Saturday, April 05, 2008

Slavery in Albania

By Agnieszka Rakoczy

From the Financial Times:

Brikena Puka’s well-groomed look and confident style suggest she works for an international corporation. In fact she is the administrator of the Psycho-Social Centre “Vatra”, a non-governmental organisation that tries to prevent human trafficking and help its victims return to a normal life.Vatra (the Albanian word for “hearth”) is based in the southern port of Vlora.

“We co-operate with the police throughout Albania. Most of the women we assist are referred to us by them, but we also have cases sent to us by other NGOs. Some girls come on their own and some are brought by their families,” Ms Puka said.

Vatra offers accommodation, medical assistance, individual and group psychological treatment, vocational training, legal assistance and help with establishing contact with their families. It also works to alert communities at risk about their vulnerability to trafficking. It has assisted about 1,200 victims, of whom half came from the Roma and “Egyptian” communities, the country’s poorest.

Ms Puka says women are lured by traffickers using fake engagements, actual marriages, and job offers. A number were kidnapped. Some of the victims are sold by their families. Others go willingly.

There are no accurate figures on how many Albanian women have been illegally trafficked abroad and forced to work as prostitutes since the end of communism in 1991. A senior government official says a frequently-mentioned figure of 30,000 is too high.

The US government’s “Trafficking in Persons” report issued last June listed Albania as a “Tier 2” country, the category for countries still not complying fully with minimum standards for elimination of trafficking. But it added that Albania “is making significant efforts to do so”.

Two years ago the Albanian government placed a three-year ban on speedboats and other small private vessels using its coastal waters, in effect closing one of the most popular routes used by drug and people smugglers.

Reforms of the penal code have made all kinds of trafficking a serious crime, punished with prison sentences between seven and 15 years and heavy fines for those found guilty of trafficking women or children.

The government has launched a national strategy for combating trafficking in human beings, covering prevention, conviction, and victim protection and rehabilitation. “It is a very important document,” says Iva Zajmi, deputy interior minister and national co-ordinator for anti-trafficking in human beings. “It is about slavery of our citizens. It is the government’s job to help these people.”While the number of victims may be dropping, the forms of exploitation are changing, she says. On the other hand, women know more about trafficking and its attendant risks.“

"People have been informed and warned, and we have signed co-operation agreements with police and prosecutors in other countries so it is not that easy any more,” Ms Zajmi says.

According to the US report, 57 traffickers were convicted in 2006. But only 20 out of 227 suspected or identified victims offered to testify against traffickers.While victims are allowed to file civil lawsuits against their traffickers, this rarely happens because of widespread mistrust of the police and the judicial system, the report said.

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