More than half of trafficked women and girls in Albania are rejected by their family when they manage to escape their ordeal. Some 2% are at risk of being re-trafficked for sexual exploitation, begging, slave labour, or working for criminal gangs. One-third of those trafficked are children.
These are the shocking statistics provided by Brikena Puka, the executive director at the VATRA shelter for victims of trafficking in Vlora, southern Albania. During an interview with Exit, she explained how societal stigma means that many women and girls who manage to escape the clutches of traffickers face issues in reintegrating with their families.
“There is a stigma in Albanian society. Especially if they’ve been trafficked for sex, their families are ashamed. They see it as something that brings shame and destroys their honour. The families do not always accept them back and we have a lot of difficulties in mediating this,” she explained.
In these cases, the VATRA Shelter does all it can to provide shelter and assistance for them. They provide a roof over their head, can assist with rental costs, and offer ongoing psychological, medical and educational assistance. They even offer programmes of social, leisure and cultural events to help these women, and their children gain some sense of normalcy.
But it’s still hard. Most of the women that pass through VATRA have been sexually exploited, raped, abused, and beaten. They suffer from trauma as well as the added trauma of being rejected or looked down on by their family and society.
But it’s not just families rejecting returning survivors that is an issue. She explains that there have been cases where the family has sold children to traffickers. There are also many cases where a man will approach a family and announce his intention or desire to marry their daughter. Once the family agree, the daughter is trafficked inside Albania, or taken abroad and sold into, usually, sexual slavery.
Brikena explains that many of the families are not aware of trafficking and risks. They don’t know the ‘red-flags’ and they fall for manipulative criminals who lie to gain access to family members.
Additionally, some of these women come from families where violence and sexual abuse is already happening. These women are already vulnerable and come from very poor families in rural areas. Trafficking for begging is a particularly prevalent issue in these cases, Brikena says.
VATRA deals with cases where women are returned from abroad but also with cases of internal trafficking. When asked whether women would be better being rehabilitated abroad, or in Albania, Brikena said it depends on the situation. In cases where there is risk of being re-trafficked, there are threats against her, or her life is at risk, it’s better she stays in an EU country.
In cases where family members may reject them or there is a risk of abuse, violence, or being trafficked again, it may be better than they do not return to Albania. But in cases where the risk is lower, the services of VATRA work well to give them a good chance at reintegration in Albanian society.
For those that are returned to Albania, Brikena said that they are met at the airport by a representative of VATRA (in cases where VATRA have been notified) and a social worker or psychologist. If the woman wants to apply for “victim status” as she puts it, they need to undergo a police interview. I questioned whether this would be traumatic for the women, but Brikena said the interview doesn’t have to take place immediately and can be done “some days later”. I have no doubt that this is still a traumatic process.
The woman is then given a choice of shelters she can go to and she can decide, with the help of the staff, the best path for her.
While the work that VATRA does is great, there is still more to be done.
Brikena said that when the shelter started in 1997, the government refused to acknowledge that human trafficking in and from Albania was happening. Over the years, this attitude has changed somewhat, but there is still a need for better policy and more funding from the State.
Albania has consistently underperformed in its obligations to prevent and crackdown on human trafficking. Authorities have also failed to make any significant number of arrests or convictions of those involved in it. It is also a source country for thousands of victims. The UK noted it was one of the main countries that trafficked people into the country.
Reuters also reported that the UK was sending home victims to Albania where many were at risk of being re-trafficked.
As such, trafficking both internally and internationally remains a big issue. There is a lack of accurate data on the issue which means it’s difficult to know just how big the problem is. Brikena explains that women and girls they have interviewed who’ve returned from abroad have spoken of large numbers of Albanians being trafficked throughout Europe. More focus and commitment is needed from the state to tackle this, she says.
Since its beginnings in 1997, VATRA has helped some 2464 women and girls who have been trafficked. 80% are trafficked internally and the other 20% are returnees from the UK, Italy, Greece, Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands. This estimation is based on the last few years, not the entire operation of VATRA.
They work hard not only to rehabilitate victims, but to go into communities and educate women, girls, men, boys, and the older generations on the phenomenon. By destigmatizing the issue and providing information on ‘red-flags’ they hope to prevent more Albanian’s being exploited in this way.
Asides from the work in the community, the services they provide are extensive.
“Our programme provides accommodation, security, medical assistance, psychological assistance, legal advice, mediation with family, vocational training, internships, education, mediation with employers, job searches, craft activities, gardening, social events, cultural events, museum visits, and other kinds of trips. We also provide support to victims in starting micro-businesses to empower them economically,” Brikena explains.
While the work that VATRA do is important and proactive, until those who recruit, traffic and exploit face real legal consequences, they are likely to continue undeterred. Similarly, despite the best efforts in mediation, many women are still rejected by their loved ones and communities. This has a direct impact on their wellbeing and makes them vulnerable and an easy target.
VATRA has been shortlisted by CHILD10, a Swedish child-rights organisation, for the work they do in supporting children who have been trafficked and exploited.