Written by: Sofia Scarlat
Art by: Iasmina Angheluță
Human trafficking is a global issue dubbed “modern slavery,” trapping over 40 million people in a cycle of forced labor and sexual exploitation. In Romania, recent events such as the Caracal kidnappings in 2019 have yet again brought to light how the long-stigmatized and uninvestigated problem has been silently claiming victims within the country. With these worrying events and calls to action, today Romania’s human trafficking crisis has become a national emergency, yet, even so, remains one that is not currently being addressed.
Romania is a European country that joined the EU in 2002. Within the continent, there are over 20 000 recorded victims (“Human Trafficking: Facts and Figures”), however, it is estimated that at any given time there are over 140 000 trafficking victims, out of which one in four is a child. 34% of said child victims in the EU come from Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania (“One in four victims of trafficking and exploitation in Europe are children”). Romania itself is within the top 5 EU-member nations with the most victims, both in terms of absolute numbers and in terms of the proportion of the population, however, due to financial restraints and corruption, the number of identified victims in the country has been on a dangerous decline. In 2018, Romania recorded the lowest number of victims in over a decade – a total of 497 victims, compared to the 757 recorded in 2016, out of which 73% were female, 67% were victims of sexual exploitation (“US Mission Romania”), and 53.9% live in rural environments. These numbers create a profile for the most vulnerable people in Romania, exposed and often unprotected from human trafficking – young girls, from rural Romania, trapped in a cycle of forced prostitution.
Regarding offenders, Romania has only been providing data on convictions and suspected traffickers since 2009. The nation records the highest number of persons suspected, cautioned, or arrested for human trafficking, with a total of 2777 traffickers out of the 7503 counted in the EU during the 2015-2016 time frame (“Data collection on trafficking 2018 in human beings in the EU”). The most common citizenship among traffickers in the EU is also Romanian, disproportionate to other citizenships – during the same time period, 3280 traffickers held Romanian citizenship, while the second most common was the French citizenship, with 620 traffickers owning such documentation.
On an EU level, 44% of convicted traffickers also held Romanian citizenship (“Data collection on trafficking 2018 in human beings in the EU”), yet Romania only participated in 36 joint investigations with the European Union in 2018 and did not extradite any suspects (“US Mission Romania”). Despite large numbers of suspected and investigated traffickers, as well as a disproportionately large number of victims exploited both within the country and outside of it, Romania is not among the first nations in the EU in terms of human trafficking convictions, having investigated around 870 traffickers during the 2015-2016 time frame (“Data collection on trafficking 2018 in human beings in the EU”). According to EU and US Embassy to Romania statistics, that number has been in decline ever since: in 2017, there were already around 200 less investigated traffickers (a total of 675), and in 2018 there were 695, out of which prosecutors indicted 399 (“Romania”). Courts, however, convicted only 130 traffickers in 2018, almost a quarter of the total number of convictions in 2016, which were a total of 472 (“US Mission Romania”). Even with this small number of convicted traffickers in Romania, 29% of them received suspended sentences, meaning they did not serve any time in prison for the respective crimes. Due to financial restraints during investigations, even convicted traffickers who were sentenced to time in prison were often charged with crimes like pandering or pimping, legally considered less serious offenses in the country (“US Mission Romania”).
There are a number of reasons for the decline in identified victims and convicted traffickers, but most of the cases have to do with either a lack of funding for investigations, or corruption, or both. A huge problem that people face when investigating human trafficking in Romania – whether it’s politicians hoping to work on a new bill, NGOs trying to find statistics to apply in their own work or regular citizens who want to become informed on the issue – is that Romania fails to provide the necessary information and research on trafficking: there are few statistics and reports on the issue from throughout the years, and those which do exist are almost always put together by the EU or by the US Embassy to Romania. Due to lack of funding, government agencies do not allocate time and resources into investigating the issue, which in turn affects the strategies that are implemented for its prevention. As a result, victims are often unaccounted for and abandoned in this cycle of abuse and exploitation, while traffickers remain protected by unclear reports, statistics, and a general silence among government officials about an issue that affects thousands yearly.
Protection of traffickers and undisclosed reports from officials are not always caused by a lack of funding, however. Romania is the fourth most corrupt country in the European Union, and human trafficking in the nation is often closely related to said corruption and corrupt officials. In 2018, changes to the criminal code made it increasingly difficult for police to investigate crimes, including human trafficking, by limiting the situations in which video and audio recordings can be used, by allowing members of the same household as the accused to refuse to testify before a judge, etc (“Cele mai nocive 13 modificări aduse Codului penal de coaliția PSD-ALDE”). Aside from these changes, a newly introduced law reducing prison sentences of prisoners held in “appropriate conditions” led to the early release of over 500 traffickers in 2018 alone (“US Mission Romania”).
