Romania's sex trafficking trade: 'There is no other life they know'

"Sorena" is 14 years old. She is pregnant to a man who abused her in a brothel.

The teenager doesn’t know who the father is, because her unborn child is the product of sex trafficking. The baby is due in a matter of weeks.

"Bianca" is 13 years old. She was forced to have sex with men every day or be beaten up.

"Raluca" who is 16 years old was raped by her father so ran away from home because her mother didn’t want the neighbours to find out.

When you meet children whose bodies have experienced more pain than you can imagine it is hard to comprehend how they are still standing, still breathing, still, on occasion, even smiling.

Girls and young women - the victims of Romania's sex trafficking trade. Credit: ITV News

But they are, because they have been rescued from that life for now.

Iana Matei is a woman who runs the only shelter for trafficked minors in Romania. She has been looking after girls like this for more than two decades.

"If they are very young they are put to work in flats so they are hidden," she told me.

"At 14 or 15 years old they can be taken out on the street to get used to the environment. They train them until they are 18 in Romania and then they sell them to Western countries like the UK.

"It’s very difficult to help them when they are in your country because they’ve been in this situation for four or five years. There is no other life they know. You can’t save them all."

Historically, the government estimated there were between 10,000 to 13,000 victims of trafficking in Britain, however, according to the charity Justice and Care and think tank the Centre for Social Justice the true figure is much higher. 

Romania has 19 million citizens, yet six million of them live outside the country, and 8.5 million of them are at risk of poverty, according to the National Statistics Institute.

It’s no wonder the desire for a better life is so acutely felt by Romanians, and how their desperation can lead people into the mercenary arms of a trafficker.

In September, ITV News uncovered a series of brothels in the Mayfair area of London, in which the majority of women working there, against their will, were Romanians.

It prompted a series of questions, why do so many victims come from this country?

Why isn’t more being done to protect them there and what can be done from the UK-side to stem the tide?

Bucharest at night. Credit: ITV News

From the moment we arrived in Bucharest we got the sense of a country struggling to function effectively.

The airport is but 30 minutes from the city centre but unless you drive it can take two to three hours on public transport.

The capital’s very infrastructure is failing its mobility and progression.

Lucy Watson explains what she experienced in Romania

Bucharest itself is an interesting city with a vibrant bar and restaurant scene yet as soon as our film crew ventured into the Old Town in the evening they were approached and pursued by bar owners and taxi drivers offering them women, drugs, and trips to the best brothels.

Close to our hotel, by the National Opera House, we watched as prostitutes touted their wares night after night.

We saw their pimps yelling at them, instructing them how to drum up more business and these were women in their 40s, girls in their early 20s.

Our team were approached and offered women to hire. Credit: ITV News

“Romania has the best bitches in the world,” was what our cameraman was told.

You don’t need to know where to look for sex in this city. It comes to you.

But it’s not Bucharest that most are trying to flee, its “normal,” rural life in Romania.

One night, I spoke to Iona Sandescu from the anti-trafficking organisation Eliberare who grew up in the countryside here. She explained to me why the UK is such an appealing destination.

“It’s the promised land that’s closest to our country. Romanians are the main European population that are being exploited in the UK.

"When they get there, their legitimate job, their dream of a better life turns into a nightmare. If they don’t achieve what they set out to achieve abroad then they can’t go back home because of the shame.

"Romania has a shame-based culture. Not only are you a failure in your eyes but you’re a failure in your community‘s eyes, and your family’s eyes.”

She went on to tell me: “People are not recruited by agencies or by people who are unknown. They are recruited by people they know or they trust. People they have a relationship with.

"It can be via the ‘lover boy’ method or the friendly neighbour who made a go of it abroad, and who now wants to help you get out of poverty.

"Most people are promised jobs in hospitals, hospitality, agriculture or construction where you don’t need to speak the language or have experience.

"You just need to be open, flexible and be able to leave tomorrow. There’s a huge Romanian diaspora in the UK.

"It’s not just victims of human trafficking being found there. It’s also perpetrators."

Beyond the capital, in the areas Ioana had described, there was a bleakness, a strong sense of the forgotten - 60% of trafficking victims are from these parts.

The average national wage here is £190 a month, but the large majority of those who live in these places are subsistence farmers and unemployed rural workers.

Their children often lack sufficient education. The majority of trafficking victims only have eight years of primary/secondary education.

One day, we filmed in a place called Craiova, in the south west, where one mother told me she has nine children and they all live together in just one room.

