The Real Cost of Trafficking

As she speaks, tears moisten her weary eyes. She instinctively raises her hand to wipe them away. I imagine that this young woman, introduced to me as 'Mary', has cried on countless occasions during her young life: a life that could have offered so much but had turned out to provide her with fear and regret.

I meet Mary in the dilapidated surrounds of prison 325 in Tirana, Albania's capital city, where she lives in a cramped room with six other women. However, look beneath the surface and listen carefully to Mary's story and you'll discover that she is much more victim than criminal. It's true: she was sent to prison six months previously for prostitution. But this is far from the full story.

It began when Mary was just 14. She ran away from her family and met a man who took her to Kosova with the promise of marriage. She trusted him. He took her to the city where he said his family was. 'This is when I discovered he had lied to me,' Mary tells me. 'He abused me, putting me in cold, freezing water and beating me. It was awful, I worked for six months on the streets. Then one night, I escaped from him.' She managed to return to Tirana but became desperate for money and turned to prostitution. She has been imprisoned twice. All this, and Mary is just 21.

Tragically, Mary's is not an isolated case. In Albania, thousands of women and girls, and some boys, are illegally traded for exploitation - be that for sex, forced labour or begging - in an act known commonly as human trafficking. It is a growing problem that lurks beneath Albanian society and is rarely spoken about. It rips apart the lives of individuals, families and communities. Scars run deep. How then can this trade be stopped? How might it begin to be tackled?

For six years, social worker Hannah Wilson worked in Albania with BMS World Mission. During that time Hannah and her Albanian colleagues developed a ministry for women like Mary. They recognised the need to support prisoners, including those who had been trafficked, and to give them the chance of a better future. Dozens of women in these prisons are now being equipped with vital life skills through sewing, hairdressing, computer and language classes. Regular Bible studies are held, enabling barriers to be broken down and hurts healed. Some come to faith.

This has been just the beginning. Despite leaving Albania last December and returning to Birmingham, Hannah's commitment to, and passion for, anti-trafficking work continues. In April, she became BMS representative for counter-trafficking and, in a new partnership with the Churches Alert to Sex Trafficking in Europe (CHASTE), has become their project leader for Albania.

Hannah says, 'I've worked with many victims, I've seen people suffer and treated badly, and seen people re-trafficked back into it because they feel they've got nothing else and no other way to survive'. These girls and women believe they are worthless, Hannah says, and this is not helped by the prejudice shown towards them. "I'd love for us to help these women believe in themselves again and reveal Christ to them,' Hannah adds.

She goes on to say: 'What I have noticed in talking with people in churches is that everyone has a story - they know a neighbour, friend or family member who has been trafficked - but it wasn't spoken about. For me, this was an issue that we needed to start talking about'. One of Hannah's colleagues, Sedika Fushekati, who provides support for women leaving prison, says that conversations need to happen directly with the women and relationships must be formed.

'Many of the women simply choose the wrong way to experience freedom. Many are deceived and, in search of freedom, they put themselves in slavery. Many of them are uneducated and are fearful to express their experience. We try to help them understand that what has been done to them has broken their human rights.'

As a result, evangelical Christians in Albania have started to forge links with their government's anti-trafficking committee and organisations such as the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), which is a leading organisation in Albania for victims of trafficking. Additionally, the Protestant community, a fraction of Albania's population, has joined forces with the established Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches to combat trafficking together.

'The values that Christians have are important within Albanian society', says Hannah.
'Trafficking victims have suffered so much - they need a family to love them, and what more can we do than to show them the love of Christ? We can care for them and speak out for them.

We can fight for what's right for them. The Church is powerful and cares for victims, helping them overcome what they've been through'. In practice this means a busy year ahead for Hannah. In June five Albanians representing the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Churches, along with an IOM worker, are coming to the UK to learn about CHASTE and how it works with the government's United Kingdom Human
Trafficking Centre.

There will then be a trip to Albania in July for meetings with the government there. Hannah explains, 'It's such a key thing that we're linking with CHASTE and that we see a good model of practice between churches and the government in the UK. We want to replicate that model in Albania and CHASTE can guide us in doing that. My dream would be to set up an office and for Albanians to take this forward'.

Training in Albanian churches will be launched this November in co-operation with the
government. Christians will not only be made more aware of the whole issue of human trafficking but also learn how to respond if someone comes into the church who is a victim - or even a trafficker. Hannah is writing a syllabus for the training and co-ordinating the production of a resource book that will list every anti-trafficking and victim support service currently being provided throughout the 12 regions of Albania. 'This is key information of who people can turn to when they have a problem so that they are not putting themselves or the church in any danger,' explains Hannah.

