"All my troubles began when I fell in love."
The young woman's intense dark eyes seem almost unnaturally unblinking, their gaze too steady. Ana*, a dark-haired woman now in her mid-twenties, is describing the man she fell for when she was sixteen.
She met him in her Eastern European hometown and they dated for a year and a half. Her father wasn't happy; arranged marriages were the tradition in her family, and she wasn't supposed to choose a man herself. "So my boyfriend suggested he and I escape."
He told her that they would go away and start a new life. "I was so in love with him, I didn't want to live without him," she says. She thought maybe she would eventually return and reconcile with her parents once things with her boyfriend were settled. She went with him to a hotel in another town; her boyfriend told her they had to wait there while his friend got them travel papers.
She soon learned that her boyfriend had other plans. "He tried to convince me that it would be good for him to sell me to other men. I said I didn't want to do that." Her voice is steady as her gaze. "One night he put a blindfold over my eyes and forced me to do that. But he was really nice to me during that time. He cuddled me and said nice words, to encourage me."
For two weeks, Ana stayed in the hotel. Then "my boyfriend sold me to [another country] and I never saw him again."
Over the next few years, sold into brothels in several European countries, Ana never had a clear sense of where she actually was; she lived in a shadow world of hidden rooms and strange men. "I was in a house with a lot of other girls, and I was not allowed out. It was locked and there were bars on the windows." The people who bought her kept the money clients gave her, and kept her passport, too.
She was eventually sold to a Scandinavian country, where for two years she never left the house. They gave her pills she describes as "strange." The pills gave her more energy, but she didn't want to take them. "When they gave them to me, I would sometimes be able to throw them up."
One day Ana asked a client for help. "He said he would help me--he was a friend of the owner of the place--but he wanted to have me for himself, to sell further. He took me out, and I escaped." Ana managed to get to the police and then the hospital.
Ana returned to her Balkan homeland, but didn't stay there. She made the atypical decision to testify against her boyfriend in court. Her testimony put her life at risk, so she moved to another European country, where she is studying to be a nurse.
Ana's boyfriend was found guilty of human trafficking, a term Ana didn't know when she was growing up. Sex trafficking--cases like Ana's, where young women are sold into unpaid prostitution--is one form. Labor trafficking--forcing people to work under appalling conditions for little to no money--is another. Children are trafficked into foreign countries and forced to beg on the streets, with traffickers keeping the money they bring back. Healthy people are trafficked for their organs, receiving little payment for a kidney that the trafficker sells for thousands of dollars.
Poor or desperate people throughout the world are targets for traffickers, and some in Eastern Europe are particularly vulnerable. In the early 1990s, the collapse of the Soviet Union and of Yugoslavia made life unstable for millions of people there; jobs were scarce, no government safety net existed, and the police didn't necessarily offer protection from criminals.
Traffickers prey on people who see few options ahead of them. Refugees from the Balkan wars of the mid-1990s lost their homes and stayed in camps or government housing--the traffickers were there, telling them about opportunities to start afresh in another country. Young women in rural villages of Moldova, a tiny former Soviet nation where unemployment is rampant, think they have nowhere to go after high school--until they hear about "a good job abroad" through a friend of a friend. If a trafficker finds a vulnerable person with no money, brings her to another country, and takes her passport away, the trafficker owns her.
Some people, like Ana, don't see the danger because they are close to the trafficker--a cousin offers them help getting work in Turkey, a boyfriend mentions a job in Italy. Some are too desperate to look closely. Some know what's out there but choose to take a chance, hoping for the best. Although people who badly need money and jobs are the primary targets, some from relatively middle-class backgrounds can find themselves victimized as well.
Sex trafficking is still happening, but experts say that trafficking for labor or begging purposes is common too. Forcing people to panhandle is lucrative for traffickers, who may make upwards of two hundred dollars a day from one beggar, depending on how well they threaten their victims. Traffickers get creative about making their victims more sympathetic to onlookers. They may purposely beat or wound them to make them look disabled. Or they may intentionally solicit handicapped people--placing an ad, for example, offering jobs suitable for disabled people.
