In subway stations in the capital of Romania, a poster warns people about human trafficking. Photo: Laura Sheahen/Caritas

By Laura Sheahen

On a nondescript street in the capital of Romania, my colleague and I duck into a small, unmarked doorway and make our way up four narrow flights of stairs. In the stairwell, there are no posters or signs, none of the charity-related paraphernalia I usually notice when visiting organisations that fight human trafficking. We only see those when we reach the small attic office.

The organisation we’re visiting, ADPARE, has had to move offices a few times. The place is hidden because traffickers—criminals who buy and sell human beings—got too close.

We’re here to meet Adrian*, a 16-year-old boy who spent his childhood as a slave. Bought by a trafficker when he was a baby, Adrian grew up in Spain, forced to beg and steal.

He’d make hundreds of euros a day, and all of it went to his “false family,” as he calls it. At times he tried to hide money. “But they knew, so they beat me.”

In Spain, Adrian lived in a garage with the family. Everyone else had a bed, but he slept on the floor. “Because I tried to run away so much, they chained me at night,” he says.

One day when he was 11, Adrian was on a trip with the family back to Romania. When the family was sleeping, Adrian managed to escape. He rode a train to the capital city, Bucharest. “On the train I was thinking, ‘I’ll be free.’”

He was soon reunited with his birth mother, who didn’t know he had been trafficked and was overjoyed to have him back in her life. Police built a case, and some of his traffickers are in jail now.

Adrian’s is a success story for ADPARE, a group that works with Caritas and other charities to help trafficking survivors begin again. After a lot of counselling with ADPARE and a lot of hard work at school, Adrian is adjusting well to his new life and is excelling in his classes.

Other cases are much tougher. A girl who was trafficked to Switzerland—a neighbour had promised her work in a hotel—is back in Romania now. Women who are sold into sex work often suffer even more lasting trauma than people sold into forced labour or beggary. The girl drank a caustic liquid, trying to commit suicide. Her esophagus is destroyed. “We’re feeding her through a tube. Yesterday was my turn,” says Gina*, president of ADPARE.

Like everything about trafficking, sex trafficking is hidden. Human traffickers make it their business to be hard to spot, and make it hard to identify who is their prey. “Many clients of prostitutes think the woman is there because she wants to be,” says Gabriela Chiroiu of Caritas Bucharest. “But when you see her with bruises, burned with a cigarette, or crying, you should know something is wrong.”

Traffickers wear many masks, sometimes pretending to be caring, involved friends or lovers. “They know when to strike, when people are most vulnerable,” says Gina.

Gina recalls a 16-year-old girl who left her home because of family tensions and went to live on her own in a different city, working as a babysitter. “A man started grooming her,” says Gina. “He’d call and asked her if she’d eaten. He bought her medicine when she was sick.”

“Then one day he said, ‘I have friends—a couple with a baby—in Norway. They need a nanny.’” Once the girl was out of the country, she was sold into prostitution.

Often, the victims blame themselves. “There are too many traffickers to be angry with,” Gina says. “They’re angry with themselves for trusting someone.  One man who’d been trafficked to a factory in London said to me, ‘I was so stupid to believe everything.’”

Sometimes the person who sells you for money is a close relative. “One of the strangest things I hear,” says Gina, “is a woman saying, ‘The father of my children sold me.’”

Even when trafficked people escape, they’re not always safe. Gina’s on the phone with another man who was trafficked to England. He can’t to go back to his original area of Romania because traffickers are still on the loose there, and might threaten him so he’ll retract his police testimony.

ADPARE trains police, court workers, and other groups, teaching them how to talk to victims. “I like working with the police, because our trainings really change their attitudes,” says Gina. “The general mentality is that all the victims are prostitutes. When they looked at the cases, they were amazed.”

The traffickers themselves operate like shapeshifters, changing locations and contact information constantly. If they recruited someone using a mobile phone, they eventually “throw away the SIM card after a few weeks so they can’t be tracked,” says Gabriela.

Because selling people is so profitable, traffickers don’t let go of their victims easily. Sixteen-year-old Adrian is acing his science classes, getting to know his stepsister, and building a close relationship with his mother. “If not for ADPARE, I wouldn’t have so much support. I wouldn’t have recovered so fast,” he says.

Psychologically, he may be out of the woods. But there are some things he can’t shake off. People involved in his trafficking came to Adrian’s village last week, looking for him; he called Gina for advice.

“Trafficking has so many faces, you can’t imagine,” says Gabriela. “Behind everything is the trafficker, brutal, getting richer and richer.”

*Some names have been changed or shortened