With a high number of citizens trafficked for sexual and labor exploitation in several EU countries, Romania struggles to reform institutions and change mentality that slavery is not linked to organized crime.
Ana Maria Touma @Balkan Insight
The total number of human trafficking victims identified by the Romanian authorities in 2015 was 880. Photo: Imagens Evangélicas/Flickr
Mariana* was 60 at the time when she was left in the middle of the road at the border between Romania and Hungary by the minibus driver who was supposed to deliver her to Austria where she would start working for an elderly couple.
It was February 2012, it was cold and it took her two days to return home, in Eastern Romania, in Husi, a town in Vaslui country, one of the poorest regions in Romania. But she felt happy she did not continue her journey to Austria and that the driver just let her leave.
“I knew I was giving up a good salary, but I just didn’t like the looks of those guys who wanted to take my passport,” she says while sipping from her Turkish coffee. “They probably realized I was much taller and stronger than most women they had on the bus and decided that I was a trouble maker. I’m glad I was,” the woman added.
Divorced from her engineer husband and with a daughter in high-school to support, Mariana did not think twice when she heard about a certain network that recruited caretakers and maids for Western Europe. A couple of nurses she knew at the local hospital had also left this way and they had put their children through medical school and had refurbished their houses. She asked around, visited all her nurse friends and she finally got the number of a man from a village in the vicinity of her town and she called him.
The first time she left was in 2007. There was a shortage of domestic workers in Italy, the pay was good and the family she was placed with got her health insurance. She didn’t think whether the people who had brought her to Italy were smugglers or not.
Romania was part of the European Union already and it all seemed legal to her. She got her salary in full, but always humiliated, not allowed to leave the house, her employer always suspicious that she would run away. Sometimes, when her employer was unhappy with the way she cleaned, she wouldn’t receive dinner.
But Mariana says she endured everything for the sake of her daughter. Moreover, she says, others had had it even more difficult than her.
But in 2012, after three years of struggling with a small pension at home, Mariana felt she was willing to make more sacrifices.
The network that smuggled maids to Italy had been replaced by another one that took poor women from the villages around Husi to Germany and Austria. She asked everyone she knew. And from one nurse to another she got in touch with the men who ran the so-called agency.
“I didn’t like the sound of that man’s voice the first time I called. But when during the trip to the border the driver didn’t stop the car for any of us to go to the toilet and did not want to return our pass ports, I began to complain. Apparently, I complained too much because he decided to leave me in the middle of the road. I’ve always had a big mouth,” she laughed.
But other women from her town were not as lucky. Many endured many humiliations, some were deprived of food or sleep, but refused to complain because they felt ashamed to let their families know what they went through.
“I never reported the incident. I mean nothing really happened, and the others, even if something bad happened to them, they wouldn’t talk to the authorities. It’s not like they were kept in chains. The entire town would then gossip about them”, she points out.
Abused workers and prostitutes
In February 2016, Romanian and Spanish police worked together and saved 300 Romanians from a Spanish farm where they were kept in huts with no water or toilets, worked 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, without pay.
According to both Romanian and Spanish police they were enticed with good salaries and brought to the Spanish farm where their salaries were kept by their traffickers supposedly in exchange for lodging and travel expenses.
The media attention the case got was due to the number of rescued victims. In other cases, when the number was not that great, victims did not receive much attention. In fact, although official statistics focus on sexual exploitation cases, according to experts, more Romanians fall victims to forced labor and abuse.
Silvia Dumitrache, the head of the Association of Romanian Women in Italy (ADRI), called the domestic workers abused in Northern Italy by their employees, women who work 24/7, “the invisible slaves.”
“If sexual slaves and women who are exploited for sexual purposes are usually talked about in the media, these women are simply invisible. We don’t even know their real number,” she said.
The problem is that none of them are willing to speak up, because there is nobody to support them against the trafficking networks.
There are three ways to bring in Romanians into Italy, Dumitrache explains, and they’re similar to the networks in Spain or other European countries.
