Friday, December 5, 2014

Europe's [not so] Secret Vice: Part 3

While I'm excited to be finishing this series so I can move on to filling you all in on my time in Africa, this post may be the most difficult of the three. In this part I will be talking about the two European source countries that I visited: Bulgaria and Romania. Though there are many organizations and people doing incredible work in these countries, something about the situation felt particularly hopeless to me. In transit and destination countries, of course, this is a complicated situation, but I can see a reasonable (though expensive and diffiicult) solution. Make trafficking a higher risk crime and take better care of victims once rescued.

In source countries, however, it's a little more complicated. The first stages of sexual exploitation are firmly rooted in large-scale issues like poverty, lack of education, gender discrimination, and family issues. There is no silver bullet for these issues. That's why I felt a hopelessness.

The way I see it, though, the more people hear about the problem, the more likely someone smart enough to start fixing it will come along. And so I write this difficult post with a purpose.

Source Countries in Europe

Below is a map from the UNODC 2012 report on trafficking; read the full report here. As you can see, nearly 30% of the victims in Western and Central Europe were trafficked from Bulgaria, Romania, and the Western Balkans. Though victims in Europe come from all over the world, this group makes up the largest portion, though the area and populations covered by these countries is relatively small.

Surveys taken by the organization, CoMensha (mentioned in part 1 of this series), reflect these overall numbers, as the most commonly victimized people groups are Romanians and Bulgarians.
Unfortunately, as with the transit countries, there simply isn't hard data on the situation in Bulgaria in Romania. The next two sections, therefore, are just an overview of the situation based on some written sources and anecdotes from organizations working on the ground.


Bulgarian women are often taken out of the country into places like Greece, Italy, and further west to work in prostitution. However, investigations in the last two years have even uncovered the trafficking of pregnant women so that the child can be sold to adoptive families in countries like Greece, where adoption restrictions are tight (source).

Within Bulgaria, however, many women are brought into cities like Sofia on a daily basis. NGO workers tell me that these women belong to Roma villages in rural Bulgaria. It is Roma culture for a village to capitalize on one trade - everyone is involved in the work once they are old enough to do so. For some villages, their trade is prostitution. The women grow up believing this is their fate from birth. The men drive the young women in to large cities every day, watch to make sure all is going smoothly, and then drive them back to the village. Older women stay in the village the watch the children. Everyone is involved.

Though poverty does have a lot to do with the problem of sexual exploitation, addressing poverty by no means solves the problem. Even Roma communities that are successful enough to rise out of poverty continue to participate in prostitution. It becomes a part of the culture.

Finally, like in every country I've visited, there also are the typical "lover boy" scammers present. Girls are convinced that a man is in love with them so that she can be manipulated to work in prostitution. These scams target already vulnerable girls - ones with abusive parents or those about to age out of an orphanage (sometimes at a young sixteen).

Read my country overview of Bulgaria here.


I only spent three days in Romania, so my understanding of the situation is not as broad. It certainly is deep, though, as I was able to live side by side with inspiring girls and women who have survived sexual exploitation. The situation there is very similar to the one in Bulgaria.

It really hit home for me, though, when I was telling the girls which countries I had been to so far. It was odd to hear them say "Oh, I've been there too!" knowing that their experience was drastically different than my own. There truly is a different level to every city that most tourists never witness.

Read my country overview of Romania here.


It was in these countries that I truly felt the incredible importance of aftercare in the solution to the problem. Like I said, I am far from knowing the solution. What I do know is that there is a huge need for long-term aftercare for these victims when they are returned to their home country (as they almost always are, regardless of their home or family situation).

I had the chance to meet with a representative of the National Commission for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings of Bulgaria while in the country. She explained the situation:

  • There are only two government run and funded shelters in the entire country of Bulgaria - only one is currently operational
  • Each shelter can only house 12 girls or women at a time
  • These shelters can house victims for a maximum of 6 months, not long term (recovering from trauma like this can take years)
  • Neither of these shelters are in Sofia, where many victims are brought or found
Besides this, there is one crisis center (maximum 10 day stay) and one transition home (overloaded with cases) in the country. Even if victims are rescued and returned from situation of sexual exploitation, their chances of avoiding repeat exploitation are slim with this situation.

Romania has many more options for returning victims, but none of the shelters there are funded by the government or large international bodies. This means that the shelters are extremely limited in how many victims they can assist - a number that pales in comparison to the need.

People often push for increased investigation, prosecution, and prevention. I am absolutely for these changes. However, no plan is complete without aftercare - the recovery side of intervention. Not only is aftercare ethically required - these are human beings that have a right to dignified recovery after trauma; it is also practically imperative - the problem will continue until victims can become survivors, perhaps even advocates and activists.


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