News/Europe: PEOPLE DON'T BELIEVE IT HAPPENS

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Subject: News/Europe: PEOPLE DON'T BELIEVE IT HAPPENS
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Thu Oct 21 1999 - 13:09:21 EDT


10-15-99 UK: `PEOPLE DON'T BELIEVE IT HAPPENS'.
By Natasha Walter.
Sex slavery is flourishing in the capitals of Europe, with hundredsof girls
being lured each year to Britain alone. For many, it's a nightmare journey
which begins in Albania.

Alda is 17, and she lives in a detention centre in Belgium. Only four
months ago she was at home with her parents and three sisters and four
brothers in a village in northern Albania. No one in her family used to
work. They lived hand to mouth, doing odd jobs on other people's farms and
begging from friends and relations.
One day, Alda's parents could hardly believe their luck. A son of one of
the neighbouring families, who had gone to the West and made a good living
for himself, came back to the village and took an interest in the family,
especially Alda. He told her parents that, while Alda's life in Albania
would always be hard and miserable, in Belgium she could thrive. He knew a
man who was looking for a good Albanian wife and Alda would suit him down
to the ground.
Maybe this seemed like a fairy tale to the family. Or maybe Alda's parents
sensed there was something odder and darker about it, but felt hopeless.
Maybe this smart young man was so persuasive that, whatever they thought,
they decided to let Alda drive away with him.
>From the Albanian coast, Alda and her new friend got into a little
speedboat one night and crossed to Italy. Then they took the train to
Belgium. On 8 July, Alda went with her new friend to a house in Antwerp.
There, this friend locked her up in her room and then set her to work as a
prostitute.
Alda was a virgin and she had never dreamt of starting her sex life with a
succession of strangers. A few weeks after she started this working life,
Belgian police raided the brothel and picked the girl up for being under
age.
Reliable statistics on how many women are leaving Albania and becoming sex
workers in Western Europe, and how many are trapped into sexual slavery,
are hard to establish, but Alda's story is not unique. The British
authorities are now so concerned about the problem that the Home Office has
commissioned a report on such human trafficking to the UK, which will be
published next year. The researchers, Liz Kelly and Linda Regan, of the
University of North London, believe that hundreds of women are moved into
Britain each year.
"Most people don't believe it happens here," Ms Kelly said. "Police often
turn a blind eye to it. But it happens, and it involves gross abuse of
these women's human rights. The UK has to act on the issue."
It is a measure of the Government's concern that the Department for
International Development recently funded a conference in Tirana to address
the issue. Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International
Development, told The Independent: "Trafficking of women is intolerable,
and it is only now coming to light thanks to the greater emphasis on
women's rights."
Thailand and Latin America used to be the prime centres of trafficking to
Britain, but the focus has shifted to Eastern Europe, and Albania is
becoming a centre of the trade. Most of the women who come to London from
Albania don't start out as ignorantly as Alda; some will have agreed to
sell sex to try to make a better life for themselves.
But desperate circumstances do not breed free choice. Some of the saddest
cases include Kosovar women picked up by traffickers while they were living
in Albanian refugee camps; some have ended up in police detention in Italy.
And even the women who agree to work as prostitutes can find that once they
arrive in London, or Antwerp, or Rome, they are enslaved by their
traffickers. Many of them live as Alda did, unable to keep any money for
themselves; they are not allowed out of the houses where they work, and
they are forced to service as many men as the pimp can find.
At the end of last year police were alerted to the growing problem of
Albanian trafficking in London when a young Albanian woman called Stella
turned up at Marylebone police station. She had escaped from a flat in
Bayswater where her trafficker, Shemsi Gjika, had been holding her for
weeks. He had told her in Albania that he would find her bar work in
London; instead, she claimed, he sexually abused her and set her to work as
a prostitute in a Soho flat. In return for her testimony, Stella was given
witness protection. Gjika was prosecuted for living on immoral earnings.
But that was a rare success. Trafficked women hardly ever see their abusers
brought to justice. Even if they escape from their traffickers, fear of
reprisals against themselves or their families at home almost always keeps
them out of the courts. "We can't force them to co-operate with us if it
means they become vulnerable," says Paul Holmes, head of the Metropolitan
police vice unit. "Trafficking is a huge global business and we need
resources to combat it. Where we can use surveillance and undercover