Another woman explained to me that her family of five survives on £90 a month from the state, and they have no cooker or heating.

There was also a noticeable absence of adults in their 20s, 30s and 40s living in these towns.

The streets were deserted apart from a few children playing and the elderly who either sat and watched the world go by, or swept up outside their homes. I wondered why they did it, as the dust was never ending, but I realised that it is an activity you can do endlessly, and still feel a sense of purpose.

In among the poverty, we did see large, empty houses and questioned who lived there. Where does this wealth come from?

Large properties sit empty in the rural locations ITV News filmed in. Credit: ITV News

We were told that few people actually live in them. They are built from money sent back to Romania from people who’ve moved to the UK or other parts of Western Europe. They are there "in case" they ever decide to come home again.

I was starting to understand why the appeal of moving somewhere else was attractive.

After a few hours in Craiova, we were chased out by a well-known trafficker.

We had driven passed his house and filmed his cars, following a tip off, but had been seen doing it by local people who informed him.

He followed us, drew up next to our car at a junction and tried to pull in front of us to stop us from moving away. The lights changed quickly and we moved off sharply.

Everybody knows who the traffickers are in this town. They recognise their British registered cars, their homes, and see the money they make. People are afraid of them.

This is where the power lies within these communities, and where the young can see glimpses of wealth and a more appealing lifestyle.

It is easy to understand how those who have so little are preyed upon by those who can promise them so much more, and those who have the ability to intimidate. We visited one small village in the North of the country near Braila.

We got out of the car to film the deprivation that people were living in, but within five minutes a group of men arrived carrying an axe, to ensure we moved on.

It was also in Braila that we met Daniela. Her daughter was trafficked by a man she believed was in love with her. Her mother thought he was her boyfriend then she disappeared.

“I miss my child. I gave birth to her. I raised her,” her mother told me openly.

Daniela has not given up hope of finding her daugter. Credit: ITV News

Daniela had thought her daughter was in England but now knows she works in Germany as a prostitute, addicted to drugs. She vanished from her home town six years ago.

“When the police first told me she was doing prostitution I just fell to my knees. She would never have done that on her own if she wasn’t forced to do it. She was a good kid, intelligent, a graduate.

The woman's family will not give up searching for her. Heartbreakingly, Daniela said: “We have hope.

"We have been fighting for her for six years now. My husband works in Spain but he comes home every three months and we go looking for her. She was my best friend. As a mother I live through her, I feel what she’s feeling and I know that she will be back one day."

Human trafficking thrives in places where people lack opportunity and the rule of law is weak, and when the balance tips in favour of the trafficker, the vulnerable become more vulnerable.

Last year, lawmakers here jailed less than half the traffickers they prosecuted. The administration has been accused of corruption and a lack of political will.

I put that to Senator Lucian Romascanu.

“We try to do our best legally speaking but it takes two to tango.

"The receiving market, the receiving country have to do their own job.

"They need to promote very tough laws for the guys who are the beneficiaries of the services. It’s supply and demand.”

Senator Lucian Romascanu. Credit: ITV News

That’s us in the UK he’s talking about.

Mr Romascanu is part of Romania’s Parliamentary group against human trafficking, but in the past five years the number of victims coming from the country has gone up year on year.

“In effect this government is doing less, not more to stop this problem isn’t it?” We asked him.

“No. We are doing what we can in terms of preventing & legislation. This problem is not because we don’t fight against human trafficking. We fight.”

The punishments in Romania for trafficking vary from a simple fine to seven years in jail.

“If sentences aren’t tough enough, that’s not a deterrent, therefore you’re effectively making it easy for the traffickers. It’s high profit, low risk,” I said to him.

“Whoever is doing this is not thinking about the penalty. Never,” he said.

“They have their own motivation. It’s not stopping them. We have to be aware of that. People who are intent on doing it, will do it anyway.”

I asked him if he could honestly sit there and tell me that Romania’s justice system was doing enough to help victims of exploitation.

“You never can say that it’s enough. But we are not alone in this world. I presume these ladies have clients in the UK - talk to them, punish them."

It was an excellent example of passing the buck.

Nevertheless, stronger punishments for those who abuse - or pay to abuse - is one possible solution.

It’s what The All Party Parliamentary Group and organisations like UK Feminista are calling for here. They are pleading with the Home Secretary Priti Patel to review the laws surrounding it, which currently don’t criminalise someone who pays for sex.

But ultimately, to stem the flow of trafficking victims abroad, an alternative, aspirational life must be visible at home.