She does not want to reveal her name, but she goes by “N”. When her mother left for Italy in search of work, little “N” was left at home in Romania with an uncle. Her mother would never return. At 8-years-old, the uncle began grooming her for prostitution with the intention of trafficking her to Italy. Beaten daily, bruises and welts – cunningly delivered to places that could be concealed by clothes – marked her small frame. At 12-years-old, “N” was rescued by the charity People Against Poverty and was eventually adopted by a project leader at the organisation. She is now 30-years-old and was happily married last year.
“N” got the fairy-tale ending after all. Yet, thousands of Romanian girls are not as fortunate, and their stories meander into something far darker.
Over the years, Romania has increasingly become Europe’s top sex trafficking location and a large percentage of prostitutes around European cities comprise of Romanian women.
The report, “Behind Closed Doors Organised Sexual Exploitation in England and Wales”, revealed that Romanians made up the biggest percentage of sex workers in the UK alone. Of brothels visited by the police, 86% of prostututes in Leicestershire and 75% of prostitutes in Northumbria were Romanian. And 92% of women caught loitering/soliciting sex on the streets of Redbridge in London were also Romanian.
Since joining the EU, the ease of free movement, soaring poverty, and complicit authorities, have caused countless Romanian women to fall victim to sex traffickers. And according to the “Trafficking in Persons” report, one-third of Romania’s trafficking victims are underage girls.
The Romanian mafia is an intricate network, which spans across Europe, specialising in sex trafficking. One of the main techniques employed by traffickers is known as the “lover boy method”. After singling out his would-be-victim, the trafficker pretends to be smitten with the girl, showering her with attention, affection, and romance. Once the girl has fallen in love with him, he would pretend to encounter financial difficulties and the girl would be coerced into selling her body to help him. Once she is entrapped in ignominy and the seedy web of prostitution, it becomes difficult to escape. Sometimes, the women are blackmailed so that they are too fearful to attempt to break free. Beyond that, it then becomes easy for the girls to be transported to different corners of Europe.
Yet, the traffickers may not necessarily be at the root of the problem. In a society dominated by androcentric values, many officials do not view the epidemic as a serious threat, but rather as a symptom of women with loose morals or as a consequence of certain ethnic groups’ natural gravitation towards prostitution.
Valerie Huxley is the CEO of People against Poverty, an organisation working in the city of Iasi on the Moldovan border, making it the largest area for trafficking in Romania. The children whom they have liaised with often come from the gypsy community and are eking out an existence.
Families live in tumbled-down, rat-ridden ex-communist blocks – barely fit for a dog – with no heating, lighting, sanitation, or running water. Within these flats, they have encountered countless young girls prostituting their services on the streets.
Huxley admitted that Romanian women are some of the most “at-risk” due to economic constraints. She explained: “I really believe that this is due to the poverty problem. These people have literally nothing – they live in makeshift homes of mud and tin. They cannot find work and if they do, it is for daily work making around 50p per day. They see a release from the poverty by prostituting for their next meal.“
The charity has built temporary sanctuary homes that offer relief. Working with families, they address issues such as alcohol, drugs, debt counselling, and get official organisations involved with social workers.
“The Romanian government needs to tackle this problem. These people live amongst ‘normal’ families who have homes – where they can cook, and feed their children. It shouldn’t be this way. They need to work with these people and address their issues. The majority of them have no legal identities. We have a small legal project where we try to address this and provide identity cards and birth certificates for the people we work with,” Huxley added.
Together with Unseen, A UK-based trafficking charity, Huxley said that they run a small programme aimed at young Romanian girls who live in abject poverty.
“They were very shy to begin with, but once they saw what could happen to them and we made them aware of the world around them, they began asking questions. I don’t know if these girls will avoid the trafficking that’s around them, but we do know that we are there for them if they need the help.”