Human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of Romanian women to Europe continue to be a serious problem, despite Romania’s accession to the European Union in 2007. Many non-governmental organisations in Romania are working to address this problem, but despite their dedication and hard work, the availability of funding is still too low.
Since their accession to the European Union in 2007, Romania and Bulgaria have been one of the weaker countries of the union in many ways. While countries like Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary substantially improved their economic position since their accession, Romania and Bulgaria continue to struggle with corruption, declining economic circumstances and shortcomings in the judicial system. Some see promising developments on the horizon, but the fact that the two relatively new member states have many issues left to deal with before approaching Western European standards seems undeniable. One of the major issues the country of former dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu is struggling with is human trafficking.
According to a report by the European Commission in 2013, most of the victims of human trafficking detected in EU member states are citizens of Romania and Bulgaria. Unfortunately, precise data is difficult to obtain. Due to differences between the Member States’ reporting systems, there is a lack of reliable and comparable statistical information on human trafficking. What makes it even more difficult is the fact that most of these criminal activities are hard to track down. According to the same report, however, (based on data from 2008 until 2010) the majority (62 per cent) of the identified and presumed victims over the three years are being trafficked for sexual exploitation. The other victims are being used for forced labour and a variety of other activities such as forced begging, criminal activities and so on. The profile of victims by gender and age was 68 per cent women, 17 per cent men; 12 per cent girls and three per cent boys.
[add]The numbers show that the biggest problem when it comes to human trafficking in Europe is sexual exploitation of women and young girls, mainly from the Balkans. Although the issue has received widespread attention in the last decade, there does not seem to be a decrease in the trends thus far. On the contrary: “The very high rate [of women involved as victims in human trafficking] in Eastern Europe and Central Asia is exceptional,” according to the Global Report on Trafficking in Persons by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
Some poignant examples of this sexual exploitation of Romanian women were described by Iana Matei in her book A vendre: Mariana, 15 ans. Matei started a non-governmental organisation called Reaching Out and has been working tirelessly since to get girls out of their narrow situation, offer them the prospect of a new future and prosecute those who are responsible for sexual exploitation.
“I’m talking here about girls, in many cases minors, who are being sold as ordinary pieces of meat; girls who are being torn from their roots, tortured, psychologically broken and physically abused, raped and forced into sexual slavery. [This is being] committed here in Europe, on a large scale, in the 21st century,” writes Matei in her book.
Matei started sheltering young women in Pitești, Romania in 1999 and helped several hundreds of them over the years. Young women are quite often sold for a relatively low price compared to the profits that the traffickers make. Sometimes there are large criminal networks involved, Matei explains, but small-time criminals also want a piece of the action.
“Nobody resists the pressure of a human trafficker, nobody can say no to a brute that beats you and threatens to kill you if you don’t obey. And abroad the girls have even less to hold on to: they’re separated from their families, their official documents are seized, they have nothing to orientate themselves in an unknown environment and they have no one to go to,” Matei adds. These traffickers use several tactics to avoid detection, “They often send the women all across Europe and make sure that they don’t stay in one country too long, in order to prevent them getting acquainted to where they are, make personal contact or even gain some knowledge on the local legislation.”
Lack of awareness
The question is why has Romania become such a big source of sexually exploited women, both domestic and abroad? Poverty would be the obvious explanation, and that certainly is a factor. Although cities such as Bucharest, Timișoara and Cluj have become rather westernised over the last two decades, regions like north-western Maramureş and north-eastern Moldova look as though nothing has changed since the last century. Incredible poverty combined with outdated infrastructure, high unemployment and a poor education system create generations of young women and men who will do almost anything to improve their perspectives and therefore are vulnerable to human trafficking.
However this is only one of the factors. Matei acknowledges: “In my shelter I’ve seen a lot of different personalities. Girls from all ages, some of them from very developed environments. What they all have in common is a dysfunctional family. That vulnerability creates a bigger chance of meeting the wrong people. I’ve seen a couple of cases of abduction in the middle of the street, but most of the time girls are being lured by the promise of work.”
A young American, Ryan Crozier, moved to Bucharest with his wife about a year ago to dedicate his life to the fight against human trafficking. At the age of twelve, he and his father visited Romania for the first time to help the thousands of children that lived in orphanages and on the streets. After many visits, the younger Crozier made the decision to move from Indiana to Bucharest indefinitely to work on the prevention of human trafficking with his NGO, eLiberare. From a small office in the outskirts of Bucharest, Crozier and his team educate young Romanians about the dangers of the human trafficking, mostly through online campaigns.
“There is still a lack of awareness in Romania when it comes to this. Government and civil society are doing something, but we need to address this issue more drastically. The pressure to do something about it comes mainly from western countries right now. On a societal level we can make it much more difficult for traffickers,” Crozier says. “Right now, it is still way too easy for them.”
