Three young women sit at a table sipping coffee in a bright, airy room with windows that expose a glorious spring day in the Macedonian capital of Skopje. Andreea,* 16, has the high cheekbones, liquid brown eyes, and short bangs reminiscent of her fellow Romanian, Olympic gymnast Nadia Comaneci. But for Andreea and the two other young women—Mariana,* 18, from Romania, and Irina,* 17, from the former Soviet republic of Moldova—the cachet of looking like a celebrity is the last thing on their minds.
This spring, the three escaped from the Hotel Slavija in southwestern Macedonia’s resort-filled town of Lake Ohrid, where they had been held as sex workers for the past seven months by an Albanian-Macedonian mobster they knew only as Leku. He is one of the region’s most notorious traffickers of women, a business that Macedonian authorities say is closely linked to narcotics and arms-smuggling rackets.
“We waited for the guards to fall asleep,” Andreea tells me. “And then we crawled out a window and ran away.” Irina smokes silently as she observes the conversation. When they got to Skopje, a three-hour drive from Lake Ohrid, they went to the Romanian embassy for help. They ended up at a freshly painted, 20-bed transit center, newly opened by the Macedonian government and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a Swiss-based group founded after World War II to provide humanitarian assistance to migrants and refugees. Converted from an old school atop Skopje’s towering Aja Pasha hill, the center is the country’s first to provide shelter to undocumented migrants, an important milestone in an increasingly international effort to stem the trafficking of Eastern European women through the Balkans. Although the center is small, the local and international aid workers who lobbied vigorously for it say that because it enables women to testify against traffickers, it could have a profound impact.
“If the women want to testify, they can stay at the center for as long as the courts need them,” says Blagoja Stojkovski, the head of asylum and immigration at the Macedonian Ministry of Internal Affairs, under which the center was opened. “Until now, Macedonian police would simply apprehend trafficked women and send them home.” The center provides access to medical care, food, clothing, and legal advice.
Like guns, narcotics, and cigarettes, the trafficking of women is a growing business in Macedonia, which sits among the impoverished factory towns of countries in Eastern Europe, just beyond the lure of Western European prosperity. Last year, government authorities detained more than a thousand undocumented migrants a month, the majority of them Eastern European women forced to sell sex in the dozens of bars, motels, and nightclubs that have sprouted up along the highways and in the villages of Macedonia.
“Criminal networks are increasingly using Macedonia as a final destination for trafficked sex workers,” says Martin Wyss, director of the Macedonian office of the IOM. In its Skopje office, posters that read FORCED PROSTITUTION IS SLAVERY and 24-HOUR INFO HELPLINE coat the walls.