Migrant Gangs Linked to Human Trafficking Surge in the UK, Report Reveals
'Sophisticated' Albanian gangs behind huge spike in victims of traffickers
Migrant gangs operating at the "higher end of sophistication" are responsible for the sharp rise in human trafficking in the United Kingdom, according to a new report.
Latest statistics from the National Crime Agency (NCA) show that "sophisticated" Albanian trafficking rings are responsible for a 35% increase in the number of people trafficked into the UK.
The majority of the victims are from Albania, often being sold from gang to gang, with a rising number ending up in the UK, being forced into sex slavery and cheap or unpaid labor.
The rise in victims ending up in the UK has been attributed to an influx of migrants seeking asylum in Western European and British countries, allowing the gangs to expand their operations on a more international scale.
Sky News met 15 victims at a shelter in Vlore, a city in the south of Albania which remains a hot spot for the country's trafficking network.
Beaten while pregnant, locked up and raped by multiple men - their stories are horrific.
These women and girls are victims of Albanian trafficking gangs and are now receiving help from the charity Vatra.
Besjana was in her early twenties when she fell pregnant.
She told Sky News how it brought shame on her family and described how she was beaten by her own mother and brother.
"They punched me in the womb so I would lose the baby... it was really bad because I could lose the baby at any moment," she said.
After fleeing her home she ended up in the hands of one of Albania's trafficking gangs in Italy and was forced to work unpaid as a prostitute in the UK for 18 months.
She told Sky News: "It happened on the same day, as soon as we arrived at the house within an hour he [her trafficker] started to talk roughly...'you are going to do this'... they started locking me inside the house... and they threatened me and my baby if I didn't do what they said or tried to escape."
She did manage to get away - but others end up being sold from gang to gang across Europe and increasingly into the UK.
The National Crime Agency (NCA) says the number of potential trafficking victims referred to British authorities rose to 5,145 between 2016 to 2017.
Most foreign victims are from Albania, trafficked by a network of criminal gangs which operate across European countries, selling victims as commodities.
The deputy director of the NCA, Tom Dowdall, says the groups are particularly resilient to law enforcement.
He said: "Albanian organized criminal gangs are operating at the higher end of sophistication and are certainly operating in the UK as they do within several other countries in western Europe.
"They are what we call 'poly-criminals' as well, so not only are they involved in organized immigration crime and trafficking but also in drug smuggling, firearms trafficking and often violent and serious organized crime."
Another victim was lured away from her home country on the false promise of a relationship.
She was sold for sex by Albanian gangs across Europe and is now receiving help in the UK from the Salvation Army.
Her traffickers are yet to be caught.
She said: "He [the trafficker] did see me like a human being for the first few months.
"But then I was his possession... after two months, when I was bruised, he waited for the bruises to go, he started bringing other men, friends, I don't know who they were, I was just trapped in that house… most of them were just animals who tried to please themselves."
Around half of the victims trafficked into the UK are being forced to work in the sex industry.
The other half face labor exploitation - working under the radar for little or no money, often in places we all visit.
Emilie Martin heads up the Salvation Army's anti-trafficking unit. She said: "It's opening your eyes… if something doesn't feel right.
"For example, when you get your car washed, if your car wash is doing it for £5 but 20 to 30 people are washing cars those individuals aren't getting minimum wage.
"Then if there are caravans at the back of the car wash, they are living on site and can't leave the area of work.
"When you go to a nail bar, if the person will not engage in eye contact, she can't speak, someone is floating around, it's cash only, clearly something isn't right."
Increasingly young vulnerable Albanians are being targeted by trafficking gangs via social media.
Some organized criminal gangs run fake employment agency accounts, posting jobs such as waitressing and hairdressing which do not exist.
Both the UK and US governments have published reports this year saying poverty and corruption are fuelling the problem.
Albania's deputy interior minister, Rovena Voda, admitted there was a high level of corruption, but insists the government is now vetting police and judges.
She said: "We are under the process of vetting the police so that we will have this pure triangle - police, prosecution, and courts - vetting of them all - because sometimes victims of trafficking fear police are corrupt and exchange information with criminals and their life will be at a big risk.
"Victims can trust us. They can trust Albanian institutions. We are here to help them.
"My door is open for every one of them. We are here to try to assist them in all the kinds of things they will need. Please trust us."
A number of UK charities offer help to victims, including Unseen, which runs the Modern Slavery Helpline.
It has seen a spike in calls during the first quarter of 2018 - with 605 potential victims calling in June alone.
Rachel Harper, the helpline's manager, told Sky News callers are often in difficult situations: "Around 10% of our calls are from victims specifically.
"They might be held in a residence and feel they can't leave or feel trapped and call us from a back room and they don't want anyone else around them to know they are on the phone and they are calling discreetly."
The UK government has committed £150m to tackle modern slavery in source and transit countries, including more than £33m primarily focused on high-risk countries where the majority of victims are trafficked from.
:: The Modern Slavery Helpline UK number is: 08000 121 700.