau, secret agents (Sigurimi), and the Border Police force, smuggling cigarettes across the Adriatic Sea. In July 1991, the Sigurimi was dissolved, which meant around 10,000 people lost their jobs and privileges. They used their specific skills and the links they had already established with the West and the Albanian Diaspora. Those who once fought to save the old regime under the name of communism and patriotism now, in a liberal democracy, became ruthless profiteers.
London’s Evening Standard states:
“Principal among them is a former Albanian policeman who has been granted asylum here and who lives in east London. His name cannot be revealed for legal reasons but he is known widely in ethnic Albanian circles as a wealthy and powerful figure. This man, Bledi – not his real name – has contacts across Europe reaching into the ranks of the Mafia groups that control crime in the former Soviet countries, including Russia. Through these contacts, Bledi purchases women. They may come from the impoverished cities of Russia, the Baltic states, Romania, Moldova or the Balkans”…“A member of the Albanian community in London, who has witnessed first-hand the bartering and commercial disposition of women, provided a stark description of the activities of Bledi and others. This man is currently living in a safe house in fear of his life. Bledi and his associates say they smuggle in two girls every 10 days. They are usually sold for $10,000 each [around £6,000], depending on how attractive and potentially lucrative they are.”
The face of Albania was changing rapidly in the nineties. Young Albanian women were being trafficked into Western Europe. In addition, many young women were brought and bought in from Eastern Europe by Albanians, to be used as sex slaves. Often in Albanian beauty salons Slavic girls appeared. They did not speak a word of Albanian, the pimps spoke for them. The beauticians knew, so did the police, and that knowledge was a national shame.
As today in Albania, all ugly deals are done in silence. No-one sees, does, or is involved in a bad deal. Many of the parents of sex slaves would say proudly that their sons were involved in drugs because they know that it is a more “prestigious” business than the prostitution their daughters had been encouraged or forced into. Little did they know! All they wanted was the gift from their children of big houses, often with swimming pools attached, and expensive imported cars.
To gain an understanding of the impact of the prostitution within Albanian society, it is necessary to read the accounts of survivors. Below are the stories of two Albanian girls both forced into prostitution in their early-nineties. Their information has been secured through a person who has worked in both Albania and the United Kingdom in government service. For legal reasons the names used here are not their real names.
1993 found Nela at fourteen years old, just having left school, and living in a small and neglected village which had been part of the communist cooperatives in south-east Albania. Her mother and father were both ill, with no state benefits available – poverty-stricken like the majority of their fellow citizens at that time. The family was given some land after the collapse of the dictatorship but it was clear that they were not going to be able to make much of an income from this. Nela had the apparent good fortune to be introduced by chance to a young man from the city, who she fell in love with. This young man also appeared to “love” her very much. After a mere two weeks he was happy to meet her parents and ask for their hand in marriage. They agreed to his proposal.
Nela is blonde, tall and slim. Immediately following the marriage, she told the authorities that, “I was raped more than a few times every night before I left Albania”. She was then taken on a boat straight to Italy where she spent a week with her new husband’s “sister”, a woman who on parting she never saw again. Then she was taken to the town of Reggio Emilia. That was where she discovered the full horror of the future her husband intended for her. She was forced onto the streets every night after 11 p.m., from where men would have sex with her in their cars, or after having taken them to a hotel or their homes.
After six months her “husband” vanished. She had been sold to somebody else. The new pimp was less of a thug. He spoke gently but you knew immediately when you had done something wrong. His face would become stern. In her second year as a prostitute she was taken to a hospital to have an abortion. The three years of her life in Italy were hell. “The physical and sexual humiliation I and other girls suffered is indescribable,” she says. Her last pimp was arrested in Rome because he was caught by the Carabinieri with drugs in his car. That gave her the opportunity to leave Italy and return home. She is now settled in a small town in Albania and looking after her brother who was born with a mental impairment. She finds herself unable to get angry. She cannot cry! She wishes rather that she hadn’t been born.
Diana comes from a town in the Centre of Albania. At only 15 she was introduced to a man who worked in Italy and who promised her and her family a better life. Her family’s neighbour, who arranged their first meeting, was fully aware of who he was and what she was going to be doing with him in Italy. She was the intermediary, rewarded for her betrayal.
