Albania’s illicit sex trade flares

┬áVLORE, Albania — It was only after her trafficker sealed her mouth with electrical tape, drugged her and threatened to kill her family that the childlike woman, 27, said she realized that the man she had planned to marry had seduced her with a terrible lie.

Her journey at age 18 from an Albanian village to a London brothel, where she said she spent five years working as a prostitute, began with a gold engagement ring, the promise of a better life abroad and — like many before her — a speedboat trip to Italy under the cover of night.

So many women, men and children had been trafficked abroad to work as prostitutes, forced laborers or beggars that the Albanian government three years ago barred all Albanian citizens from using speedboats, the favored transportation used by traffickers to get people out of the country.

This drastic measure, coupled with stricter border controls and revenge killings of traffickers by victims’ families, had a significant effect, reducing trafficking by more than half and all but ending Albania’s role as a major transit point for people trafficked to Western Europe from eastern and southern parts of the Continent, say experts who follow trafficking.

But the ban prompted loud protests from fishermen and people in the tourism industry, and in May it was reversed. Law enforcement and human rights officials are concerned that as a result, human trafficking may explode anew — at an especially difficult time.

The financial crisis, many experts said, could increase human trafficking around the world.

In the case of Albania, a poor, southern Balkan country that joined NATO in April and seeks to join the European Union, the government’s ability to fight trafficking is viewed as a critical test.

For victims like the woman from the small village, ensnared by the false promises of her trafficker, that fight is a matter of survival.

“I was in love with him, I dreamed of living my life with him, but it was all a big lie,” she said in a recent interview at a shelter for trafficking victims. “I wanted to run away, but in the eyes of the law, I was a prostitute with fake documents. Where was I to go?”

She said the man who abducted her had gained her trust over months, then locked her in a room and took her passport and cell phone. She said he beat her and cut her with a pen knife, a warning of what he would do if she tried to escape. She said she was forced to be a prostitute in London and in Antwerp, Belgium. To cover their tracks, the man’s family had called her parents and said that the couple had moved to neighboring Kosovo.

The woman would not provide her name for fear of retribution from the trafficker, making it impossible to corroborate her story with the police report she said she had filed against the man. But the coordinator and director of the shelter where she is staying have reviewed the details of her case and vouched for her credibility.

At the height of the trafficking, experts estimate, thousands of women, men and children were taken to nearby Greece and Italy and elsewhere for sexual exploitation or forced labor.

The United Nations estimates that 12.3 million people globally are employed in sexual servitude or forced labor. Many are lured by fake engagements, real marriages or false job offers. In some cases, victims have been sold by their families. Others go voluntarily.

Even with the speedboat ban last year, the State Department said in its June report that in 2008, Albania did not comply with “the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking,” although it made “significant efforts to do so.” The report said corruption remained pervasive.

In June 2007, the Ministry of Interior arrested 12 police officers accused of human trafficking in three cases, including six officers with direct responsibility for anti-trafficking enforcement.

Trafficking took root in Albania in 1991, in the aftermath of the fall of Communism, and for nearly 10 years, traffickers worked with impunity in the absence of trafficking laws. The problem peaked in 1997 as a financial pyramid scheme shook Albania and pushed the country to the brink of civil war.

“Albanians were selling their sisters for money,” said Ilir Yzeiri, an Albanian writer who made a documentary on human trafficking.

In 2004, the government created courts to try trafficking cases and passed tough trafficking laws, including prison sentences of up to 15 years for traffickers.

But human rights experts say prosecutions are too rare. Brikena Puka, the executive director of Vatra, an outreach group that has helped trafficking victims, said prosecutions were scarce partly because many victims were being tried for prostitution. In some cases, women are jailed after having been deported from other countries.