These changes to the criminal code are often dictated by the official’s involvement in human trafficking networks and operations. Observers for the US Embassy to Romania noted during 2018 several cases of government officials exploiting minors in placement centers, or “acting as accomplices to traffickers,” however no official investigations were ever announced throughout the year regarding government employees’ involvement in trafficking (“US Mission Romania”). Similarly, when the UN reported an allegation of sexual abuse launched against a Romanian peacekeeper in Congo, the investigation was still pending at the end of the year (“US Mission Romania”). Despite such cases have become a common occurrence in Romania, and despite massive scandals throughout the years involving officials in human trafficking networks, little progress can be recorded. At the start of 2018, media reported a highly controversial investigation that would since be dubbed the “Shanghai Case” – a human trafficking ring, operated by two Chinese officials in the back of a restaurant and massage parlor in downtown Bucharest, that served clients such as Romanian police officers and government officials. As the investigation continued, it was revealed that around 20 girls, aged between 14 and 17 years old and taken from rural parts of the country, had identified policemen, Romanian members of the Foreign Intelligence Service, members of the Romanian Intelligence Service, members of the Directorate for Investigating Organized Crime and Terrorism as regular visitors since as early as 2005. Parents of the girls had reported the possibility of sexual exploitation and the address of the parlor to law enforcement, however, according to their statements police “never came back” (“Toate Capitolele din Investigația Cazul Shanghai”). The investigation, still hanging in the air today with no progress being made, and the involvement of such high-profile individuals in the trafficking network, act as prime examples of the link between corruption and exploitation in Romania.
For victims, these numbers, reports, and real-life examples offer very little hope of being rescued, let alone receiving the help and guidance they need once that happens. Along with the decline in identified victims during 2018 – which did not occur in placement centers or otherwise, but rather after a criminal investigation had started – there was also a decline in the amount of government assistance offered to the few victims that did manage to escape. Throughout the year, there were a total of 6 shelters in the entire country towards which victims were directed once they were identified, one of which the government ran alongside an NGO (“Romania PDF”). Child victims were directed towards general facilities for children which did not offer specialized protection of services, often re-traumatizing victims. The government also does not currently offer any medical assistance for identified trafficking victims and does not provide more than one free mental health counseling session. The rest of the required medical assistance, travel expenses, and housing are expenses covered entirely by local NGOs. For victims identified abroad, the Romanian government also does not cover costs associated with repatriation (“US Mission Romania”).
Trials and criminal proceedings are also often difficult and dangerous processes for victims to participate in after identification. The government is able to provide legal assistance, however, according to the US Embassy to Romania, the officials assigned such cases often lack the necessary experience to deal with human trafficking cases (“US Mission Romania”). Moreover, victims often lack the financial resources to launch civil trials and receive monetary compensation, and when they do such trials were possible, victims rarely receive restitution. Finally, the most challenging part of these legal aspects is that courts often published the names of victims, including minors, in public records including on their website, exposing victims to the high possibility of retaliation (“US Mission Romania”).
To tackle these issues relating to human trafficking and address the problem on a national scale, the Romanian government and National Agency Against Human Trafficking have developed several campaigns and programs throughout the years, typically funded by the EU, to raise awareness about working abroad safely and about forced labor, reaching approximately 5 million people. While some projects addressed sexual exploitation and legal efforts were made to reduce it, officials failed to address forced labor, another widely-spread form of human trafficking. During 2018, the government also adopted a 2018-2022 national strategy focused on victim protection and anti-trafficking policies, however, it has not yet allocated funds towards any of the mentioned goals (“US Mission Romania”). The ANITP runs, alongside the national strategy, 15 centers across the country to help monitor its implementation during the coming years. Active NGOs in Romania have also contributed greatly towards preventing human trafficking and helping victims after identification, mostly by allocating funds towards housing, legal protection for victims, shelter, and education for vulnerable and potential trafficking victims. Despite existing initiatives to prevent trafficking of human beings, declining numbers in identified victims and convicted traffickers are a clear sign of much-needed change and increased efforts in this area. Romania’s current ranking by the US Embassy to Romania was downgraded in 2018 to a Tier 2 Watch List country, alongside recommendations from the Embassy and the EU to assign more police officers to human trafficking operations, expand efforts to train officials in judicial proceedings on how to handle human trafficking cases, provide financial support to NGOs, increase psychological counseling for victims, punish all traffickers with prison sentences and so on. Romania is also recommended to allocate the necessary funding towards the 2018-2022 national strategy, in order to ensure that it will function properly in all indicated areas (“US Mission Romania”). From abroad, interesting examples for Romania to follow would be something similar to the state of Massachusetts, which has made using the Internet as a trafficking tool punishable by law, or similar to Haiti where grant-making programs have been put in place to prevent trafficking in humanitarian crises (“What’s Being Done to Stop Human Trafficking”). For victim protection, however, the most important step would be to offer complete anonymity during trials and criminal proceedings.
Romania continues to face a lot of difficulties and backlash when it comes to the prevention of human trafficking, identification of victims, and offering assistance to them after identification. While few statistics are available to shed light on the scale of this issue, it is clear through the currently noted information, testimonies, and investigations that the country is dealing with a national emergency that can no longer be ignored. It is crucial that Romania listens to the recommendations of foreign embassies, the European Union, and the United Nations, and implements the solutions within its borders, as well as by targeting the most vulnerable groups in regards to education about identifying trafficking and about working abroad safely. All things considered, human trafficking in Romania will not diminish unless the government looks towards its own employees, officials, shelters, and centers and ensures that it has built a network of trust and safety for victims to come forward and receive the help they need. With the number of identified victims and convicted traffickers in a constant decline, it becomes clear that Romania must act on this pressing issue now before it becomes completely swept under the rug.
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