EU hopefuls in daunting fight against the slave trade

BUCHAREST – For years Romania denied that women like Ana existed. Now the government is finally trying to help them. An emaciated 30-year-old, Ana was arrested in a brothel in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). She was a sex slave, like countless other girls lured from poverty-stricken East European homes with promises of lucrative work in the West – only to be traded for a few hundred dollars. For seven years in a row he had come to our place and eaten with us, sat with my father and my brother, she said of the man who duped her. I couldn’t believe it when I got there and found I was being sold… He told us he was taking us to Italy. Stung into action by outside pressure, in part from the European Union it is desperate to join, Romania has followed neighboring Moldova and Ukraine in admitting it is a supplier of forced labor and passed an anti-trafficking law in response. The new legislation, and plans to implement it, address some of the failings in tackling cross-border crime for which most ex-communist EU hopefuls can expect to be criticized when Brussels gives its annual verdict on candidates on Tuesday. This is a great breakthrough and extremely encouraging, said Gabriele Reiter, an expert on anti-trafficking issues at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). But this modern-day slave trade could be tougher to stamp out than the smuggling of drugs and immigrants, often run by the same criminal networks, even if border controls are tightened. New strategy Many victims cross the first frontier using valid passports, only to be stripped of their papers and sold on once abroad. Citizens of most aspiring EU member states need no visa to visit Western Europe, making trade outside the region tough to detect. Weak law enforcement, corrupt officials and a tendency to criminalize victims all compound the difficulties in cracking trafficking networks, however powerful legislation may appear. You can’t just have a new law. There needs to be a strategy of prevention, protection and prosecution, Reiter said. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that hundreds of thousands of East European women fall victim to trafficking each year, making the region the world’s fastest-growing source of slaves. But the only reliable figures available are the tiny numbers of girls repatriated each year through IOM offices. They may be the tip of the iceberg, but they alone can help expose the rest. There is an extremely close relation between assistance and prevention, said Daniel Kozak of the IOM’s Bucharest office, which has helped almost 400 repatriated women in the past two years. The Warsaw branch of the women’s support group La Strada reckons less than 10 percent of these offenses are prosecuted in Poland. Improving on that requires a sea change in the interaction between victims, police and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). In many countries, women risk prosecution for fraud, immigration and prostitution offenses if they give evidence. Victim support must be the top priority, Italian judge Maria Grazia Gianmarinaro told a groundbreaking gathering of Romanian police, prosecutors and NGOs in Bucharest this month. Victims afraid to act But victims are usually terrified of seeking help. After being sold, often repeatedly, their captors force them to pay off invented debts with the proceeds from prostitution, using regular beatings and threats of retribution against their families at home to secure obedience. He found a Romanian guy who did the talking, said Camelia, who fled an Albanian pimp only to find his threats followed her. ‘I will come over and kill you all, set your house on fire, I’ll kill her daughter.’ I lived in terror for three months because of those calls, the fresh-faced 20-year-old said. Although there is some basis to the anxiety of rich West Europeans about swarms of desperate easterners crossing their borders, the truth of the sex slave trade is far more complex. Poland is wealthy enough to be a destination market… and poor enough to supply scores of victims forced into prostitution in Western Europe, noted La Strada’s Irena Dawid-Olczyk. The situation is similar in Hungary, which acts as a staging post for women from further east, who can enter without visas. Czech officials have imposed visa restrictions on easterners but there are still an estimated 50,000 illegal crossings annually. Many of the naive and vulnerable girls answering adverts for waitresses, nannies and other jobs requiring little formal education get no further than war-ravaged former Yugoslavia. In Kosovo, where widespread lawlessness provides a fertile market for traffickers, more than half the girls helped by the IOM thought they were bound for Italy. Other post-conflict zones are equally easy to exploit. Traffickers would not be successful unless they had political and law enforcement connections, especially in Bosnia where police officers make such low salaries and are easily corrupted, said Stefo Lehmann, a spokesman for the UN mission overseeing police restructuring in the divided republic. Campaign to warn those at risk Although women of all backgrounds can be seduced, the IOM is targeting independent-minded girls from Romania’s biggest cities and poorest regions with a campaign warning them of the risks. A hard-hitting TV ad, school seminars to raise awareness and a shelter for victims are part of a joint effort with NGOs to involve women in a prevention drive, which could help supply information to a new 27-member anti-trafficking task force. Bucharest is also home to the Southeast European Cooperation Initiative (SECI), a US-funded bid to pool police resources in 10 nations. FYROM and Bosnian officials say it is working and Romanian prosecutors hope to extradite a Serbian pimp soon. But some of the problems which led Romania to be included on a US blacklist of states failing to tackle the issue do remain. Due to a lack of resources and low-level corruption, many local government officials regard trafficking as a low priority and treat victims as social outcasts, the July report cautioned. Poverty will continue to hamper law enforcement efforts just as it spurs young girls to take a gamble, believing their chances of success are better abroad than in countries such as Romania, where 40 percent of the people live on less than $1 a day. The prospect of EU membership has yet to translate into wealth for much of eastern Europe. Until it does, campaigns such as the IOM’s, which uses videotaped testimonies from trafficking victims, are essential if the flow of women is to be stemmed. After all I’ve been through, all that beating… those threats, it’s better in Romania after all, one girl said. The chapters that refer to dignity, freedoms, equality, solidarity and justice concern all persons, thus immigrants and refugees as well, Pliakos noted.

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