The Changing Nature of Albanian Trafficking

13 September 2018
Research Innovation

Anne-Marie Barry  | Research Associate, the Centre for the Study of Modern Slavery at St Mary’s University

The trafficking of women for sexual exploitation has been associated with Albanian organized crime for many years. During the 1990s, as the country experienced the upheaval of a post-communist transition, severe economic instability and the effects of the Kosovo war, criminal networks flourished, engaging largely in the trafficking of young women. Deceived by their “lovers”, given false offers of stable and lucrative work or, in extreme cases, even kidnapped, women were transported—primarily to Italy and Greece—and sexually exploited.

Human trafficking from Albania to the United Kingdom has re-emerged as one of the focal points for authorities and support services in the UK’s fight against human trafficking and modern slavery. Every year several hundred Albanian nationals are referred to the UK National Referral Mechanism system each year as potential victims. Many of these cases involve females who state that they were trafficked into various Western European countries before coming to the UK as well as a significant number of young men who are potential victims of forced criminality. While these cases offer limited information on perpetrators or criminal networks, UK authorities fear a  “threat” from Albanian organized crime groups, particularly in relation to drug trafficking and distribution.

To get a sense of the current situation in regard to the trafficking of Albanian nationals and how it fits into wider criminal activities perpetrated by Albanian criminal groups, the Centre for the Study of Modern Slavery is conducting research both in Albania and purported transit hubs in Europe, including Italy, Belgium, France and the Netherlands.

While not all Albanian women are victims at the hands of coercive and deceptive criminals, it is important to recognize the other factors that push individuals into precarious situations and as well as the role intimate partners play.

Our research shows that since its peak in the 1990s, there has been a significant decline in the rate at which women have been trafficked from Albania into other European countries. As Albanian criminal groups established themselves in various countries, gaining more capital to re-invest, they began engaging in more “sophisticated” and well-organized crimes, such as drugs and weapons smuggling. While still heavily involved in the management of prostitution rings, Albanian crime groups have become renowned for their polycriminality, with the management, or the exploitation, of sex workers either a peripheral activity, or as several law enforcement officials informed us, an activity that received less attention from authorities as larger and “more urgent” activities involving firearms and narcotics were prioritized.

In Northern Italy, traditionally a hotspot for Albanian organized crime, Albanian women now make up a very small proportion of women visible in street-based prostitution or using support services for trafficked and vulnerable women. This is attributed by many to action taken by both Italian and Albanian authorities, including the introduction of legislation to protect victims of trafficking and make it easier for trafficked women to report on their exploiters. However, there are also reports that many Albanian criminal networks simply shifted into other parts of Europe as a result of this legislation.


Taxi in Sofia, Bulgaria. Unsplash/Borislav Zlatkov

Albanian criminal groups have also now expanded into organizing the prostitution of women from other countries such as Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine. The significant rise of Romanian women engaging in sex work has been seen throughout Europe along with the management of Romanian women by Albanian pimps as well as close collaboration between Albanian and Romanian networks. In certain established areas Albanian crime groups have adopted a less visible, more “managerial” role. For example, there are cases where Albanian criminal groups will “rent” streets or locations to Romanian pimps to manage sex workers. In this sense, Albanians are removing themselves from on-the-ground activities and removing the risk of participating in human trafficking. Albanian men have also increasingly been marrying Romanian women, and there have been reported cases of wives or partners of Albanian men recruiting female sex workers from Romania.

This is not to say that the trafficking of Albanian women is no longer an issue. Several serious cases have been prosecuted in recent years involving women in various European countries, where women were coerced into sex work, often through boyfriend or “lover-boy” deception and manipulation methods. Many women may enter sex work voluntarily, but some find that, as one officer reports, “it just gets bigger”, and violence and methods of control begin, undermining their initial consent. It has been noted by several interviewees that violence by partners or pimps is still a significant issue.  As one woman we interviewed explained, while Albanian women may know what work they are entering into, “they don’t anticipate the violence”. Indeed, the Home Office in a recent fact-finding mission found that gender-based violence and domestic abuse is still a significant issue in Albania.

Along with stigma associated with sex work, it is important to bear in mind that while women may not fall into the often restrictive category of “trafficking victim”, their experience can still be traumatic and leave them feeling isolated. On the other hand, many Albanian women, along with women and men of all nationalities, choose sex work as a way to improve their economic prospects or because they lack lucrative work options in their home countries or legal means to work in destination countries.

While not all Albanian women are victims at the hands of coercive and deceptive criminals, it is important to recognize the other factors that push individuals into precarious situations and as well as the role intimate partners play.

Anne-Marie Barry is a research associate with the Centre for the Study of Modern Slavery at St Mary’s University.

This article has been prepared by Anne-Marie Barry as a contributor to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.

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