Back home: the child of six sold to traffickers

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The Independent Online

Elixhena was only six when her mother, Trundelina, sold her. Her mother thought it was for the best. Her daughter was bought by a local Albanian couple, who promised she would be taken to Greece for adoption - a better fate, thought Trundelina, than staying in a village on the outskirts of this wretched post-communist town, where the local steelworks has laid off 90 per cent of its staff but still spews out enough noxious yellow fumes to ruin the health of the inhabitants and kill agriculture. But thats not all that is killing off Albanian farm communities. They too suffer from unjust trade and crude dumping of European surplus produce - wheat, dairy and meat.

Trundelina has lost contact with her husband, who went to Greece years ago and soon stopped sending money, leaving his wife and four children in a crumbling four-storey tenement with no running water. Elixhena and her three siblings had to take plastic bottles to get water from a polluted well.

But instead of a new life with a wealthier family, Elixhena found herself slaving on the streets of Thessaloniki, where European Union leaders meet for a summit this weekend. For 14 hours a day, she sold flowers and packets of tissues, or begged for money at the seemingly endless rows of outdoor cafés overlooking the sea. Her handlers could make up to €50 (£34) a day from her exhausting work. If she did not earn enough, they threatened and beat her, or burnt her with cigarettes.

It could have been worse for Elixhena. After four years of misery, she was arrested late last year for begging, and came to the attention of a Greek charity. She was held for two days in prison before being deported back to Albania, where another non-governmental organisation, Terre Des Hommes (TDH), was able to locate Trundelina and persuade her to take her daughter back.

Elixhena, now 11, is reluctant to speak about her experiences on the other side of the border, only five hours away. "I don't want to go back to Greece," is all she will say. "Things were very difficult for me, and I felt very sad."

But according to Anila Hazizi, head of TDH in the Albanian capital, Tirana, she was rescued just in time: girls are worth more to the people traffickers, because they can earn twice as much. "They can be made to sell flowers during the day and then work as prostitutes at night," said Ms Hazizi. Sometimes, they are forced into the extra work when they are as young as eight. As for the boys, aid organisations have come across teenagers who were trafficked as children but have "graduated" into fully-fledged members of criminal gangs themselves.

Measures to prevent others sharing Elixhena's plight will be discussed at the EU summit, but critics say that is merely hypocrisy: the prime topic is punitive measures against immigration, such as the creation of transit camps. In the eyes of many, that will simply drive more of the people-trafficking trade underground, with an increasing number of young Albanian girls ending up in the streets of London.

Thousands of Albanian children, some as young as four, are being sold for as little as £100 to an increasingly sophisticated human trafficking network, that stretches across the EU from the outskirts of the Albanian capital. "The network is international, and while the children tell us that the people they come into contact with are Albanian, we believe foreigners are also involved," said Ms Hazizi.

TDH is working with Unicef and other non-governmental organisations to map what they call a "mafia-like organisation" that also profits from prostitution and drug dealing in the EU, involving blood relatives of the child being sold, through local police and border guards to senior officials. Last week, an Albanian embassy official in Italy was arrested and charged over involvement in a human trafficking ring. British police have sent officers to Albania to investigate a rapidly-growing problem: up to half the vice trade in London is now thought to be controlled by Albanians.

The Albanian authorities denied the existence of a trade in minors until late in 2000, when entire school classes in the six to 12 age group went missing, according to Aurel Koca, who runs an orphanage in the town of Korca. The initial target countries of Greece and Italy were flooded with trafficked children, but Unicef and the International Organisation for Migration say the gangs have opened up new European markets. Albanian children have been spotted in France, Belgium, Holland and increasingly the UK.

Only a handful of the lost children of Albania have come home to tell their stories, and it has done little to stop the traffickers. The couple who sold Elixhena and a number of other local children into slavery contacted Trundelina after her daughter's return, and offered her to buy her a second time. Because they are part of the local community, the traffickers know which families are most vulnerable.

Trundelina now warns other women in the village of Bradashesh not to fall for the lies of the traffickers, who promise a regular income and a bright future for their children. "I tell them how much she suffered," she said.

Elixhena is emphatic. "I want to be here with my mother and my family, where I can go to school," she says in broken Greek. She is now top of her class and, when she grows up, she wants to work for one of the charities that saved her.

Trade in people

In immigration circles they are called the "captive quota" - thousands of people whose desire to enter the European Union leaves them trapped for years in a life of enforced criminality.

From Mafia-style operations based in Istanbul and Kosovo to Nigerian gangsters working out of Turin, people smugglers have long operated sophisticated and lucrative rings to bring at least 170,000 men, women and children into Europe every year.

But rather than leaving their "clients" to fend for themselves on arrival, the traffickers are increasingly forcing illegal immigrants into their own burgeoning enterprises in host nations.

The activities range from prostitution to labour gangs, money laundering and illegal gambling.

It is the fee paid by each immigrant that provides the gangs with a grip on their victims. Dr Robert Oberloher, a United Nations researcher, said the fees vary depending on how far each person has travelled - for example from Turkey to Germany the rate is about £3,800.

"This debt is increased by interest charges or extra fees or just plain threats of violence in such a way as it can never be paid off so the immigrants become captive in some way.

"Most are involved in illegal labour but some are pushed into criminal enterprises - brothels, gambling dens, document forgery, helping drug flows - and it is very, very difficult to escape."

In Italy, one trafficking gang was found to be making £850,000 a week.

Cahal Milmo