Sarah Horrigan

When you grow up in Romania, there is a saying that you will hear anytime you want to go outside at night: “beware of the black van”.

The saying revolves around the often discussed issue of kidnapping and human trafficking. The black van will stop near you while you are walking on the street and nothing will be heard about your existence ever again. However, this scenario is as Hollywood like as it sounds. You would expect that the country with the highest percentage of human trafficking victims in Europe would have a more realistic saying about what goes behind this 33 billion dollar industry. But, truth is, the causes are not nearly as impressive as most of us have been told.

Romania has one of the highest rates of relative poverty in Europe. More than 23.6% of children live in a household with an income of less than 50% of the national average. The increased rate perpetuates the cycle of intergenerational poverty, as the children are rarely educated and mostly concerned with finding something to eat. Imagine now, that you are a 17-year-old girl that has heard about the wonders of the West and everybody in your village has at least one relative supporting the family from abroad. One day, a “loverboy”, whom you most likely met while walking four kilometers to school, stops you because he is head over heels in love with you. He promises to marry you beneath the Eiffel Tower and, tired of working the fields, you believe him.

This is the story of most girls that ending up as human trafficking victims. They grow to trust their “kidnappers” and are lured by the promise of a life that Romania will never be able to offer. Thus, most of them cross the border voluntarily and are only realizing the situation when it was already too late. Once in the system, it is nearly impossible to get out. However, the question still remains why nearly 1000 people are so determined to leave the country, that they are willing to blindly trust any opportunity that comes to them.

As mentioned before, relative poverty is a concerning issue. The accelerated economic growth, praised by the majority party is fast, but from many points of view, not sustainable. Going on to read the latest data, I observed clear differences in opinion from one source to another. As divided as the country is, on the economic and political front, it is hard to say whether future decreases in relative poverty will be seen, or not. However, one thing is for certain, more than 50% of children still face the risk of poverty.

The stories of the victims often sound alike. Most of them experienced dramatic cases of domestic violence and abuse. They did not receive education or familial support. Most dropped out of school during their secondary years. Some joined state-owned orphanages and other social welfare programmes. There is little talk about what goes beyond the walls of such social welfare institutions. Most children report unimaginable conditions and say that toilet paper and soap are considered a luxury. Authorities often do not comment on such accusations, but the funds allocated to children homes are indeed minimal. There are NGOs that help such victims of the system, but their work is limited by the strict bureaucracy and harsh laws.

When growing up in such an environment, the prosperity of Western Europe seems magical. The little education and the past traumas make it even easier for traffickers to sell their story. On average a “loverboy” might gain the trust of his victim in a matter of months, if not sooner. Promises of marriage and a life of luxury are extremely attractive and offer the long-awaited gate. Having nothing holding them back at home and lacking the basic education to get a job in Romania, the victims put their lives in the hands of the attackers. Once in the “destination” country, they are told they have to be sexual workers for a bit in order to save money for the wedding or a house, unfortunately, this will be their lives until managing to escape. The story then continues with exploitation, misery and little chances of getting back home again.

However, the situation is not as dark and gloom as it sounds. Romania did manage to reduce absolute poverty to half of the rate it had immediately after the fall of communism. Isolated communities have been provided with buses that take the children to school and projects supported by European funds renovated many rural educational institutions. Non-profit organizations that have been working on social reintegration programmes are starting to get more help and publicity. They have been impacting the lives of considerable numbers of children, which could have ended up as human trafficking victims. The situation is getting better, but there is still much improvement needed. The country still lacks a reliable infrastructure and the progress made by the authorities seems to be slower than ever. Current educational reforms are not focused on offering equal chances to education and are not tackling school drop-out rates.

Other improvements have also been made in reducing the number of victims affected by human trafficking. The exact number of rescued people varies around 500, which is considered to be close to 50% of the people affected uncertain as many cases are never discovered. Exact numbers are hard to give as many cases are never discovered, thus progress is difficult to analyze and track. Furthermore, NGOs such as “eLiberare” and “Reaching out Romania” help raise awareness about the current situation and have made a considerable difference in providing the victims with social and financial help.

All in all, the relative poverty experienced by many ex-communist countries is the main cause of human trafficking. Solving the problem takes time and sustainable growth and reform. The current efforts are making a small difference, but are not addressing the long run causes. It is not only up to NGOs make this change, but also up to the politicians. Discussions and acknowledgment of the situations are largely ignored, and many of the representatives are hiding behind more trivial problems. Maybe next time you are enjoying the rapid development and cheap beer of East European countries, think about what happens beyond the walls of the capital.