How Romania Became Europe’s Sex Trafficking Factory

Almost 21 years have passed since the bloody fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Communist dictatorship and Romania is still struggling to find its own place in the world, entangled between the path to Westernization and the will to keep its centuries-old and very particular identity.

Contrarily to the rest of post-Soviet and post-Communist Europe, like Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic and the Baltic states, the once-called “Tiger of the East” didn’t pass the test: the pervasiveness of corruption and the never-ending widespread poverty have forced about 5,600,000 thousand citizens to seek a better life abroad. Furthermore, the apparently-extraordinary GDP performance of Romania isn’t actually so extraordinary as it is a proved case of immiserizing growth (where economic growth can result in a country being worse off than before the growth), and the political system is the most unstable in Europe 9 governments in the last 10 years.

But there’s something more, too.

Romania is plagued by a seedy evil: sex trafficking. It’s Europe’s undisputed sex worker production factory and it might be interesting to understand why.

Romania: Europe’s Top Exporter of Sex Workers

At the beginning of the year 2000, some 120,000 women were trafficked for the purposes of prostitution and sex exploitation in Europe. Some of them were from the post-Soviet space, mainly from Ukraine (7-11%) and Russia (3-5%), but the vast majority was from Romania and Moldova (45%). At that time, women were often kidnapped or convinced by force. Fully 60% reported the family to be behind the “deal,” and only a small minority claimed to be cheated by smart methods like a sham marriage or the lover boy-turned pimp.

Ten years later, in 2010, the United Nations estimated the number of women annually trafficked and sexually exploited in the continent to have increased to 140,000. The increase was due to the arrival of prostitutes from other parts of the world: South America, Africa, Eastern Asia. While the phenomenon of sex trafficking in the post-Soviet space experienced some reduction, the Balkans kept leading the ranking, providing 32% of all the prostitutes working in Western Europe, with Romania in first position followed by Bulgaria.

The demography of prostitution has changed further in recent years, but in the sense that Romania has considerably increased its exposure in the continental panorama, clearly separating out as the leader among the other countries and becoming Europe’s top exporter of prostitutes. According to a 2013 report by the European Commission, Romania and Bulgaria together provided 61% of all the women sex trafficked annually within the EU, with the former in first position. Indeed, four out of five victims were Romanians. Five years later, in 2018, the EU Commission published a new report on the matter, noting that Romania has been indisputably leading the ranking since 2010, and is the origin of 44% of all sex trafficking-related prosecutions at EU level.

The most recent study on the topic, conducted jointly by Europol and Eurojust and published last year, concluded that 7 out of 10 of Europe’s prostitutes are from Romania and it signals a paradigm shift: violence is no longer the principal means used by the sex trafficking-involved crime networks since there’s an increase in the cases of women selling themselves willingly for money. But Romania-based newspapers have challenged such depictions, collecting the witnessed testimony of some former prostitutes which are plenty of violence, abuses, deceptions, forced abductions and forced-sellings.

Germany, Italy, and Other Destinations

In any case, Romanian prostitutes represent the first nationality in most Western European countries. In Germany, according to the most recent and official data, coming directly from the legally-operating sex houses, as of 2018 about 32,800 women worked in the prostitution industry, 26,800 of them were foreigners and 11,400 were Romanians. It means that Romanians represent 35% of all the sex workers active in Germany.

But not all prostitutes choose to register and, according to some projections, in Germany there might be up to 400,00 sex workers. Not all of them, of course, work in the legally-registered sex houses, many still work in the streets while others are independent escorts. It might be interesting to investigate this underground reality in order to understand the real number of Romanian sex workers. The Romanianization of Germany’s sex industry is such that some brothels promote themselves by advertising the potential customers that they are “100% Romanian”, using ads like “Don’t worry, our girls are very beautiful, indeed they are Romanians!”

In Italy, in accordance with the numbers provided by the Association Giovanni XXIII, there are between 100,000 and 120,000 street prostitutes. Romania is the second most represented nationality (22%) after Nigeria (36%). What is truly shocking is that of the alleged 20,000-30,000 Italian-based Romanian prostitutes, the overwhelming majority is made up of minors: 15,000.

In Spain, according to a report by the Ministry of the Interior, Romanian women are believed to be 35%-50% of all the prostitutes working in the country and most of them are proven victims of violent abuses and tortures, kidnapped by criminal gangs in their home cities.

Prostitution in Romania

Romania ranks 11th in the world in terms of per capita prostitutes: 80 per 10,000 inhabitants, that is about 158,000. According to a 2010 report by the Amsterdam-based Tampep, 50% of all street prostitutes in Romania are of Roma origin. The situation is so problematic and widespread that recently the US Embassy in Bucharest downgraded the country from level 1 to level 2 with regard to its fight against sex trafficking and victim protection. The downgrading was motivated by the alleged collusion between authorities and crime rings.

In this regard, it’s noteworthy to highlight the recent case of Alexandra Macesanu. The 15-year-old girl was abducted for unknown purposes on July 24, 2019 in Caracal. She succeeded in escaping a day later and called the police three times but her help request was ignored. Search operations started after 19 hours of her being missing.

Macesanu was found dead and her murderer confessed to the killing of another young girl as well, Luiza Melencu. People went on the streets to protest against the police and the then-Ministry of the Interior resigned. Many people think that there’s something more behind the police’s negligence and that a more in-depth investigation might lead to the discovery of a human trafficking ring involving powerful people.

But collusion can explain only part of the problem. The shocking truth is that Romania became Europe’s sex trafficking factory also because of cultural reasons. The Romanian media themselves to admit it: well-known prostitutes and escorts are VIPs, they are often invited on television programs and shows, their social media accounts are followed by tens of thousands of people, especially youth and the public morality is increasingly tolerant towards prostitution. A rising number of Romanians have started to see them as “smart girls” that have found a way to make money.

Bucharest’s city center is now full of striptease clubs, sex shops, and underground sex houses, while prostitution and procuring are now popular themes of pop music, rap and Manele. The latter is a Roma-originated music genre which is now recognized countrywide and whose singers, mostly of Roma origin, tend to romanticize prostitution, procuring, sexual objectification, misogyny, and criminal lifestyles. The most famous Manelists, like Florin Salam and Dani Mocanu have also dedicated many songs to known and sentenced gangsters who sometimes appear in their videos and their songs are often sources of scandal.

Friends and Family: the Worst Enemy of Romanian Women

According to the most recent reports and studies on the prostitution phenomenon in Romania, families, close friends, and boyfriends are to be considered responsible for the majority of human trafficking cases in the country. A 2019 study has discovered that 49% of trafficked women are “sold” by the family and 9% are sold by the partner, and it’s not unusual for parents to sold their own girls to traffickers when they are still children: the Open Door Foundation (Fundaţiei Uşa Deschisă) has claimed to have even found cases of 9-year-old kids being sold.

Sometimes prostitutes do sell themselves willingly or agree to go abroad for love. This is what the Romanian police ascertained recently in a operation that dissolved a crime gang based in Brăila. The operation covered a 4-year period, during which the police monitored the moves of prostitutes and pimps between 2013 and 2017. It was found that some prostitutes were truly in love with their pimps, who they considered boyfriends, and would send them up to €10,000 at a time via Western Union in the expectation to get married with them in the future.

Some cities seem to be plagued by sex trafficking more than others such as in the case of Galaţi, Craiova and Bacău. In Galaţi, between 2012 and 2017, 70 people were sentenced to jail for sex trafficking-related crimes and in 40 cases the trafficking involved underage girls.