Dark side of migration
As Romania prepares to deal with becoming a destination for human traffic, 'The Diplomat – Bucharest' analyses the plight of thousands of mostly young girls as their dream of a better life away from home ends in tragedy
"I kidnap girls from traffickers. That's my biggest pleasure,” says Iana Matei, who runs Reaching Out, a programme that shelters victims of human traffic.
“The traffickers don't know what's hit them. They're so used to people being afraid of them. I take the girls from under their nose."
In Romania, Matei finds out where a girl is being kept against her will. Then she calls up the girl on her mobile, which the trafficked girls keep for clients, and together they work out a free moment when the girl will not be under the supervision of the trafficker.
Then she plans the swoop.
"I sometimes position my car outside the disco where she is expected to work," says Matei. "We arrange that the girl will go out to smoke a cigarette and that she knows that on that street at that time, I will be there. Then she runs, jumps in the car and we drive off. The traffickers often call the girl's mobile, thinking that I am the competition. This is when I say: 'No, I'll see you in court'."
One time after kidnapping an underage girl from traffickers in a small town in the south of Romania, Matei received a call from a policeman.
"He called me and said that the trafficker had complained to the police that his girl was taken away from him," says Matei. "That I had kidnapped a minor from a carer. I thought I was going to have a heart attack: I said: 'Where were you when she was stolen at 13?”
After working with street children in both Australia and Romania, Matei was approached in 1998 by police in Pitesti who asked if she could help with some girls between 14 and 17 forced to work as prostitutes.
She asked the local authorities for help. "But they did not understand what I meant by children forced into prostitution," says Matei. "No one wanted to work with them. The orphanages did not want the girls because they thought they would set a bad example to the other kids."
Matei started a programme, where she rented an apartment to house the girls. Soon she ended up with 13 girls in a three room apartment.
As well as teaching them life skills, such as cooking and cleaning, she encouraged all the girls to go back to school and finish their education, as well as take vocational training. So far around 218 girls have stayed with Reaching Out's programme for an average of a year. "After that you cannot just brush them off and send them back into society," says Matei. "These girls have been abused as children."
Some 86 per cent of the girls in the shelter have been reintegrated, either going on to work or marriage. The shelter has either lost touch with the remainder or they are back in prostitution in Romania or abroad.
'Reaching Out' also has a tailoring workshop where the girls can work. This is a large room with sewing machines and piles of bed linen in plastic containers branded with the 'Reaching Out' logo. The shelter then sells the bed linen to guest houses. This helps to make the shelter self-sustainable.
"The girls work in the tailoring workshop until they find another job," says Matei. "We encourage them to do this for their wages and activity. It stops them getting depressed."
Typically, the victims in Matei’s shelter is abuse in a family of low or medium education. The major problem is not poverty, but a background of living in a dysfunctional family. The age of the abused victims has dropped since 2003. Now there are many girls as young as 13 being trafficked. This is not necessarily to do with the client demand. “The traffickers can scare, control and manipulate them more easily,” says Matei.
Victims generally come from the poorest areas of Romania, the south and the east. Giurgiu, Ialomita and Calarasi are source cities. Bucharest is not an exception. “There are a lot of victims from Republic of Moldova and Ukraine which are in transit in Romania,” says Gabriel Sotirescu, deputy director general, directorate for fighting against organised crime (DGCCO). “Romania has been a destination country in the past, and most likely we will become more and more this type of country.”
Two to three million Romanians are working abroad, many, if not most, with illegal work papers. Most in menial work which is well-paid by Romanian standards. Encountering agents touting for jobs abroad is a part of daily life for poverty-stricken areas, where whole towns have decamped to Spain and Italy. "So when a guy introduces himself to a girl and says in Spain they can pick strawberries for 800 dollars a month, they will go," says Matei. "Most of the girls have no idea what's in store for them.”
In eight years, of 218 girls, the shelter probably had four or five girls who thought prostitution would be part of the deal.
Dumitru Licsandru, president of the National Agency for Combating Human Traffic, says most of the girls going abroad are aware of the fact that there are going to, say, dance in a night club, but do not imagine that they will become a prostitute. “When they leave the country they leave it legally so no one can stop them at the border,” he adds. A few are prostitutes willing to work abroad.
“But once they are there the deal is different and they are physically abused,” he adds “Most prostitutes are human trafficking victims. It is very hard to establish the difference between human trafficking and prostitution.”
Lately labour traffic is increasing, such as the exploitation of handicapped people to beg on the streets and children for petty crime. “In the future most probably in terms of labour exploitation there will be victims from Asia and North Africa coming to Romania,” says Sotirescu. In forced labor victims are often paid small salaries and do not consider themselves as victims.
But Licsandru estimates that 70 per cent of the cases are trafficked for sex.
The destination for girls is all over western and central Europe. In Italy, the Romanian and Albanian traffickers tussle for top place. Most go to Germany, Austria, England, Belgium, the Netherlands and now to Norway. A lot of girls are in Dubai, but this is very strict and mafia-controlled. “Now they are orientating to Spain and Italy most probably because of the language,” says Licsandru.
Some girls manage to run away and others go to the police. But most of the girls are rescued by the clients. As the girls get to know their clients better, they realise the man is not the best friend of traffickers, so they confide in them their situation.
"The client will find the police or Romanian embassy's phone number, then he will buy the girl for an evening of services, inform the authorities and she is rescued by the police," says Matei. Often the client pays for the girl's ticket back home.
