Two students who participate in a Caritas anti-trafficking programme at their school hold a poster for the movie Lover Boy, which is about a girl manipulated by a trafficker.

Credits: Sheahen/Caritas

By Laura Sheahen

“It’s almost impossible to help when their daughters disappear.” Elena Timofticiuc has just gotten off the phone with a distraught mother. Moving quickly around the anti-trafficking office of AIDRom, a charity in Romania, Elena searches for phone numbers to call in a last-ditch effort to track down a missing 21-year-old girl. Sometimes when criminals take a young woman to another country, Elena can reach the border patrol in time. “We sent her ID to the border, but it may be too late,” Elena says. The girl is over the age of consent and is in love with the man taking her abroad; she probably doesn’t think anything bad is going on.

Elena knows better. “I’m sure he sold her.”

The boyfriend was most likely a human trafficker in the guise of a “lover boy”--a good-looking, kindly man starts who dating a young woman and even gets to know her family. After she’s fallen for him, the man suggests that the two of them go abroad to work, especially since jobs in Romania are so scarce. Once across the border, he sells the young woman into prostitution.

The lover boy approach is just one of the ways that human traffickers lure vulnerable people, eventually forcing them into unpaid beggary, labour, or prostitution. Fake job offers are another.

Sitting in the same AIDRom office is Sophia*, a married woman in her forties. Her husband is ill, her son is in school, and her family had a big bank loan to pay off. Valeria*, the neighbour of her sister, told her about seasonal work in Italy picking grapes and olives.

Sophia and others took a bus to Italy and started working in the fields. Gradually, as Sophia started to understand Italian, she realized something was wrong. For one thing, they weren’t getting paid anything close to the 50 euros a day they’d been promised. And their employers “asked strange questions. They’d say, ‘You look nice. Wouldn’t you like to have a better job than picking grapes?’

“Then the young and pretty ones were ‘advised’ to go on the streets,” says Sophia. “The grapes and olives were the pretext.”

Sophia managed to escape the situation unhurt, poorer but wiser. “I trusted a person I knew, a person from my community,” she says. “I’ve learned my lesson. I’ll never take a job without a legal contract again.”

Sophia has such a job now thanks to AIDRom and Elena, who reaches out to reputable employers and finds jobs for vulnerable women. AIDRom is a member of COATNET, Christian Organisations Against Trafficking, a network hosted by Caritas Internationalis. Elena has set up partnerships with a chocolate factory, a textile factory, and employers in Germany who need elder care workers. For women who take the jobs in Germany, AIDRom makes sure they’re prepared for their trip and will be treated properly.

Otherwise, people can fall victim to unregistered, fly-by-night recruitment agencies. “The traffickers rent a place for one week and put up a sign saying, ‘recruiting for jobs in Germany,’” says Elena. One woman who called AIDRom for help paid 300 euros to the recruiter for “travel and paperwork” costs. “They took her ID card, brought her to Germany, and just left her in the streets. She couldn’t come back to Romania without her ID,” says Elena. “I called the labour inspector to go check out the recruitment agency,” she continues. But there’s no way to know if it still exists.

One university student was recruited for a strange kind of work overseas: surrogate motherhood. After being artificially inseminated and carrying the baby for five months, the young Romanian woman went to Indiana in the United States. She had the baby at home, not in a hospital, and was quickly sent back to Romania. She didn’t receive the money she was promised, and was warned not to tell because what she had done was illegal. “We didn’t know how to calm her,” says Elena; the girl had been told she’d be able to see the child now and then. An Orthodox priest who works with AIDRom counselled her, and five years later, baptized the first child she had with her husband.

Traffickers target teenagers who dream of better life, adults who need money, young girls in love, people with no support system. In Romania, where many parents go abroad to work, children are sometimes left with grandparents or even by themselves. Teenage children are especially at risk. “There’s a 12-year-old girl who was left home alone with her younger siblings. She had to drop out of school to take care of them,” says Elena. “AIDRom, the Orthodox Church, and [NGO] Diakonia sent a social worker to check on the family every day.” The groups give the family food—as long as the 12-year-old goes to school. “Traffickers are not stupid. If they see that someone is asking about the family, they’ll stay away.”

No, traffickers aren’t stupid. The phone rings again: it’s another call from the woman searching for her 21-year-old, university-educated daughter. “The mother is desperate,” says Elena. “She’s crying every day.” She had a feeling something was wrong when the boyfriend and her daughter were dating.

Elena repeats what the mother said: “’He was handsome, but he never answered very simple questions like, ‘What do your parents do? He never looked me in the eye.’”