This, she hopes, will be just the start of what the Church can achieve. With unemployment high in Albania, the plan is to assist those who have been trafficked in getting jobs through business training schemes. Another need is accommodation. Sedika explains, 'Families think trafficked girls have somehow made a mistake in life.

They will deny they exist, because of the shame factor that is put on the family and the community. Most of the girls are obligated to find another place to live, to make new friendships and lose the family forever'. To address this, the Church aims to set up adult foster placements whereby Christians take these girls into their homes for a
period of six months to get them reintegrated into society.

It is not just at grassroots level that Albanian Christians want to have an impact. The Albanian government is trying to address the issue by curbing the number of speedboats going to Greece and tightening border controls but no matter what barriers are put in place, traffickers change their tactics. They find a way around it; this is big business, involving dangerous people in ruthless gangs, not just from Albania, but also from countries such as Romania, Moldova, Uganda and Nigeria.

Christians are lobbying the government for a representative from the Church to be on the antitrafficking group. Through their involvement and influence in communities, churches are able to alert the government to where and how trafficking is taking place and, in co-operation with them, develop an effective plan to tackle the issue.
And this is not just for Christians in Albania; we in the UK have a role to play.

At the recent Baptist Assembly in Brighton, BMS launched a six-month anti-trafficking campaign called In transit. It aims to demonstrate to the Albanian government the weight of support from UK Christians on stopping the trade in people, and their support for what Albanian Christians are trying to achieve. A campaign postcard has been produced and 10,000 cards were taken by delegates at the Assembly.

Hannah says, 'It's essential that people sign the postcard. I've heard it from the churches in Albania - they need the backing of the worldwide Church. They want to know people care and they need to know they're doing the right thing. By signing it, you're not only signing to get a representative on to the government committee but you're also saying to the churches, 'we endorse what you're doing; we can't be there physically but we're praying for you and supporting you'.'

And Hannah is quick to add that this is not only a problem for Albania, but that it is a real issue for the UK. Girls and women come to UK cities and are forced to work as prostitutes on the streets, in brothels, massage parlours and private homes. She explains, 'We must back people in UK churches who have the heart to support prostitutes and discover why they are there. How can we help these girls get out of being trafficked, out of prostitution and give them the life that they deserve, that Jesus wanted them to have a life in all its fullness not just what they're experiencing now?'

As I spent time with Mary, I realised that despite her desperately sad past, she does have a future hope. She attends Bible studies in jail and has come to know Christ through them. 'I want to have a normal life, not working as I have worked', she says. 'The Bible studies help me to start thinking differently about my life. I learned that I must love God in my heart and that Jesus can change me. I believe that I can change because of him. I would like UK Christians to pray for me and for my life.'

Hannah is greatly encouraged that their work is changing the lives of women like Mary, but recognises this is just the beginning. She says: 'The focus this year on slavery, must not be forgotten come 2008. Christians need to persevere. It takes all the governments and churches around the world to pull together, and recognise God is bigger than us. It's not going to go away in six months, it's here for years, and we need to keep it on our agendas, in our thoughts and in our prayers'.

Human trafficking: the facts
• Worldwide 2.4 million people are trafficked: half of these are children
• It is the fastest growing form of international crime, with over £3.5 billion generated
through trafficking every year
• Each person trafficked is worth upwards of £50,000 in a country of destination
• Albania is primarily a country of origin for trafficking, with two-thirds sent to either
Greece or Italy. Estimates are that one in 50 reach the UK
• Albanians are trafficked out through three main routes - overland (69%), sea (23%) and
air (8%)
• The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) reports that, over a period of four
years, more than 4,000 Albanians were trafficked - although less than half of those
were identified and assisted by IOM

How you can get involved with In transit
Join BMS World Mission's In transit campaign and support evangelical Christians in Albania as they actively lobby their government to create more effective legislation. We are calling on Baptists in the UK to sign and return the In transit postcard. Later this year all postcards collected will be presented as a petition to the Albanian ambassador in London.

Order postcards for your church at or by calling 01235 517617.

Also on the website are several ready-to-use service resources, a short downloadable video, articles and action points, as well as an electronic version of the postcard.

Jonathan Edwards, General Secretary of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, voiced his support for the initiative: "I am delighted to support this important initiative by BMS. Human trafficking is a vile trade and we need to stand together with all those who are opposing it. We cannot sit back and simply shake our heads in disapproval. We must act and I urge you to respond to join in this powerful postcard campaign."

This article first appeared in the Baptist Times (7 June 2007)