Psychologist Alina Budeci is Drop-In Center Manager at the Moldova office of La Strada, a nonprofit network that fights trafficking. She describes a two-year-old Moldovan boy who was trafficked into Poland along with his family. The boy was already disabled--he was missing half a leg. "The traffickers poured boiling water over this leg each day, so he would look more dramatic for begging," says Budeci.
Budeci knows of at least two families where traffickers separated parents and children. In Poland, two Moldovan children "were kept in one town and their parents were kept in another town, so the [traffickers] were sure the parents would not go to the police," says Budeci. The parents did what the traffickers said for fear they'd never see their kids again. "It's a very good manipulation technique."
Irina Todorova, who handles prevention and protection programs at the International Organization for Migration in Moldova, echoes this. "Healthy children are put in wheelchairs and forced to beg," she says. "Or the traffickers might tell a mother and an older brother something like 'If you don't beg enough money, we won't feed your younger brother.'"
The elderly are victimized too. Victoria Dochitcu, who answers the La Strada hotline in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau, talks about a sightless elderly woman forced to beg. "The fact that she was blind was good for traffickers. They made a lot of money," she says.
Labor traffickers smuggle adults into countries and force them to work long hours in places like construction sites, sweatshops, or farms. When recruiting people, the traffickers usually promise good pay and good working conditions--promises that are rarely fulfilled. Because of Moldova's lack of jobs, thousands of its men go to Russia and take construction jobs in and around Moscow, living in barracks. "My dad was working in Russia a few years ago," says a teenage girl in the Moldovan village of Lozova. "They had no beds or blankets. He came home sick." Some pay smugglers thousands of dollars to take them across borders. "My aunt went to Italy in a big box," says another Lozova girl.
The father and aunt weren't considered victims of trafficking because they were paid. Many migrant workers aren't so lucky. One Moldovan family was trafficked to a farm in Ukraine and forced to work for free in the fields with many others, sleeping in a stable at night. They received little food and were beaten if they protested.
The family "walked two months on foot to escape," says Lilia Gorceag, a psychologist at an IOM Moldova shelter that helps victims of trafficking. "Their boots were destroyed." They didn't contact the police, because the police sometimes return people to traffickers. Before getting back to their home country, they had to get over the Dniester River border. "They made a raft out of plastic bottles to cross it," says Gorceag.
Sex trafficking still accounts for well over half the cases handled by groups like IOM and La Strada. Most vulnerable are young women who grow up amid violence and instability: According to Irina Todorova of IOM Moldova, over 90% of the sex trafficking victims they help in Moldova experienced domestic violence before they were trafficked. Coping with a male relative's alcoholism and unemployment at home, and hearing success stories of neighbors who found good work abroad, make even dubious-sounding job offers more tempting: "They can stay home and be beaten, or leave," says Gorceag. In Bosnia Herzegovina, life in housing projects that were meant to be short-term refugee solutions leaves girls with few options. Young women "don't see risks, because their whole life is risky," says Ana Revenco of La Strada.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, traffickers placed employment ads in newspapers or worked through the mafia to find women. Now, says Gorceag, most trafficking is happening through personal contact with the victim: a friend's friend mentions a job abroad, or a friendly face offers a young woman work after seeing her arrive in a new country at a bus or train station.
Once a woman is in the system, she can be trafficked multiple times by a variety of methods, sold from brothel to brothel or from bar to bar. Traffickers evaluating young women to buy sometimes "line them up naked and touch them," says Fadila Hadzic, who runs a La Strada shelter in Bosnia Herzegovina. Traffickers may also create "catalogs"--photo albums of girls available for sale.
Today, Russia and Turkey are two of the biggest destination points. Like Ana, young women there are locked in houses, basements, or individual rooms, with no way to get out. If they don't do what their traffickers want, they are usually hit. They're also burned with cigarettes, drugged, or have their heads held under water to coerce them. They're beaten to induce miscarriages. Their fellow victims may turn on them: "One girl was locked in with two other girls. She tried to pick the lock, and the other girls--also victims--beat her," says Budeci. A woman trafficked to India managed to contact La Strada and said that perhaps a client might help her escape. "She said he was a good man, meaning he didn't beat her," says Budeci.
