Human trafficking in Romania: an integrated approach needed in the era of open borders

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Children play in a shantytown inhabited by Roma or Gypsy people in the Craica neighborhood of Baia Mare, northwestern Romania, 5 February 2013. [Zsolt Czegledi/EPA/EFE]

Trafficking of human beings is by definition a transnational crime and can only be tackled through more integrated and supranational structures, write Elena Petrescu and Yannis Karamitsios.

Elena Denisa Petrescu is the delegations coordinator of IAPSS (International Association of Political Science Students) in Bucharest. Yannis Karamitsios is a co-founder of Alliance 4 Europe, Brussels. The views expressed by the authors in this article are strictly personal and do not necessarily represent the positions of their employers.

Human trafficking is a complex phenomenon stoked especially due to the blistering growth in the global sex market demand. More than ever it is a European issue, both as a crime and as a policy to tackle it. The case of Romania is indicative of the need to act both nationally and at EU level in order to obtain effective results.

According to the 2018 European Commission’s Report on Trafficking in Human Beings in the European Union (EU), the top member states of citizenship of registered victims in the 2015-2016 period were Romania, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland and Bulgaria.

Interestingly to highlight is that the same countries led the Commission’s Report concerning the period 2010-2012. Taking Romania for our study-case, the cited report states that it contributes to 21% of registered victims, 21% of suspects of conducting trafficking and 44% of prosecutions at the EU level.

Moreover, official data reveals that hundreds of people, especially women (73% of the total number of victims) are recruited, smuggled annually and impelled to prostitution or other kinds of modern slavery.

The Report on Human Traffic released just some days ago by the National Agency against Trafficking in Persons of Romania (ANITP) officially registered a total number of 497 victims of trafficking, during 2018.

Most of the victims are young women, 36% of them being minors. They are usually recruited for what is called “lover boy method” or “sham marriage”. They come, particularly, from socially disadvantaged environments and poor families and have a low education level. They are thus more vulnerable and easy to be manipulated by ill-intentioned groups.

The Craiova and Țandarei business

The recent case of the kidnapped fifteen-year-old Alexandra Macesanu from Caracal, a small town near the city of Craiova, was particularly disturbing. She called the emergency number three times to ask for help while being attacked, but the police only started searching for her many hours later.

It revealed a disruptive emergency system and a series of corruption deeds in the public administration and brought to the public light the severity of broad human trafficking networks operating in and from Romanian territories.

Even though there is still no concrete evidence that Alexandra herself was kidnapped to be subsequently used for prostitution, the case evoked the issue of human trafficking, a topic almost untouched by public opinion in the last years.

That case brought memories of the not so old story of the “Tandarei case”, a small town in the county of Ialomita. This is a highly impoverished place where hundreds of villas and expensive cars suddenly started to appear on its dirt roads, looking like an unusual oasis among the poor houses, most of them lacking running water and electricity.

Same spectacles appear in the locations around Craiova. Finally, in 2010, the joint mission of the British, Romanian and Europol, known as “Operation Golf”, led to the arrest of more than 120 criminals, from which 87 were from the “Tandarei network” alone. Many of them were convicted for trafficking Roma children and young women all the way to London.

A European response

Between 16-25 September 2019, Europol coordinated a large-scale joint action which targeted, among other crimes, human trafficking. The joint efforts were carried out in 23 countries and were led by Austria and Spain.

More than 124,000 individuals were checked, together with more than 29,000 vehicles and 3,500 locations suspected of facilitating the exploitation. The main results of that operation included 476 victims identified (16 of which minors), 41 suspects arrested for human trafficking, 111 new investigations opened and 20 counterfeit documents seized.

All data mentioned above represent only the surface of a mostly hidden issue, and this is both unhelpful and alarming. We can say with certainty that some trends are worrisome: one of them is the rise of underage victims.

As reported by “Save the Children” in Italy, one in three girls originates from the Balkans or East Europe, while the other two from Africa, mostly from Nigeria.

We, as civil campaigners for a more united and humane Europe, can draw mixed conclusions. Freedom of movement of people can be seen both a blessing and a curse.

We think that open internal EU borders should definitely not be blamed for the phenomena of trafficking: the majority of trafficked victims nowadays come from outside the Schengen area and cross very strict borders. It should be noted that Romania has not been admitted yet into the Schengen area.

Moreover, joint structures like the Europol operations, as mentioned above, bring results that could not be achieved at the national level alone. Trafficking of human beings is by definition a transnational crime and can only be tackled through more integrated and supranational structures.

We need better coordination of the national law enforcement agencies, joint databases, legal frameworks, training schemes, resources and infrastructure.

The case of the kidnapped girl, that we mentioned above, adds one more argument for the modernization of the Romanian emergency system in line with European standards and -if available- technical help. The extensive Europol operations also highlight the necessity of a European approach, despite its limitations.

Isolated national approaches and closed borders would only harden the underground networks, which would go even more underground and definitely cause more pain to their victims.

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