The EU Member States and the UK should be considering rehabilitating Albanian survivors of human trafficking in the country of rescue instead of sending them home, according to Petya Nestorova, the Executive Secretary of the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA).
“It’s important to consider all of the risks before sending them back to Albania, risks like you mentioned [stigma, re-trafficking, family rejection, social exclusion, poverty, intimidation/harassment] are very real risks. In France, women have been granted asylum after being trafficked because returning to Albania is seen as carrying risks… this should be used more,” she said during an interview with Exit News.
She added that there is also a need for source countries such as Albania to communicate more with destination countries.
“They need to talk to each other more because returning women to places where they will be ostracised is not a way to combat human trafficking. They have a responsibility to talk about this,” she added.
CoE’s third GRETA report, published last week found there was still work to be done on the implementation of the Convention. Since the previous round of evaluation, some legislation has been amended to strengthen rights and the position of victims of crime. Despite this, Albania remains primarily a country of origin for victims of human trafficking and were women and girls who were trafficked for sexual exploitation.
Furthermore, the number of victims of internal trafficking is on the rise, particularly regarding children trafficked for sexual exploitation, begging or working on cannabis farms. Around half of those trafficked were children.
Another big issue facing survivors of trafficking is the lack of implementation of witness protection provisions. On paper, laws to protect victims when they stand as witnesses or testify, seem comprehensive. In reality, however, they have only been used one time. This leads to a situation where survivors are at risk if they testify, are re-traumatized by doing so, or are too fearful to stand up to their trafficker.
This leads to a lack of investigations and prosecutions, fewer convictions, and more repeat offenders.
“There are provisions for witness protection and protection during trials, but there just isn’t any proof this is happening,” Nestorova said.
“This has an impact on the rate of successful prosecutions which as you know is rather low. In countries where survivors are better supported, they overcome these issues and we have better results,” she added.
The report noted with concern that there was a low number of convictions for human trafficking offences and it urged the authorities to take more measures to ensure the proactive investigation of cases.
Another example of laws not being implemented is in relation to the right to survivors to have compensation from the state. Nestorova explains that for some years, there has been the legal mechanism for survivors to claim compensation. This fund is supposed to come from the confiscation of assets of traffickers.
“There are huge profits in trafficking but we are not seeing assets being frozen or confiscated or survivors being compensation. This is a clear issue of problematic implementation…only one survivor out of hundreds has received compensation.”
She added that there seem to be several good laws on paper such as the law on asset confiscation and the prevention of organised crime, but the authorities need to make sure they actually work.
Asides from the recommendations in the reports, Nestorova believes that there needs to be a “deeper understanding of what it means to be a survivor of trafficking in Albania. The government needs to listen to survivors and what the have to say and then reflect it in procedures so they are really informed by their experiences.”
While a Victim Advisory Board has been set up, its role should be strengthened and promoted to help women overcome shame and stigma and to understand they are not alone.
On the topic of recruitment, Nestorova explained how social media is changing the way survivors are exploited. The CoE is researching the matter more and liaising with social media companies to try combat various issues including human trafficking recruitment and hate speech.
Young people are often targeted through social media as they spend more time on their phone. The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown has further increased their usage and made it easier for traffickers to target them. Recruitment comes in the form of job offers, recruitment agencies, modelling sites, or the “loverboy” modus operandi which promises the individual eternal love to gain their trust.
Nestorova explained there is a lot to be done to educate young people, children, and families in safe online communication. In terms of the government, GRETA has urged them to be scanning platforms and actively searching for human traffickers that recruit via social media.
“Much more needs to be done to make sure they aren’t operating,” she said.
Lastly, on the topic of the judicial reform and ongoing vetting process, there are concerns that there is a “loss of human resources” which risks a situation where there are no judges experienced and able to deal with human trafficking cases.
In a previous interview with the Director of a shelter for trafficked victims in Albania, it as noted that almost half of women who survived their ordeal were then rejected by their families. This leads to social exclusion, shame, unemployment, poverty, depression, and problems with reintegration. It also puts them at risk of being re-trafficked either domestically or internationally.