One woman's face was beaten to the point where she went blind. "IOM paid $1000 for an eye operation," says Gorceag. "Fifteen percent of her eyesight was restored."
Some trafficking victims become alcoholics or drug addicts; some commit suicide; some become part of the system, recruiting others. "A well-dressed woman might approach a teenage girl and persuade the girl that she can have the same kind of glamorous life," says Maja Brenjo, who coordinates countertrafficking programs for Catholic Relief Services in Bosnia.
"I was in a hotel lobby in Moldova, talking to young women about participating in our jobs skills program," says Sanda Richtmann, who manages projects for CRS. "I was the only woman in the lobby in a business suit. A man in flashy designer clothes was also in the lobby, sort of scanning guests coming in and out. He saw me talking to the girls, and later came up to me and asked, 'Are you looking or buying?'"
One 13-year-old girl from a small village in northern Bosnia was sold by a woman, says Fadila Hadzic of La Strada. "The sons of the woman who trafficked her worked for the police." In a final twist to the cycle, a victim may be told she can get out if she finds someone to take her place.
There are women who go into jobs with their eyes open. Other women may escape from a bad situation but reject the label of victim, and don't request help from groups like IOM. Of these, some are able to deal with the trauma themselves; many avoid reintegration programs because they do not want to be stigmatized back home. There's no one profile of trafficked people, and plenty of gray areas.
But certain cases--especially those involving minors--are more clear-cut than others. A young girl who was trafficked, says Gorceag, spent her first night on the job with several drunken soldiers. In the morning, one of them realized how young she was and gave her money directly. The 14-year-old, says Gorceag, spent it on what she wanted most: "Candy, soda pop, and a copy of Andersen's fairy tales."
She was one of many girls IOM helped after she was free. For non-profit groups, rescuing victims is a desperate venture. If trafficked people are able to get a phone and risk calling a hotline--usually in the middle of the night--there's still no guarantee that they can be found. Knowing the location is essential, but many victims of sex trafficking don't know where they are being held prisoner. La Strada tells hotline callers to look out their windows and see if they can find street names, which can be difficult when the victim doesn't know the local language. One woman from central Asia "couldn't read the signs" of the country she was trafficked to, says Budeci.
La Strada gets calls from parents who fear their daughter has been trafficked. If the parents can make contact with her, La Strada lists steps they should follow to learn her location. "We tell parents to talk to their daughters in code," says Budeci. When a hotline call with La Strada ends, they tell the young woman, "Be sure to delete the number from your cell phone history."
La Strada works with police who will raid brothels and free the women, not just take bribes. "Sometimes police need the exact address to do a raid," says Budeci. "With other police, if the woman can describe what she sees out the window, the police will work from that. In Turkey, it's sometimes easy to identify a location because different areas have different license plates."
After a successful raid, La Strada asks the women if they would like to return home. IOM or La Strada might arrange for airline or train tickets; in various Eastern European countries, both groups run shelters for victims who can't go back to their families.
When victims manage to escape by themselves, their stories have the hazy, surreal quality of nightmares. Marina*, now 22 years old, grew up in Moldova's capital city of Chisinau. Her family didn't have much money--her father was a taxi driver, and her mother got occasional farm work. Adding to their financial worries, Marina struggled with debilitating juvenile diabetes. It progressed to the point where about 50% of her vision was lost, and her family couldn't afford treatment.
In the autumn of 2006, when she was 19, Marina was sitting in a Chisinau park. A man came up to her and started talking to her, offering her work. "I explained that I couldn't, because of my illness. He said, 'There's a really good hospital in Italy.'"
The man told her that she could get treatment for her diabetes abroad and that then he could get her a job taking care of the elderly. Marina had a neighbor who had gone abroad and sent money back to her kids--"everything was fine with her"--so she decided it was worth a chance.
"I wanted to get treatment and I wanted to help my family," she says. She told her parents she was going to Moscow to visit friends, and left Moldova on November 3.
The man took her, a girl named Lena, and two Moldovan men by car. They crossed several borders, dropping the Moldovan men off, and then, around 5 am, got out of the car. "The man told us to run through the woods," Marina says. "We ran for hours without stopping." Marina weighed about 100 pounds at the time, and her glucose level dropped quickly. Running, she sprained her ankle. Eventually she passed out.