Diana and her small family lived in a ramshackle communist building. Diana has dark hair and cuts it short. She is of average height with pale skin and green eyes. She is shy and very quiet. She put on a nice dress for our meeting. Diana and her parents agreed for her to emigrate to Italy. Given false ID she flew to Rome with the man, who we shall call B, in 1998. After spending a month there B, suddenly announced that he had decided to travel to the UK and seek asylum as a Kosovan. B did not seek asylum. Using false ID to enter the UK, the couple headed straight to London where he had family. Diana was put straight in a sauna to work. The sauna was a brothel. She remembers that she had to work three to four hours there each day. Her wrist would ache so much that she couldn’t sleep. Away from the sauna, arranged by B, she was visited for sex at their flat by different men whose language she didn’t speak. She did this for over two years. B, her pimp, did not even think of ensuring her wellbeing by insisting on protected sex.
Diana would occasionally take journeys on the London Underground on her own. She envied the freedom of other girls she would see, but she was scared to escape her circumstances because she had heard a comment from one of B’s friends that he had thrown “stubborn” girls off a bridge in Italy. Eventually Diana managed to leave B only because for two weeks he became sick. She immediately sought help from the authorities. “I was lucky” she says, “B had conducted a vendetta while in Albania and had been accused of killing two Albanian girls in Italy”.
From police reports we have discovered that the Albanian police also investigated B for stabbing a man in Italy, but they were unable to find sufficient evidence for a prosecution.
One who did not escape
In January 2018, The Guardian newspaper reported on the death of Silvana Beqiraj, an Albanian who had died in Montpelier, France. The Guardian report states:
‘“I think that trafficking is decreasing,” says Balida, a warm, friendly police officer from the anti-trafficking unit in Vlora. “There are no gangs any more, just men offering marriage to the girls. They go willingly to Italy or wherever.” According to Balida, convictions for traffickers are rare because victims “refuse to cooperate”. “When we call [a complainant] a prostitute, she says, ‘I do it as a profession. This is my profession.’ So if she does not think she is a victim, why should we?. “I think, more than the clients, we should criminalise the girls. Because the girls I’ve known do this kind of job for their desire. They are not under pressure, the girls I have met.”’
The journalist pressed Balida whether her team was aware of Silvana Beqiraj’s murder in France. She says, “Yes, but no one will come forward”.
“Maybe she just made enemies, and everyone is scared of them.”
The Guardian journalist went to Vlora to visit Vatra (women’s health) shelter for victims of human trafficking. The Guardian reports:
‘Sara, one of the residents, says she was trafficked by a local man when she was 13. “It was a man I believed to be my boyfriend, but he sold me to three men in Tirana, and they took me to Italy,” says Sara, who has a child living with her in the refuge. “On the way I was raped, beaten, humiliated, and even inspected like cattle to see how much they thought I was worth.”’
Sara was turned away by the police, who accused her of lying, of being a prostitute and was threatened with arrest if she contacted them again.
It is clear that the Albanian police show very little understanding of modern slavery and human trafficking. They fail to recognise or acknowledge a range of other criminal activities that leads the victims to work in prostitution, namely under-age sex, rape, beating, coercion, kidnapping, aiding and abetting, sexual and physical assault, domestic servitude, and the prevention of access to medical care.
Also the police and the whole justice system does very little to support human trafficking victims and their integration into society. Only a few years ago The US Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report 2017 (USSD TiP 2017), stated:
‘The government demonstrated increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period; therefore, Albania remained on Tier 2 [i.e. it does not fully meet the minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act…] Police continued to illustrate a limited understanding of human trafficking and failed in some cases to identify trafficking victims among individuals involved in forced prostitution or domestic servitude. The government investigated two victims and punished one victim for unlawful acts committed as a result of being subjected to trafficking, although the law exempts victims from punishment for crimes committed as a result of their exploitation.’
Despite this, there is some sheltered accommodation around Tirana which does provide some support for victims. We contacted an NGO representative (who wants to remain anonymous) confirming that these shelters are not far from being a prison. “They often lacked hot water and their time out was restricted”, she says, “despite financial backing towards them from the EU and other charity organizations being generous”. She further says that staff were threatened if they whispered a word about the conditions there. When she was pressed as to why she felt like that way she replied “Because the money given is halved by government functionaries and the people who work there are threatened with the loss of their jobs if they don’t carry out their ugly deals”.
Silvana Beqiraj has a grave but does not have a date of death. Nela owns a flat and looks after her brother. She has been treated for her complex trauma but finds no peace and she feels that she is to blame for what became of her. She often wants to end her life because she thinks only then she will find peace with the world and herself. Diana doesn’t think there is any future for her. She has adopted a boy and moved to Tirana where she has a little rented flat. She knows where her pimp lives. She has no faith in the Albanian police to do anything about it because her pimp entertains them with lunches and expensive cars.
Who can guarantee Nela and Diana that if they reported their pimps to the police they wouldn’t be the ones to find themselves prosecuted?