Problems after the event include lung and stomach problems due to a bad diet and months of confinement. Many have STDs and infections.
In Matei's office there is a framed photograph of a girl with a black armband around the portrait. She died in February this year of uterine cancer.
Most girls have unprotected sex. This is what the clients and traffickers expect. Some come to the shelter with growths on their uterus. They do not take adequate forms of contraceptives. Birth control pills are expensive, so before the girls have sex, some traffickers force them to push pieces of sponge into their vagina as a prevention to pregnancy.
"The kind of sponge you wash your car with," says Matei.
After sex, the girls take out the sponge and rinse it out before putting it back for the next client. They can have between ten and 50 clients a day. Some girls stay on the streets for eight years. "If the traffickers discover the girl is sick they will sell her on and get some money for her," say Matei.
If they become too ill, the traffickers dump the body. Many are dead or vanished. In Spain one girl was killed and thrown onto a highway. She is now in a freezer in a Morgue. No one knows who she is or where she comes from.
Following the escape from the trafficker, there is a thawing process that most girls go through. This includes symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and sometimes an ongoing sympathy for the trafficker. "Most girls will say it was better with trafficker, that he was always caring for them: that he gave her lollies after beating her up," says Matei.
Going home is not always the best option.
"Rule number one in psychology is that environment dictates behaviour," says Matei. "If the girl left home to begin with something happened there that made her leave. If you send her back to the same environment, she will react in the same way - it's a vicious circle."
But Licsandru says that most girls returning to Romania can hardly wait to go back to their families and to break the connection with their experience.
“Most of the times they reject support,” says Licsandru. “For most of them the image of the shelter is related to a prison where they are locked up and beaten. That’s the image that the criminal created for them.”
Breaking the cycle
Creating jobs in poverty-stricken areas should be one way of stopping people leaving the country and thus its more insidious side of trafficking. Reaching Out intends to increase enterprises in the Arges county area. This means supporting small enterprises such as cheese-making, mushroom farming and guest houses in the Transfagarasan mountains. "Developing the community is the way to stop trafficking and drug abuse," says Matei. "Not printing out posters and talking about it."
Meanwhile the Ministry of Labor is organising job fairs for women in areas where the risk of trafficking is higher.
Experts believe that by 2009 Romania will become a destination for human traffic. Romania is already seeing an increase in the number of internally trafficked girls. But many members of the police service are still not clear about how to deal with the situation. "The police check the papers of a 15 year-old girl on the streets, then send her back on streets,” says Matei. “If she's a prostitute, she goes to jail and she pays a fine."
In Bucharest many street police are corrupt. Last June Matei says the police organised a raid on an illegal brothel which sold trafficked girls. The moment they went to pick up the girls, the pimps received a call from the police, telling them to the hide the girls because there would be a raid.
At least now there is now the political will. There is an anti-trafficking squad and Romania has now a specialised structure for fighting against human trafficking at police level and a network of 56 attorneys who are specialists in this area.
“We are very efficient from the point of view of catching and sending the criminals to court,” says Sotirescu. “In the field of fighting against human trafficking Romania is regional leader among 13 countries.”
In terms of convictions, in the first semester of 2006, the DGCCO has arrested 618 people and the border police 183 in relation to trafficking. As for convictions, 49 went to prison for one to five years, 38 between five and ten years and three from 10 to 15 years.
But Matei says the authorities need to train the prosecutors. Many of them still have the presumption that the girl is guilty.
"We still see prosecutors asking a trafficked girl questions; such as what colour do you prefer wearing on your undies? Red, blue, or lace? And another question they ask: how old were you when you started your sexual life?"
Many say girls are asking for it by dressing in a provocative way. 14 year-old girls can still be sentenced to six months in jail for street-walking.
"It's easier to exploit minors in Romania," says Matei.
This country is also safer territory for the traffickers.
"It's safer to take them on the street here, beat them up, abuse them, send them with 100 clients a day, teach them how to drink themselves to death in order to serve the clients, so they are already destroyed. Then you can market them overseas. Then in three years time this 15 year-old girl will say: 'I want to be a prostitute. because there is nothing out there for me. I was born to be a prostitute.'"
In cases involving minors, there always has to be a lawyer present and a child protection officer present.
In practice this does not happen.
In one example in Bucharest, when the police were interviewing a trafficked girl about an accusation she had made against her captors, she was giving her statement opposite the trafficker's lawyer. He kicked her under the table when she hesitated in giving the statement he wanted to hear.
"I found out later that this lawyer had sex with the girl two days previously," says Matei. "The lawyer could come to the trafficker and pick up whichever girl he wants."
In 2005, from 2,200 victims, 1,800 agreed to sign a statement about what happened. “Unfortunately there are a number of people retracting their testimony,” says Licsandru. “There is a lack in our system here. The victims are taken by the authorities, making a statement against the criminal, but traffickers offer money and harass the victims.”
He says that so far four women have entered a witness protection programme, where they change their identity and break contact with their family, in order to help prosecute traffickers.
Most commonly, the traffickers will give the girls cash to change their statement - usually about 850 Euro. Sometimes they just beat the girl up.
The cases do not always go to trial because the girls often change their testimony and are thus exposed as being unreliable witnesses.
"The trafficker knows where she lives and he will come and tell her not to testify against her," says Matei. "Usually traffickers pay them to change their testimony. Then, because there is no chance for the girls, they take them back."
Report by Ana Maria Smadeanu and Michael Bird