Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Romania a global center for human trafficking

(CNN) -- Romania has become a major transit for the sale of people into the European Union. Victims as young as 12 years old are trafficked into Romania from destinations as far-reaching as Honduras, Afghanistan, the Congo, and China. Once they reach Romania, many of these victims are assigned for passage beyond into Western Europe.

While Romanian law officially prohibits all forms of human trafficking, the country's strategic geographic location -- a crossroads between East and West -- makes it a source, transit and destination country for the people trade. The country's 2007 admission into the European Union brought more relaxed border regulations and enhanced its attraction for international human traffickers.

The U.S. State Department's Trafficking in Persons Report of 2010 found that organized crime networks also target Romanian citizens for export to other European countries. Traffickers commonly use fake identifications and bribe border personnel to bring victims into the country. They then force the victims to work in agricultural and factory production, prostitution, modeling for pornography and street begging.

The agency I run, Not For Sale, has identified Romania as an international hot spot for modern slavery. Our team operating on the ground in this Eastern European country intervened in nearly 140 trafficking cases last year alone.

Romanian authorities say that during the past two years, a Lebanese businessman, Hassan Awdi,persuaded 13 Honduran men and women to travel to Romania under the auspices of helping them find a job. Upon entering the country, officials say, Awdi confiscated their passports and forced them to work without pay for a factory of which he is part owner. The Hondurans eventually managed to escape their trafficker, yet found themselves in a foreign country without identification, resources, or shelter. Not For Sale intervened and helped the victims receive favorable treatment from the Romanian courts and government. The victims recently were repatriated home to Honduras. Awdi was charged with multiple offenses, including human trafficking, but has not yet gone to trial.

By and large, local police turn a blind eye to these crimes and social services for the victims are practically nonexistent. In 2009, the Romanian government minimized the role of the country's principal anti-trafficking arm -- the National Agency Against Trafficking in Persons -- and allocated scant federal funding to provide victim services and anti-trafficking prevention programs.

The burden for addressing human trafficking therefore falls mostly on poorly funded nonprofits. Not For Sale Romania, for example, provides survivors with shelter, medical and psychological services, as well as educational and vocational opportunities. In the best-case scenario, our team reintegrates the survivors into their families, as long as they are not exposed to the risk of being re-trafficked.

Last month I personally tracked the slave trade across Europe. I started my investigation with the women for sale in the showroom windows of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague. It's tragic to see young girls sold in plain sight in an Amsterdam street and then follow their journey back to a humble village in Romania.

My key source on the ground was the Scarlet Cord, a nonprofit that has been building relationships with sex workers in the red-light districts of the Netherlands since 1987. Their field research reveals that 75% of the sex workers in the Netherlands at the moment originate from the Eastern European countries of Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria. Hungary is also one of the more recent member states of the European Union.

The influx of young girls from Eastern Europe can be directly attributed to the lack of job opportunities at home and the easy access to wealthier European markets. That formula makes young girls an easy target for traffickers who promise lucrative jobs in London, Rome or Amsterdam. The lack of government and police priority on human trafficking across Europe also allows the trade to flourish.

For government and police authorities in Europe to start identifying trafficking victims for who they are -- no longer labeled as illegal immigrants or prostitutes -- will be a necessary step forward. Whenever the poor and vulnerable do not have access to legal justice, they will be exploited. That's a maxim as true in Europe and the United States as it is in India and Kenya.

Hand in hand with a just rule of law must come an entrepreneurial effort to generate real job opportunities in Romania. That economic stimulation is unlikely to come from a top-down grant of financial aid to the national government. More sustained results will be achieved by investments in small- and medium-sized enterprises that can demonstrate a credible business model and generate real jobs for Romanians.

Romania's human trafficking problem does not stay home; it is Europe's crisis as well. The same people who run the people trade are likely candidates for other forms of nefarious crimes that threaten national security. Indeed, the security of all of Europe depends on innovative solutions to what may seem as intractable problems. As long as we keep repeating the same protocols, we are sure to get the same dire results.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of David Batstone.

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