FORCED by a violent father into begging on the streets at 11, trafficked into Britain by Albanian gangs at 15 to endure slave labour, mugged then put into a children’s home – Samet Mata’s short life has been more traumatic than most people can imagine.
Now 18 and facing deportation back to his native Albania, Samet arrived in Bristol by lorry three years ago after being trafficked into Britain to work in one of the modern-day slavery industries.
His fortunes changed when he managed to escape the people smugglers and eventually found safe haven with a loving foster family.
But not all the young Albanians arriving here are so fortunate.
Countless youngsters have fallen into a grisly life of crime.
Endrit Vishaj entered the UK illegally aged 16, hidden on a lorry that took him to the Midlands.
Now, 18, he is serving a four year and four month jail sentence for dealing cocaine.
He was caught in a car park driving a BMW in which the police found two kilos of high quality cocaine worth £200,000 in a carrier bag with £55,500 cash – as well as his £1,000 fee for the job.
Similarly, Klevis Drazhi, 20, was caught with 11 wraps of cocaine in London and jailed for 18 months, claiming he was coerced into supplying drugs by a member of the Albania mafia after illegally entering the UK on the back of a lorry.
Alfred Hamzaj, 22, was jailed for eight months for dealing in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, after being caught with four kilos of cannabis.
He said he had fallen into crime after losing his job at a hand car wash because of his illegal immigration status.
Increasing numbers of Albanians just like these young men are smuggled illegally into the UK with the promise of earning thousands of pounds from selling and running drugs for gangs.
Shockingly, some parents in Albania are arranging for their teenage sons to be trafficked to Britain so they can join organised crime gangs controlling large tranches of the cocaine market here.
Tamara Barnett, from the Human Trafficking Foundation, says: “There is a real sense of hopelessness in Albania.
“One in two women experiences domestic violence, and violence against children is very high.
“The family might be involved, wanting to use their child to earn money, or they might want to give that child better opportunities overseas but then it all goes wrong when they get here.”
Court records show teenage Albanians who mostly entered the UK hidden in lorries have been prosecuted in towns and cities across the country after being caught with drugs worth as much as £200,000.
According to the National Crime Agency (NCA), Albania is the biggest single foreign source for people trafficking into the UK.
Some 947 cases were referred to it in 2018 – a rise of more than 50 per cent since 2015.
International law enforcement specialist Steve Harvey says the majority of Albanian boys and young men are trafficked with the complicity of their parents and the promise of big sums of money by the traffickers.
“The traffickers and exploiters promise them money, a lot of money, and they promise them a job or when the boys are minors, they promise them accommodation, or clothes, so things that they need to have,” an anonymous source told a Home Office inquiry.
In some cases family members are directly responsible for the recruitment and exploitation of male trafficking victims.
Some are smuggled here on lorries, many secure fake passports and come in by car or ferry.
Police sources have warned that Albanians illegally flooding into the UK have provided a ready-made workforce for crime groups.
Known as the Mafia Shqiptare, the groups work by their traditional codes of “besa” – to keep promises – and “kanun” – the ancient blood feud laws.
Dozens of Albanian drug lords have been arrested and jailed across Britain in recent years.
Albanians now make up the second highest total of foreign nationals in UK jails at 760,433 of who are in for drugs offences – just a handful behind Poland on 787 – despite only tens of thousands living in the UK compared to almost a million Polish people.
Hardened gangs, often armed with guns, promote their lifestyle to teenagers in Albania.
They include the Hellbanianz street gang of Albanian boys in south London.
They use social media to entice new recruits, sending messages boasting of their success with money, flash cars, fat cigars, women and jewellery.
Every week Albanian gang masters make local newspaper headlines after being caught dealing drugs, smuggling huge shipments of cocaine direct from Europe.
The drug is at its cheapest since the 1990s and purer than it has been for a decade.
Thousands of Albanians arrived in the UK in the late 1990s and early 2000s, many of them claiming to be Kosovan.
Many took jobs as door staff in London’s sex and vice trade then took over prostitution rackets, moving into smuggling people, guns and drugs into the UK.
They also began dealing cannabis, growing potent strains of the drug here using slave labour.
‘His dreams are shattered’
Now they have penetrated the UK’s £5billion cocaine trade by building direct ties with suppliers in Latin America.
Some Albanian families send their children to the UK and overseas for the best of reasons: they want to give them the chance of a decent education and future.
But this has created a lucrative trade for smuggling gangs who can charge families up to £15,000 to get their children into the UK.
One 23-year-old Albanian paid €5,000 to be smuggled into the UK where he wanted to study and find a job.
Unable to survive financially, he started selling cannabis and small quantities of cocaine for a gang but was caught and deported back to Albania.
Now with a criminal record and limitations on his right to travel, the future looks bleak.
By contrast, Samet Mata has managed to forged a new life here in the UK after the neglect, beatings and abuse of his childhood in Albania, though he does suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Now studying carpentry at college, he is living a better life than he ever knew in his homeland.
Yet because he is now 18, the Home Office intends to deport Samet back to Albania.
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His foster father John Stokes has taken in more than 60 children in 30 years at his home in South Gloucestershire and is spearheading a national campaign to stop Samet being forced back to Albania.
“Since Samet came here to join our family, he’s really thrived,” he says.
“Tragically, his dreams are now shattered. It is a desperate situation. If he goes back to Albania, he will fall straight back into the hands of those who trafficked him here to work in the first place.
“He’ll either end up being sent to work as a slave somewhere else, or worse, disappear because there will be no one looking out for him.”