penetration against the traffickers, we can prosecute without the need for
the women's evidence."
Inspector Holmes would like to see higher penalties for the traffickers, as
well as greater protection for the victimised women. "The men put these
women into sexual slavery," he says. "But if we catch them they may only
get [a sentence of] two or three years for living on immoral earnings."
A visit to Albania can show more clearly how so many Albanian women end up
as prostitutes in the West. With its abandoned factories and open rubbish
dumps, and impatient lines of traffic where horse-drawn carts bump along
beside glossy Mercedes, Albania still seems to be infused with a sense of
barely suppressed chaos. Nine years after the collapse of Communism, and
two years after the collapse of its fragile economy in the pyramid savings
schemes, Albania is a country where young people who want a decent life
don't tend to look to the grim, seedy cities of their own land. Instead
they fix their eyes on the colourful dream of life in Western Europe.
Most of the traffic in illegal migrants passes through Vlore, a port in the
south that is only 80km from the Italian coast. One evening, in Vlore, I
sat in the Hotel Gloria, a run-down establishment with coloured fairy
lights strung out along the awnings of the bar. On this hot, damp September
evening, everyone else staying in the hotel was waiting for the speedboat
that would take them on the illegal two-hour passage to Italy. The
atmosphere reminded you of the opening scenes of Casablanca; it's an
in-between place where everyone is poised in flight.
The men who drove the speedboats were in the hotel bar too, drinking the
clear, strong spirit called raki and smoking. Two of them let me join them
for a drink, and boasted about their work. They weren't traffickers, just
drivers, and they insisted that the work they did, although it's illegal
and last year landed one of them a few months in an Italian jail, was a
vital part of the Albanian economy. "What other work can we do?" asked
Ilir, a good-looking man in his mid-twenties. "I do this so my son can eat.
Each one of these speedboats supports maybe 20 families. And we give
Albanians the chance of a better life. What do they do in Italy or Britain?
I don't know. That's not my business."
The men don't stay long in the bar. After they leave I hear the roar of an
engine across the water, and see a red light fading into the black sea. For
some of the migrants these men carry across the water bynight, the dreams
of freedom will become a reality. But each year, hundreds of the women who
get on these boats will find only slavery in the West.
Last month the conference in Tirana brought together, for the first time,
dozens of women who are working against trafficking in prostitution in
Albania. As they discussed social services for trafficked women, and
training for rural women to reduce the poverty that makes them so
vulnerable, a sense of hope began to grow in the room. But as the
conference organiser, Kazuki Itaya, of the International Organisation for
Migration, said: "In Albania, trafficking is part of a whole series of
problems. You can't disentangle it from other issues, like the lack of
opportunities for women in this society, or the power of organised crime."
And the power of the traffickers in Albania cannot be underestimated. One
of the most impressive conference attenders was Vera Lesko, a quiet,
middle-aged, middle-class woman who lives in Vlore, and who last year began
"ground-level" research into trafficking, for a local women's group. To do
that she met the men driving the speedboats. One day one of them knocked on
her apartment door to tell her that he was worried about a girl who had
been tricked into an engagement with a trafficker and was being held in a
house near Vlore, before being taken to work the streets of Rome.
Vera went to the house and found the 16-year-old there.
"I tried to tell her what was waiting for her in the West but she couldn't,
or didn't want to, understand me. It was beyond her comprehension to think
that her new fiance might want to hurt her."
Desperate and frustrated, Vera went to the police and spent several hours
trying to persuade them to look into it. One officer informed her he was
"grateful for the information but it was beyond his control" to do
anything.
She left the police station and started walking home, but a few hundred
yards from her apartment a man she had never seen before came up to her and
said: "I'm warning you. If you try this again, your own daughter will be
next. And you won't live to see her come back." Terrified, Vera ran the
next few blocks to her home - to find every window in her apartment
smashed.
Her daughter subsequently left town. But Vera carries on. If she can get
funding, her next project, she hopes, will be a refuge for trafficked women
in Vlore.
"I am afraid," she says softly. "But what else can I do? Any one of these
women could be my daughter."
Some names have been changed.
INDEPENDENT 15/10/1999 P8

Melanie Orhant
morhant@igc.org
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