News: Traders in People Prey on Refugees Stuck in Albania

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Subject: News: Traders in People Prey on Refugees Stuck in Albania
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Tue Jun 01 1999 - 10:53:11 EDT


Traders in People Prey on Refugees Stuck in Albania
By CAROL J. WILLIAMS
Los Angeles Times, May 24, 1999

VLORE, Albania--In the miserable camps and shelters for Kosovo refugees,
the notorious scafisti who for years have spirited Albanian women across
the Adriatic Sea to lives of prostitution have found lucrative new prey for
their nocturnal crossings.

At least six young women have disappeared from the squalid camps here in
Vlore during the past month, and hundreds of other displaced and despondent
Kosovo Albanians have paid small fortunes to the body traffickers to
smuggle them into Italy in dangerously overcrowded rubber speedboats under
cover of darkness.

Miftar Imeraj couldn't imagine a worse fate for his family than to be stuck
in the crime and poverty of Albania for the duration of the war in his
homeland, so he sold the tractor that was the family's last possession to
buy passage on an ill-fated boat earlier this month. The unregistered
high-speed vessel crammed with 46 people crashed into a rock jetty shortly
after midnight when an Italian navy crew spotted the boat and gave chase.

"The driver was trying to get away when we hit some rocks," Imeraj, 35,
recalls of the accident that killed his 5-year-old son, Egzon, and his
daughter, Ilirjana, 3. His sister-in-law also died, and his wife lost a leg
in the disaster.

Most of the 38 survivors plucked from the water were treated for trauma
injuries at the hospital of the Italian refugee camp at Vlore's airport and
have been interrogated by Italian and Albanian police.

The boat pilot or pilots--scafisti in Italian--got away. As many as 10
boatloads of 40 or more illegal emigrants slip out of Vlore each night,
headed for the Italian coast, says Eric Filipink, an observer here for the
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE.

Unlike the Albanian prostitutes and job seekers who have been the chief
customers of the scafisti since hard-line communism collapsed here more
than seven years ago, refugees from Kosovo have the right to claim
political asylum in Italy if they manage to get there. Many refugees also
have relatives in Germany and Switzerland who will give them shelter if
they can somehow circumvent the time-consuming visa routines, making Italy
a convenient corridor to illegal Western refuge.

"The smuggling network was set up for Albanians, but once you have the
refugees here, they fit very nicely into the equation," Filipink says of
the trafficking that has lately focused on getting refugees to their
Western destinations.

Vlore has long been the hub for illegal human trafficking because of its
proximity to the Albanian mafia strongholds of Fier and Berat. Recent
shake-ups of local and national law enforcement administrations in Albania
have also allowed the scafisti unfettered pursuit of passengers from among
the refugees.

Since the refugee crisis in Yugoslavia worsened two months ago, Italy has
stepped up its naval presence along the Albanian coast to intercept the
scafisti before they enter international waters. Rome has also stationed
100 troops of its Guardia di Finanza, or financial police, at Sazan island
at the mouth of Vlore Bay to keep an eye out for the high-speed boats.

Still, the traffickers have been mostly successful in getting their human
cargo across the sea.

"Sometimes when the scafisti realize they are being chased, they will throw
a child into the water to force the Guardia di Finanza to stop and perform
a rescue so the rest can escape," says Lino Sciarra, an Italian observer
with the OSCE mission in Vlore.

According to Filipink, the scafisti can earn as much as $50,000 a night if
the weather is good enough to allow two round-trip crossings, providing a
strong economic incentive for the smugglers to find ways of getting around
obstacles imposed by the Italian navy. Imeraj paid 1,300 German marks, or
about $725, for each of the five members of his immediate family.

Less numerous but all the more troubling for the anti-trafficking forces
have been recent incidents in which young Kosovo Albanian women have been
recruited or abducted by Albanian mafia figures to be taken to Italy and
forced into prostitution.

Five women ages 16 to 18 disappeared from the Italian-run camp at the
airport May 3 after being visited the previous weekend by "men dressed like
police and carrying Kalashnikov rifles," confirms Italian navy Capt.
Giovanni Caradonna of the San Marco Battalion posted here. He intimates
that the camouflage-clad men were mafia masquerading as local authorities.

"At the beginning, nobody knew these kinds of things could happen," says
Caradonna, noting that major security improvements have been imposed on the
camp that is home to 4,000 people.

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees plans to eventually
assume responsibility for the dozens of camps in Albania now being run by
troops from North Atlantic Treaty Organization nations, but some fear that
the absence of foreign military security will allow easier access for the
unscrupulous traffickers.

"If we leave this place, it is going to be a mess," Caradonna says. "As
long as we're here, there is less opportunity for corruption." He alludes
to the reportedly widespread mafia practice of paying off police to look
the other way as they lure women away with empty promises of a better life
across the sea.

