Sex Work in Albania – an Overview

Sex Work in Albania – an Overview

Sex Work is illegal in Albania.  The Penal Code anticipates a punishment varying from a simple fine up to three years of detention for persons practicing commercial sex.  Excerpt from a study made by the Albanian Institute for Public Health and Aksion Plus, SWAN Member from Albania, on sex work situation in this South-East European country. Edited by SWAN News


Sex work is a relatively new phenomenon in Albania, dating from the early nineties. According to some reports from Albanian police and juridical system, almost 70% of female sex workers in and from this country have been dragged into the business forcibly and/or by fraud, through marriages “for a better life” abroad. Trafficked are usually girls from rural areas, from families with very difficult financial situation. Trafficking is managed by organized crime syndicates whose interests are spread across Europe. Although the fight of the state against human trafficking has been more effective in the recent years, partly due to the better international cooperation with the specialized bodies in the receiving countries, human trafficking for sex work is still considered the most “lucrative” crime, and Albania became one of the traffic routes from ex Soviet Union countries towards Western Europe.

Not all sex workers are trafficked. Sex work is a free choice of those sex workers who engage in the business as a result of the very difficult economical situation in the country.

Overview of SW in Albania
Sex Work is illegal in Albania.  The Penal Code anticipates a punishment varying from a simple fine up to three years of detention for persons practicing commercial sex.  Before 1990s this law was strictly enforced and it can be said that commercial sex work almost disappeared during that time.  After 1990s, several developments occurred:
•    Sharp socio-economic changes took place following the collapse of the communist regime.  A large number of families remained without the necessary economic means, in some cases suffering from extreme economic deprivation.  The most affected strata were the population living in the rural area, the families that migrated from rural to the urban area and some ethnical minorities (Roma people and Evgjite community).  Many young girls from these population groups either become the target of human trafficking or freely decided to practice sex work in or outside the country as the sole way to obtain economic support.
•    A large number of Albanian girls were trafficked abroad (initially to Greece and Italy and later to Benelux and UK) and were exploited there as commercial sex workers.  There are no accurate estimates of their number.  Governmental sources claim 5,000, NGO sources up to 30,000.
•    Girls from other Eastern European Countries (such as Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Bulgaria, etc) are being trafficked via Albania with destination countries in Western Europe.
As a result, commercial sex started to be practiced in the country and to become visible.  There have been no scientific studies to estimate the number of commercial sex workers (CSW) in the country, but according to anecdotic and press reports they can be divided into four groups:
•    Albanian and foreign girls who are trafficked abroad are first exploited as CSW in Albania.  There have never been attempts to estimate their number.  Usually the exploitation starts by rape.  There are press articles reporting abuse and inhuman treatment of this category of CSW.
•    Commercial sex workers coming from low socio-economic strata (mostly Roma population or Gypsy community), otherwise known as “street prostitutes”.  Street prostitutes can be seen in Tirana, offering sexual services near the city center, on the main roads and in the area of the National Park “Liqeni”.  The price of services varies from 500 to 1,500 Leke (€3 – €12).  According to the information from Albanian Lesbian and Gay Association, there are also male sex workers from Roma population or Gypsy community who practice street sex work.
•    Higher level commercial sex workers who work in hotels and motels of Tirana and other big cities.  According to press reports they are mostly students – one newspaper article claimed up to 300 female students in Tirana alone practice sex work – girls from rural areas and other districts recently settled in Tirana and other big cities and CSW who returned from abroad.  Prices of their sexual service vary from €30 to several hundreds Euro.
•    CSW in “brothels” – these are often private apartments that are used for commercial sex work.  They operate illegally and there are frequent media articles reporting police detecting brothels and arresting CSW.  Media reported police raids on brothels in Tirana and Korca in 2002-2003.  The prices vary from 1,500 (€12) to a few thousands Leke.
Little has been done to estimate the epidemiological situation among CSW.  Out of the 24 women living with HIV/AIDS in Albania, 4-5 have probably been infected through CSW. Efforts to estimate the epidemiological situation of HIV among CSW include also promotion of Couples Voluntary Counseling and Testing (CVCT) among the victims of traffic and/or former CSW sheltered in the shelters of IOM.

Prostitution Legalization in Albania?
That's right, again. Under the Italian occupation prostitution was a legal industry from 1939 to 1944. Women were licensed in brothels. The first step toward legalization in Albania would be the annulment of the old communist law that punishes the woman rather than the pimp. Punishing the women is the beginning of making victims into criminals, said Diana Çuli, a women's rights activist and writer who also counsels women suffering abuses. Çuli, head of Albanian Woman Forum, a local NGO assisting women in trouble, said that figures from the Save the Children NGO that indicate that Albanian women are serving as prostitutes around Europe are exaggerated. But the outdated law prohibiting prostitution is actually increasing the number of trafficked women, according to Çuli.

"Traffickers escape without suffering anything from the legal process and the moment they come out of the court door they rush to recruit other women, who are later sold as common objects," Çuli said. "This law should change." Poverty is the primary force leading women to traffickers, according to Elsa Ballauri, head of the Albanian Human Rights Watch, an international NGO. Leaving these women caught between the ineffective trafficking laws and the harsh prostitution statute only guarantees their pimps the control to exploit them. The answer is to take the business away from the pimps, Ballauri said. "The world's experience with legalization has shown that it assists the women and the society too," Ballauri said. "Legalizing prostitution in Albania would reduce the number of women trafficked, and make it easier to provide health care for the women who are involved in prostitution." But legalization would also increase the commercial exploitation of women, according to other legal authorities. That danger is very real in an Albania without a stable government, according to Vjollca Meçi, head of a women's lawyers center. "The Albanian government and administration would find it hard to control this new trade, when you consider that it is already finding it hard to keep other activities under control," Meçi said. Meçi, however, is willing to consider legalization in a more stable economic environment. "If prostitution would become legal now then instead of the destroyed kiosks (that blight the Tirana center) we would have brothels," she said.

Legal prostitution is not a new phenomenon for Albania. Spartak Ngjela, former Minister of Justice, said prostitution was a thriving business during the Second World War years under the fascist occupation from 1939-1944.  Prostitution was permitted only in brothels controlled by the occupying government. There were houses for the public and special houses for the Italian and German soldiers. The profession was limited to imported prostitutes from Italy. There were no Albanian women involved. It wasn't until the 1990s that Albania returned the export when traffickers began the illegal mass emigration of Albanian girls to the streets of Italy.

Ismail Kadare, a well-known Albanian novelist and some times candidate for the Nobel Prize, described the bizarre co-existence between traditional Albanian villagers and the western European brothels during World War II in two of his novels ("General of the Dead Army" and "Stone Chronicle"). Kadare's fictional southern town is able to accept the brothels without damage to family life because no Albanian women are affected, and the past traditions of Ottoman governors, who often had substantial harems. Despite the war experience, Ngjela, said the idea of legalization now is not worth discussing. "Albanians would hardly accept such an idea." If prostitution was legalized, the lawyer said Albania would soon find its new industry adding to the suffering of families whose daughters have been disappearing to the streets of cities all over Western Europe. "It would be the opposite of what was seen during the Italian fascist occupation when the Italian army opened brothels with women from their own country," Ngjela said. "With legalization, Albania would very soon turn into the biggest 'raw material' producer for Italy."