Somerville student Olivia Conroy has been nominated to take part in a symposium entitled ‘Young people against prostitution and human trafficking’, after her research into mapping human trafficking. The symposium will take place in the Vatican on 14th November, and she is also due to meet the Pope.

Conroy spent a week working for organization RENATE, the ‘Religious in Europe Networking Against Trafficking and Exploitation’ in Albania, during which she interviewed charity and social workers, police and government officials, members of RENATE and those at risk in the community on the topic of trafficking.

She spoke to Cherwell about the situation she found in Albania, commenting, “Human trafficking boomed in the 1990s when communism collapsed and many Albanians fled the country with their newly granted freedom to travel. Thousands of girls were taken in speedboats into Italy alone. This situation became so bad that there is now actually a law that bans anyone from using a speedboat.

“More recently, human trafficking from Albania is orientated towards other Western countries, with girls being taken out of Albania and into the UK, Germany and Switzerland. There is also a growing problem of people being internally trafficked, most commonly affecting children who are being taken to beg on the streets or work for gangs. Since this year Albania has been classed as both a destination country for traffickers as well as being a transit country from Eastern countries into the West.”

Conroy, a third-year biochemist, explained that before her trip she was “naïve” to the scale and complexity of human trafficking. She said, “Human trafficking is an incredibly complicated issue… It is impossible to come up with one solution. Although [the experience] gave me hope to see inspiring people working against such a formidable challenge, it also filled me with grief to get a glimpse of the scale of human trafficking and understand how embedded it is in all our lives. There is the misconception that trafficking only affects women from foreign countries forced into sex work.”

In admitting to having been unaware of the dangers posed by her trip, Conroy explained, “I was in quite a dangerous situation, apparently the traffickers would have been well aware of who I was and why I was there.

“There was a time when I was staying in Shkodër on my own in a vacant hotel, in one of the most dangerous towns in Albania run by gangs… I blazed into Albania thinking that I would be completely safe, but in reality it slowly crept in that I was dealing with incredibly dangerous people.”

Olivia added, “Trafficking is everywhere,” saying, “The UK is the most common destination of women taken from Albania… These traffickers are operating on our streets… We as a community can look out for the signs of trafficking and not make it so easy for them.”

The UK’s National Crime Agency has recently reported that the country saw a 22 per cent rise in the number of ‘potential victims of trafficking for exploitation’ in 2013 compared to 2012, affecting a total of almost 3,000 people, of which 600 were children.

Oxford is not immune to trafficking as in 2013 seven men were convicted of raping and trafficking six girls aged between 11 and 15, though since then a further 50 to 60 young women have since been identified as potential victims of the paedophile ring. The ring is thought to have been based around Cowley Road.

One student organization in Oxford campaigning against trafficking is Just Love. Hannah Coates, the organizer of the Just Love campaign’s recent anti-slavery protests in Oxford, commented, “The more people that know about trafficking, the better equipped we will be to protect victims and combat it.”

Earlier this month the campaign marked the National Anti-Slavery Day with a large flashmob march from Broad Street and Cornmarket, with the participants all wearing black t-shirts and duct tape handcuffs. The flashmob walked in silence to the beat of a drum in order to raise awareness of the issue. 

Just Love also cooperates with the Oxford Community Against Trafficking (OXCAT), a local community group founded in the wake of the Oxford ring being discovered.

Olivia plans to continue her work drawing awareness to Human Trafficking following her Vatican address. She explained that she will become part of the Global Freedom Network, an organisation of leaders from different faiths working to tackle slavery and human trafficking and will thus “be engaged in strategies and initiatives to prevent youth from becoming victims of modern slavery and human trafficking”.