First there are the ghost recruiting agencies, so0me even based in Italy. They recruit domestic workers or agriculture workers, ask of a quota of their monthly salaries and leave them on farms or in villages. The agriculture workers usually are left to live in huts, with no water and little food, their passports are taken and many times they’re abused.
If the Italian authorities close down the agencies for bad practices, they just open another one somewhere else. “It’s extremely profitable anyway, probably more profitable than drug trafficking,” Dumitrache explains. Moreover, Romanian and Bulgarian workers are also targets for other trafficking networks from the Blakans, especially the Albanian, because both nationalities lower the wages on the market by accepting lower pay.
“If they’re not abused by the traffickers in the network that brought them to Italy, they’re abused and beaten by other rival networks,” Dumitrache pointed out.
In terms of trafficking for sexual exploitation, she says girls are recruited by a handsome young men go court the girls, promise them a better life together abroad and them deliver them to an illegal brothel. In another scenario, especially with minors, young girls are told by a trustworthy person in the community that they would go abroad to see their parents and then they simply end up.
“There is a whole circuit in these cases. Sometimes they are taken to Italy and then sent to the Balkans and then brought back to Italy until the authorities lose track of the victims,” Dumitrache explains. “And this is not just in Italy, it’s everywhere and they simply don’t talk to NGO workers like me who try to help. They’re afraid because most of them are recruited straight from home, they have a file and are threatened that if they report the network to the authorities, their families would have to suffer”.
The official numbers
According to Eurostat, Bulgarian, Romanian and Latvian citizens were the most likely to come into contact with authorities as victims of trafficking during 2010-2012, when the latest statistics were gathered, both in their own country and in the EU. Bulgarian and Romanian citizens were also most likely to be registered in another EU country as victims of trafficking.
Similarly to the statistics on victims, around two thirds of suspected traffickers were EU citizens (69 %). The top 5 EU countries of citizenship were Bulgaria, Romania, Belgium, Germany, and Spain.
According to the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons most recent report, Romania is a Tier 2 country. It means that “Romanians represent a significant source of sex and labor trafficking victims throughout Europe.”
Romanian men, women, and children are subjected to labor trafficking in agriculture, construction, domestic service, hotels, and manufacturing, as well as forced begging and theft in Romania and other European countries.
The state institutions that deal with organized crime and law enforcement, however, need to train their personnel in recognizing a human trafficking case and link it to organized crime. Victims do not receive proper compensation and perpetrators do not get the right sentencing, the report says. “The government’s protection efforts remained inadequate, particularly in victim assistance. The government and NGOs identified a large number of victims, but assisted only 37 percent, leaving most victims without services and vulnerable to re-trafficking,” the document reads. Moreover, it says, complicity from officials was not properly investigated.
The Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA) of the Council of Europe also sent a warning to Romania in October, asking the government to step up reforms and be more careful with victim protection and prosecution, especially when it comes to children.
The total number of human trafficking victims identified by Romanian authorities in 2015 was 880. More than half of these cases were linked to sexual exploitation; only 34% were linked to labor exploitation and 6% to forced begging. Moreover, the experts of CoE pointed out that Romanian authorities are not at all equipped to identify cases of foreigners being exploited in Romania.
According to the State Department, the law entitles victims to medical and psychological care, legal aid, and reintegration support; however, observers noted the law did not necessarily provide for more than one mental health counseling session. In addition, access to medical care was impeded by the process for obtaining identity documents, which required victims to return to their home district, despite the logistical and financial hurdles this presented for typical trafficking victims. For Romanian victims abroad, Romanian embassies issued travel documents free-of-charge and the government, NGOs, or IOM paid for transport costs. But once they got to Romania, their track was lost.
Prosecution and prevention, always difficult
According to the State Department, despite concerns on official complicity in sex and labor trafficking, including allegations of city and county officials obstructing trafficking investigations or being directly involved in trafficking themselves, the government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees complicit in human trafficking offenses.
