Human trafficking is a serious and terrible breach of human rights and a violation human dignity, yet it remains a lucrative illegal market globally. Estimates from the International Labor organization (ILO) show that profits from human trafficking reach 150 billion US dollars every year and affect over 20.9 million victims. Human trafficking unquestionably impinges on human rights and fundamental freedoms. Any individual can become a victim, although young women and children are the most vulnerable. In addition, those coming from less developed countries, conflict-affected areas and poor surroundings are in greater danger of falling victim to human trafficking.
One of the countries in the European Union (EU) that is affected the most by the horrifying reality of human trafficking is Romania, where thousands of young women and children are recruited, smuggled and forced into prostitution or other types of modern slavery in other EU or non-EU countries.
This country, located in Eastern Europe, is well-known for its ties to the character of Bran Stoker’s famous novel “Dracula” and has also served as an inspiration for Jules Verne’s novel “The Castle of the Carpathians”. Romania is also known for its breathtaking landscapes, gothic churches, majestic castles and beautiful medieval towns that make one feel like being in a classic fairy tale. Romania is also home to the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon, Parliament Palace. This place is also home to prominent inventors, scientists (insulin, without which many humans would not be able to survive, was discovered by the Romanian-born doctor Paulescu!), artists and athletes, and also to many ordinary citizens that work hard every day to make Romania a great country.
However, Romania has unfortunately become a crucial transit country for human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation. Romania’s strategic geographical location (in Eastern Europe and very close to the western part of the Middle East) makes it a country of origin, transit and also a destination for the trafficking of human beings. Furthermore, Romania’s entry in the European Union (EU) in 2007 allowed the free movement of the country’s citizens to other EU countries, which caused the country to become an even more attractive place for human traffickers, as they can easily transport their victims to other EU countries.
Let us not forget that Romania was one of many Eastern European States with a dictatorial communist system that failed to supply the basic needs of all its citizens, leaving many in poverty and hunger. It was not so long ago that dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was deposed and Romania began its gradual transition to democracy and to an open free market economy. However, structural changes normally occur at a very slow rate and processes of social change take time to develop. In 2016 there was still 23.6% of the population living below the national poverty line, with an average net salary of 2108 RON (the equivalent to 667 USD). With these socioeconomic conditions, Romania is one of the countries in the EU with the greatest number of persons falling victim to human trafficking.
Young women from rural or marginalised areas and those with the lowest levels of education are the most likely to fall into the hands of traffickers for purpose of sexual exploitation. However, unlike in other countries or regions, victims are not abducted or kidnapped. Traffickers usually act under covert or false identities, build rapport with victims and often offer them a seemingly well-payed jobs, an education, or even a loving relationship in order to persuade them to move abroad. Once abroad, victims are deprived of their freedom and forced into prostitution, pornography or other contemporary forms of slavery. As most of the victims of human trafficking come from less developed areas and usually have lower levels of education, they are not familiar with how human trafficking networks operate and are vulnerable to traffickers.
Due to the abuse and torture that victims of human trafficking undergo, they can receive life-long psychological harm, such as anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. In worst case scenarios, these psychological consequences can lead victims to suicide or other self-destructive behaviour, such as substance or alcohol abuse, and that is why victims need to receive psychological support and assistance as soon as possible, on a regular basis. Also, victims of sexual exploitation can be affected by sexual transmitted diseases or other physical health problems as a result of physical abuse. In many cases, victims struggle to reintegrate in society, not only because of the post-traumatic conditions that they endure, but also because human trafficking and sexual exploitation can still be a taboo issue in many places, leaving victims haunted by prejudice and mistrust.
Law in Romania forbids any kind of sale of persons; however, these laws are far from stopping human trafficking. The fight against human trafficking, as well as many other forms of transnational organized crime, is extremely difficult. Many agents and sub-organizations, both in the public and private sphere are involved. Additionally, Romania is one of the countries within the EU with the highest levels of corruption (only surpassed by Bulgaria), which makes it even more difficult to combat human trafficking, as politicians, workers of the judiciary system and security forces can occasionally omit their duties and collaborate with human trafficking networks in order to receive lucrative benefits.
Despite its enormous potential and proud history, Romania is a country with significant human trafficking activity, which has a devastating impact on society. High levels of poverty combined with low possibilities for finding secure employment provide a breeding ground for traffickers to recruit their victims. However, by taking small steps such as raising awareness for the most vulnerable groups, establishing harsh sanctions on traffickers (or those pursuing sexual services) and delivering better health care to victims and assistance to their reintegration, Romania could make significant progress towards the eradication of human trafficking. Big changes always begin with small steps, and hopefully Romania and the rest of world can start to work towards the eradication of this horrible reality that affects so many people.
Julia Vázquez Santiago