At the State Reservists Camp controlled by local Albanian police just north
of the airport, refugees say they have had recent visits by men offering
restaurant jobs or work as nannies.

"I've told my girls to keep away from them, and they will because they are
smart," says Husnije Muqaj, who has been at the shabby, unfenced cluster of
barracks with her two teenage daughters for nearly a month. "They know that
those who go with such men either end up dying in the water or getting sold
into prostitution." One teenage girl disappeared from the camp earlier this
month, Muqaj said, soon after an old man on a bicycle was seen approaching
young women on behalf of local "businessmen" to offer them domestic work
abroad.

In Kukes, the refugee-thronged northern town near Albania's border with
Kosovo, a separatist province of Serbia, the dominant Yugoslav republic,
one young woman was abducted at gunpoint by two Albanian men early this
month, says Sevim Arbana, head of an organization that has been active in
fighting the human trafficking. That kidnapping was foiled by a helicopter
crew from the United Arab Emirates.

Conditions at some Albanian-run refugee camps are so appalling that
despondent young inhabitants may have their guard down in desperate pursuit
of escape, says Lajla Pernaska, who heads the Albanian Women's Federation,
which is active in aiding Kosovo refugees.

"Trafficking in human beings has increased lately, in both prostitutes and
children," says Pernaska, who has been monitoring the plight of the
refugees from the capital, Tirana. "The Greek and Italian mafias are
involved as well as our own. They are all trying to exploit this situation
in which you have a lot of children, girls and young women here on their own."

Especially vulnerable are Kosovo women who were raped by Serbian gunmen as
they were driven out of their homes, Pernaska says.

"They feel their lives are ruined anyway, so it's just a small step from
suffering in these terrible conditions with no hope for the future and
leaving for a life of prostitution in a place where at least the living
conditions are better."

At one filthy, odorous camp where refugees are housed in big chicken coops
in the village of Gruze, near Fier, young Kosovo women say they are aware
of the dangers of heeding the mafia recruiters but note that they cannot
bear the conditions of their exile much longer.

"Look at these things we have in our beds!" laments Kosovo refugee Merita
Tafoli, 27, holding up a jar containing two 3-inch-long centipedes she
found on the face of a girlfriend sleeping on the floor. Men in expensive
cars and gold jewelry have visited the camp to offer girls an opportunity
to study in Italy, Tafoli says. She adds that she knows better than to
believe the offers are genuine, but she remains desperate to move elsewhere.

The boat accident earlier this month, from which five of the 46 aboard
remain missing, has sent a chill among those ethnic Albanians still waiting
to escape.

"How can I leave on a boat like that? I have two small children," says
Rakhman Sadiqi, loitering with his family outside the Vlore ferry terminal
in search of some other way to buy illegal passage to Italy. He had planned
to use money wired by his brother in Switzerland to go across the Adriatic
with the scafisti but has been frightened off that escape route by the
tragedy.

But the accident is unlikely to serve as a long-term deterrent for the tide
of Kosovars trying to flee their Albanian shelter.

"This business will go on for a long time because people want to go and the
only way to go is on the boats," says cafe owner Piro Xhaka. His eatery
sits atop a rock jetty on an area of the coast called Skela, from which
many of the scafisti collect their passengers each night. "It takes too
long to get a visa. If the West wanted this to stop, the German Embassy
would issue more than five visas a day," he said. With cool calculation,
the businessman estimates that 2,000 Vlore residents are indirectly
employed by the trafficking trade and that the body-ferrying flotilla
numbers about 100 boats.

"There have been accidents with the speedboats for 10 years now, but people
still want to go," Xhaka says. "This latest one was not the fault of the
scafista but the Italian naval police who attacked him." Aid workers and
human rights activists express frustration about fighting the trafficking
in refugees. But they have few ideas for a solution.

Sadako Ogata, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, warned in testimony
before the Security Council this month that "human traffickers are a
serious threat, especially in Albania," where young women have already been
forced into prostitution and children are also among the victims.

"This phenomenon will increase if it is not addressed more forcefully and
immediately," she told the council, acknowledging that security is lax at
many camps.

Meanwhile, the refugee agency has been pressuring Kosovo Albanians massed
in Kukes to move to southern regions of Albania where the proximity to
ports means better access to food and shelter.

But those same outlets to the sea present their own dangers for the
refugees because traffickers can quickly dispatch their human cargoes to
the pernicious traders across the water. "We don't walk around the camp
alone anymore, even in daylight," says 17-year-old Nazone Mikolovci, one of
2,000 unhappy residents at the State Reservists Camp.

"We don't know what happened to the girls that disappeared, but we can
assume it is something very bad."


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