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Albania: New Shelter Opens As Trafficking On The Rise

International aid organizations in Albania are helping to establish new shelters for sexually exploited girls from Eastern European countries. It's all part of an effort to increase awareness of the social drama that has sent more than 40,000 Albanian girls to Europe's sidewalks. As RFE/RL's Alban Bala reports from Tirana, trafficking in young women appears to be increasing.

Tirana, 15 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Officials in Tirana suspect 40,000 Albanian girls and young women are working as prostitutes in Western Europe -- 33,000 of them in Italy alone.

That's from a country with a resident population of barely more than 3 million and with more than 600,000 citizens working abroad, mainly in Italy and Greece.

The director of a shelter for repatriated Albanian prostitutes, Vera Leskaj, is in despair. Four years ago, she established the shelter, which caters to young Albanian girls and women who have been sexually exploited in Western countries. The shelter is supported financially by Save the Children, a U.S. humanitarian aid organization active in Albania.

Leskaj says that, based on interviews and queries made by her and her staff, she is convinced the flow of trafficked women has recently increased: "The trafficking has increased, compared with previous years. For example, in 1999 I interviewed 136 girls. In 2000, 267 girls. And during 2001, I interviewed 428 girls, while [in] the first two months of this year, it was 67 girls. I mean, the trafficking has grown, but it also is being dealt with better. In the final result, all these figures are girls either caught by Italian police and repatriated or else stopped by Albanian police while trying to leave for Italy."

Leskaj says the trafficking is carried out in full public view in Albania's port city of Vlora.

"In my opinion, everyone knows about it. I mean, after all these years, no one can say, 'I don't know how the human trafficking works or how it is organized.' There are citizens who provide the traffickers with houses. There are citizens who transport clandestine people [to Vlora] with their vans. There are the speedboat owners who carry them [to Italy]. This means the public perceives it as a well-organized operation, because we have it in our sight. We see it," Leskaj says.

Non-governmental sources, speaking to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity, say that in Vlora district, some 50 speedboat owners have more than 100 boats at their disposal. Every night, between 15 and 20 speedboats dart the 85 kilometers across the Strait of Otranto -- where the Adriatic meets the Ionian Sea and Italy is at its closest to the Albanian coast.

The boats make two or even three roundtrips a night in good weather, transporting Albanian prostitutes and illegal migrants, prostitutes from elsewhere in Eastern Europe, and refugees from the Middle East and Asia, as well as drugs, tobacco, and weapons.

Every speedboat has its own crew. They include an assistant who finds the "goods," as clandestine travelers are called; a van driver who picks them up or who travels on a regular basis from Vlora to other big cities; and a guard service, which often includes the participation of corrupt police officers.

Leskaj says the involvement of the police in trafficking is individual and not institutional. A study by Save the Children alleges that Albanian police were incriminated in 10 percent of trafficking cases involving sexual abuse.

Degan Ali is the antitraffic project manager of the UN's International Organization for Migration in Tirana. She says Albanian police have yet to take any real action, although she says a drafted Strategy for Fighting Illegal Trafficking is to be commended.

"It's the concrete actions we are waiting for. We are happy to see that a Task Force has been established in the Ministry of Public Order. We would like to see an increased number of arrests of traffickers," Ali says.

The human rights group Amnesty International in 2001 noted that Albanian police were taking stronger actions against trafficking victims than against the traffickers themselves. Leskaj says that in the year 2000, police detained 428 prostitutes but only two of their so-called "protectors."

Neritan Ceka is the chairman of the Parliamentary Commission for Order and Security. Ceka says that, in comparison with Italian police, Albanian Public Order forces are not involved in the trafficking.

"Here, cruel, ordinary criminality is present. There [in Italy], social dramas are also involved. The Italian police are implicated with organized crime and let prostitutes occupy the sidewalks of Italian cities," Ceka says. "But there is a unique way to limit and hopefully stop this phenomenon one day: that's cooperating in the war against organized crime while improving social conditions and prospects in our country."

Ceka, who served as minister of the interior after the anarchic riots of 1997, claims that Albania has done its utmost to fulfill its duties against trafficking. He mentions the creation of a joint Albanian-Italian coast-guard based at Durres. A similar base was established in Vlora, with the participation of Italy, Greece, and Germany in late 2001 as the first regional center to fight human trafficking.

Leskaj says that, regardless of their origin, the girls in her shelter have suffered considerable trauma: "I'm telling you, we've sheltered girls with broken skulls, with head wounds requiring 16 stitches. We had girls who had been stabbed in the neck, others who had undergone three or four surgical operations or suffered damage to other bodily organs. And some are suffering mental problems."

Leskaj claims the international trafficking network operates in conjunction with a separate network of independent protectors who cheat the girls, promising them marriage or a good job abroad.

In her latest findings, Leskaj discovered the human trafficking market is being largely supplied by Albania's underdeveloped northeast, with Italy-bound girls coming mainly from the districts of Mat, Diber, and Peshkopi.

Albania is also functioning as a corridor for trafficking girls from Romania, Moldova, Russia, Ukraine, and Bulgaria to Italy and beyond.

Until now, the country has had two shelters -- one in Tirana and Leskaj's in Vlora -- providing refuge to girls from across Eastern Europe whose families have refused to take them back.

Due to the increasing number of young women in the shelters, the UN's International Organization for Migration today inaugurated a new shelter in Vlora just for Albanian girls.

Ali explains why the new shelter is necessary: "The main reason for having two separate shelters is because the two groups [Albanians and foreigners] are so different, and they have different needs that need to be addressed in different facilities. It became too difficult. Originally, when the project started, we did envisage assisting both groups in the same shelter. But we quickly came to the realization that it was too difficult assisting both groups in one facility, because there were just so many complications and issues that arose. So that's why we needed a separate shelter and a separate program. And also, Albanian victims are much more labor-intensive. They require dedicated resources, staff."