Child trafficking is on the rise in the Western Balkans, despite various government initiatives to address it.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, children have become even more vulnerable to trafficking because of growing economic insecurity, restrictions of movement, and unemployment. These conclusions were announced by participants in a Council of Europe conference entitled “Acting together in the face of crisis: Protecting children from trafficking and exploitation in the Western Balkans.”
Further, they observed that children in the Western Balkans, including Albania, are trafficked for a range of purposes, mainly sexual exploitation, including the production and distribution of child pornography, forced marriage, labor exploitation, forced begging, and forced criminal activities.
Petya Nestorova, Executive Secretary of the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, recalled that the Convention requires state parties to take specific measures regarding children.
“We need to strengthen our joint efforts to address the structural factors underlying human trafficking and promote durable solutions for children vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation. Anti-trafficking measures should be integrated into the general child protection system, bringing together social, health and education services.”
Alexandra Antoniadis, Deputy Head of the Organised Crime and Drugs Policy Unit, DG HOME, European Commission, highlighted that preventing and combating child trafficking is one of the priorities of the European Commission.
“Thousands of individuals are victims of trafficking annually, and the COVID pandemic has further intensified the risk of victimization and exploitation. Despite all our efforts, there are still significant shortcomings. This is why the Commission adopted the new strategy against trafficking in human beings setting out a wide range of actions ensuring that perpetrators are brought to justice and that victims receive the necessary protection and support.”
Reports from the CoE’s Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA) highlight that the real numbers of persons, including children, falling victims of trafficking are probably higher than the official data suggest. The real scope of the phenomenon is difficult to measure due to the invisible and hidden nature of trafficking and challenges related to victim identification.
During a previous interview with Exit, Nestorova said that Albania has work to implement regulations to protect victims and possible victims. At the moment, Albania remains a significant country of origin, particularly for women and girls.
Prevailing issues in Albania include a lack of prosecution, failure to seize traffickers’ assets, little in the way of witness protection, no compensation for victims, and difficulties in reintegration, including family rejection and the risk of being re-trafficked.
She also noted that returning survivors to Albania poses risks and should not always be considered a solution.
“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 genuine 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.