Crozier considers poverty to be one of the factors driving Romania’s leading role in trafficking. “But there are hundreds of issues that allow it to maintain. I hope that men will start valuing women more. We are also trying to help build a support system around women by involving schools and parents. And we made a checklist of the things that you could do when travelling abroad to prevent falling into the wrong hands. The problem is also that a lot of Romanians really do find legitimate work in other countries; so when a girl is being offered a job she will not always be suspicious right away.”
A major problem in the fight against human trafficking in Romania is funding. A small NGO like Crozier’s eLiberare is dependent upon donations from the United States. Besides prevention, Crozier is also planning on starting a fund for NGO’s that are involved in sheltering victims.
“There is enough money available for prevention, but not for direct help. Some people combine their work with other part-time jobs in order to pay the bills. We want to create the necessary recourses, because there is definitely a lack of it in Romania.”
Gina Maria Stoian is an example of a hardworking aid worker without many resources. From a small unmarked apartment in the centre of Bucharest she runs the NGO ADPARE (Association for the Development of Alternative Practices for Education and Reintegration), together with some psychologists and social workers. ADPARE shelters several women in the apartment, but mainly focuses on long-term assistance programmes for victims returning home. The location of the apartment is not publicly known, as traffickers often try to track down women who have escaped.
“Usually the first contact with a victim is established when they’re still abroad. We make a risk assessment and evaluate their medical condition, because a lot of women have medical problems due to a life of stress, a weakened immune system and physical abuse,” admits Stoian. “We see a lot of women who have been used as a mixed-type of slave, where they are not only sexually exploited, but also forced to clean the club where they work, for example. Many of them only get a couple of hours sleep each night. I even know an example where a woman was babysitting the children of the trafficker.” The girls that ADPARE assists are sometimes shockingly young: even 12 years old. Many of them were forced to have twenty to even thirty clients a night. Obviously medical care is not enough after such horrific experiences.
“We are taking care of a girl who is in the hospital right now because she jumped from the third floor to escape. It wasn’t a suicide attempt, but she was that desperate to get away,” Stoian says. “These girls often have severe trauma and are in need of psychological help. I’m always surprised though by their willingness to fight for their future. They use the survival skills they developed for good things.”
Despite their dedication and hard work, ADPARE is permanently struggling financially. “We never received any money from the state, though we are used by them as a good example,” Stoian adds. “Last year we decided we had to stop, but at the last moment we found a new fund that keeps us going for another year.”
The embassy of the United States in Bucharest stated in its annual report on the country: “For a fourth consecutive year, the government did not provide funding to NGOs offering assistance to trafficking victims, and did not offer specialised shelter services in Bucharest for adults and children.”
The lack of funding is not the only problem in the fight against human trafficking in Romania. A lack of a sense of urgency among government officials and law enforcement, corruption, a lack of protection for victims and social stigmas are also counterproductive elements. The same US embassy report states: “The Government of Romania does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so … the government gave specialised anti-trafficking training to police officers, although reports indicated that the training did not adequately emphasise that trafficking victims should not be prosecuted for any unlawful acts they commit as part of being trafficked.” It further claims, “The Government of Romania demonstrated weak efforts to protect and assist victims of trafficking during the reporting period, although victim identification remained high.”
Protection of victims seems to be a recurring problem. The National Agency Against Trafficking of Persons (ANITP) has 41 offices throughout the country with interrogation rooms. The interrogators, however, often lack proper training and the government shelters lack funding and require registration of the victims: something that many of them do not want as they fear that the traffickers will get hold of this information. This fear is not unjustified, as some government officials in the past reportedly have been complicit in human trafficking.
Prosecution and trials against the traffickers are often a problem as well. Gina Maria Stoian’s ADPARE has made their own lawyer available to the victims and assists them with the preparation of their statement if necessary.
“The laws on human trafficking in Romania are ok, but trials take a long time and it’s hard to get the traffickers convicted. A lot of girls therefore choose not to report their case; they just want to go on with their lives,” Stoian says.
Despite all these problems women are facing, the social stigma is perhaps the biggest one of all. ADPARE tries to reintegrate women in their original social environment, but this is a difficult process much of the time.
According to Stoian, “There are cases where women are being exploited or sold by their own families or husbands. In those cases reintegration is obviously not an option. Traffickers are often known by the victims, they try to establish a relationship in order to control them later. There’s a big problem in Romania with gender identity. Fathers sometimes get aggressive, which causes attachment problems. These girls are more vulnerable to anyone who does give them some positive attention. That’s how the well-known loverboy principle works.”
In the cases where ADPARE does try to reintegrate women they advise them to talk to friends and family about what happened to them. “But often they keep a lot to themselves because of the social stigma. They don’t want the neighbours to talk about it. Sometimes a completely new start is necessary.”
Misha Hofland is a Dutch freelance journalist who specialises in Central and Eastern Europe.