The next few days blurred together. She was in Padua, Italy, told to "rest" in one room of a two-story house; Lena was in another room. The man who had brought her there kept saying another man would come with a job. They gave her some crackers and tea but little else. "There was some dark kind of glass in the windows," Marina says. "It was so dark in that room."
Marina knew something was seriously wrong, but it wasn't clear to her until she heard Lena shouting. "One day I heard Lena cry, 'Let me go, I don't want to,'" says Marina. "I knew she was being sold to a man."
After that they locked Marina in. She pounded on the windows, but no one heard her. "The man told me, 'You must do what we say if you want your insulin.' But I wouldn't accept his conditions." Finally, the man entered the room, and "I hit him with something--a vase or a chair, I can't remember--and ran out. I don't remember all the details because I didn't have food or insulin," she says.
She managed to find her passport and about fifteen dollars, and ran. "I ran out without even looking around. I slept on a bench that night," she says. She remembers only vague images from that time--a bridge, a train station. Her ankle was now broken, and her weak eyesight swam: "I could see the big things, but not the small ones."
She doesn't remember how she crossed the border. "When I opened my eyes, I realized I was in Switzerland," she says. It was mid-November.
A Russian woman helped her get to a Swiss hospital. There, she received treatment helping the blood flow to her eyes, which had been seriously impaired. A non-profit agency flew her back home. "My parents were overjoyed I was alive," she remembers.
Marina's case is less common now than it would have been five years ago. "The situation has improved dramatically" compared to the early 2000s, says Martin Wyss, Chief of Mission of IOM Moldova. Thanks to more successful emigration, Moldovans have been able to send money back home, and the country's economic growth has stemmed the tide of some trafficking. Wyss says the Moldovan government has become more responsive to the issue as well. "But the needs are still huge," he continues--as Marina's late-2006 case shows.
How can trafficking be prevented? Making sure vulnerable groups know the risks is one part of the battle. In several Eastern European countries, Catholic Relief Services runs awareness courses in high schools. Groups like La Strada post warning signs and hotline numbers in airports, train stations, and bus depots, where traffickers often find their victims. Charities establish programs to keep children out of sweatshops or off the streets. They run educational campaigns in refugee camps and peacekeeping areas. The nonprofit organization Caritas Lebanon rescues Sri Lankan maids and other women who have been abused and enslaved. In India, CRS makes sure domestic workers are registered, informed of their rights, and aware of places they can turn to if they find trouble at their destination.
Stopping offenders and confronting demand is also crucial. Anti-trafficking coalitions pressure businesses--especially those that hire cheap labor for trade and tourism--to abide by international codes of conduct. Authorities prosecute traffickers and investigate sex tourists--people who fly to countries where prostitutes or children are in greater supply. In 2006 alone, India prosecuted 25,844 people for crimes related to human trafficking, according to a UN report.
One thing everyone agrees on is that if vulnerable people have better job opportunities, they're less likely to be trapped in the trafficking cycle. In Bosnia and Moldova, Catholic Relief Services offers job skills training to young women who can't see a future for themselves. IOM, La Strada, and other groups work to reintegrate victims into society--an uphill battle.
"I don't think you can ever be OK," says Budeci. "It's something you can work on." Victims have been betrayed so often that they can't trust people or move forward. "They come back broken by trafficking," says Wyss. "Their family falls apart. They're sad, lonely and destitute." In Budeci's experience, fewer than 10% of the women La Strada helps really heal.
The best-case scenario is that victims of trafficking will start "trusting people, not in a blind way, but thinking critically," Budeci says. Ideally, they develop a social network and find supportive people. Even then, says Budeci, many still have nightmares and flashbacks.
Marina is entirely blind now; friends guide her up stairs and through streets, and she feels her way across rooms. Her eyes are brown like Ana's, but there is little other physical resemblance.
Except--both women's eyes blink rarely, and seem more like walls than windows. Their eyes are now strangely impassable to anything. Including tears.
Laura Sheahen is Catholic Relief Services' Regional Information Officer for Europe and the Middle East. She lives in Cairo.
* Names of trafficking victims have been changed for their protection.