According to Silvia Martis Tabusca, the head of the European Center for Justice Education and Research, most law enforcement agents need training, but also need to remain in contact to experts abroad and realize that trends change. In Romania, they might see some cases as a matter of labor law or abiding to a contract, not as human trafficking.
Prosecuting cases of human trafficking and linking them to organized crime networks face many obstacles in Romania and many times, corruption and influence peddling are some of them, Tabusca told Balkan Insight.
Europol identified at the beginning of 2016 a human trafficking and migrant trafficking network and the Romanian trafickers were sent to Romania to be prosecuted.The organized crime prosecutor filed the indictimets to the Appeal Court, as he should have because there were local officials involved, but then suddenly sends the file to the a simple county court. “If he sent it directly to the court, we would have said that he simply did not know the procedure. But when he actually went through the entire administrative correspondence with the Appeal Court and then you send the case to the county court, and the next day you appear in front to f the judge and you say that the traffickers should be released because they were illegally arrested and then the suspects disappear and nobody can find them, I can’t say the police is to blame or they did not investigate the case as they should have,” Tăbuşcă said.
She says that step by step, every state structure needs to make its work more effective. The problem is that they’re too many state institutions dealing with the matter.
Administration, a spider web
The National Agency Against Trafficking in Persons is supposed to coordinate, evaluate and oversees the implementation of policies fighting human trafficking at the national level. It also connects victims with NGOs that work in victim protection and counseling. It remains subordinated to the Ministry of Interior. The institution has 15 regional offices and 88 employees at the national level.
The agency has several awareness campaigns underway: a hotline for children in Romania, an awareness campaign for Romanians in the United Kingdom on sexual exploitation.
An Inter-ministerial Working Group on Combating Trafficking in Persons still formally exists, but has not been convened since 2010 and ANITP took over its responsibilities.
The 2012-2016 National Strategy against Trafficking in Persons in its objective 4 on data collection asked for the creation of a National Rapporteur institution, but the Government has not established it yet.
The Department for Organized Crime and Terrorism (DIICOT ) within the Prosecutor’s Office attached to the High Court of Cassation remained the main body investigating and prosecuting organized crimes, including human trafficking. Apart from DIICOT, the Department for Countering Trafficking in Persons within the Police (DCCO) is specialised in investigating this type of cases. The DCCO has 15 offices at territorial level within the Brigades for Combating Organised Crime, and 27 units at county level within the Services for Combating Organized Crime.
DIICOT recently moved from the prosecutor’s office to the High Court of Cassation to the Ministry of Interior and a new judiciary police body has been added to it.
It is what Tăbuşcă and her fellow advocates at the European Center for Justice Education and Research had always wanted. But they are also advocating amending the law on imposing more rules on recruitment agencies that to better protecting Romanians who work abroad.
If moving prosecutors and judicial police from one ministry to another was difficult, fighting the lobby of recruiting agencies who earn their income from the fees paid by Romanians who get hired to work abroad is even tougher, Tabusca explains. “Their argument is that coming up with tougher rules and monitoring these agencies would mean to limit the free movement of services in the EU”, she said.
“In cases of cooperation with other EU states, Romanian authorities react quite well in cases of labor exploitation. The problem is that the moment of the victims’ repatriation is the end of story,”Tabusca points out.
Most human trafficking victims are people from disadvantaged rural areas who can’t afford to file a law suit in a different county. Most agencies, for this particular reason, recruit people from distant regions so that there would be little chances to get in trouble for not verifying the employer properly.
When the victims don’t show up in court, the court doesn’t take the case further because it sees it as exploitation or breaking a contract, rather that trafficking, which is linked to organized crime.
For the moment, there is little Romanian victims of trafficking for labor can do to receive damages from a recruitment agency that sent them to an abusive employer. “Most of them come from the rural area, where they don’t have the proper education to fight for their rights, they’re simply happy that they’re back home and they escaped their misfortunes. They don’t bother with going to court,” Tabusca concludes.
*The name has been changed at the victim’s request.