Approximately 1300 victims of human trafficking were officially identified in the last 5 years. The research shows that the real number could be 20 times higher, and children account for 30% of trafficked people. 

Specialists note that there are cases when children of former victims end up being trafficked because the authorities do not offer them long-term rehabilitation and the victim is practically abandoned to find own solutions. It is a vicious circle that can be broken only with well-targeted actions, which currently are missing. Three invitees will tell us how the victims and the professionals trying to help them are coping: Elena Botezatu, Executive Director of International Center ‘La Strada Moldova’, Rodica Moraru-Chilimar, Director of Center for Assistance and Protection of Victims and Potential Victims of Human Trafficking and Sergiu Russu, Chief Prosecutor, Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit, General Prosecutor’s Office. 

Cu DREPTul: Centre for assistance and protection of victims and potential victims of human trafficking is a crisis shelter and a public institution. It provides shelter for up to 45 days for 34 persons at once with the possibility to extend the stay. In 2020, the Center hosted 100 residents – the smallest number in the recent years. Ms Moraru-Chilimar, what are the biggest challenges you are facing?

Rodica Moraru-Chilimar: If we manage to change a life of at least one child or one woman, it is an enormous success for the whole year and for a human life as well. There are many challenges; we face them every day and these relate to many aspects: how to help more a former victim, how to give her a chance in life, and there are challenges in absolutely all systems – as well as in the social system because the victim needs long-term assistance, which we cannot provide; in healthcare because the victim also needs medical rehabilitation which, in fact is stipulated on paper, but the reality is much tougher. The challenges refer also to the legal process; free legal assistance to the victim is stipulated on paper, but the reality is absolutely different -employment, finding an educational institution for the child if she has a child, and many many other things, which we can’t solve and that’s what hurts us so much. As for the short-term, urgent, critical aspects, we are those who cover everything when the victim is identified, when she managed to escape from the trafficker, when she returned to the country, if she was trafficked abroad. Of course we intervene, we are the professionals who make the first contact with the victim and this is a very difficult period for the victim and for us, who work with her, because most of the times she is confused, she does not know how she ended up in this situation, and she does not know what the future holds, she does not know what would happen to her tomorrow.

When we talk about long-term rehabilitation, we have a really huge gap here, because there are no such services in the Republic of Moldova that can be rendered to a victim of human trafficking in the form of long-term assistance so she can overcome the crisis and move forward.

Cu DREPTul: What is the risk? 

Rodica Moraru-Chilimar: The risk is to be re-trafficked, to return, to lose her identity as well as personality. The girls who received our services 20 years ago became mothers and regretfully, their children became victims of human trafficking, too.

Cu DREPTul: How do we break the circle? 

Rodica Moraru-Chilimar: Only with well-targeted interventions, which are currently missing. Unfortunately, I came across cases when a victim of human trafficking became a recruiter, and this is a horrible crime; from our point of view, this is a crime of the system, because it has forced her, in a way, to seek illegal solutions to solve her own problems. 

Cu DREPTul: As for the children victims, what is the specific of this category and as well, how do you work with them?  

Rodica Moraru-Chilimar: If we talk about children victims of human trafficking, then these are girls who are 15, 16, 17 years old and these teenage girls end up sexually exploited. The most horrific thing regarding these minors is that often they normalize the sexualized behavior and they do not see themselves other way, and it is very difficult to work with them. The most common aspect of all victims of human trafficking is their vulnerability; they are extremely vulnerable. They come from poor families, from families without a stable income, from big families and this also becomes a burden that makes them fall in the trap of the traffickers. We provide the young girls with psychological rehabilitation but it does not last long, at least not as long as they need it; we provide them with assistance, one month rehabilitation, and if the placement needs to be extended, it is done for up to 3 months, half a year depending on the situation, the case, although for the psychological rehabilitation to be effective it should be long-term and the victim should have access to a psychologist irrespective of her possibility to pay for such services. This service should be free and should cover all the needs of the victim. What is covered by the public budget, that is what we are doing here. 

Cu DREPTul: How do you explain that a fewer number of victims received assistance last year? 

Rodica Moraru-Chilimar: There are several aspects that lead to the fact that there is a different number of victims assisted by us from year to year, including the COVID pandemic. At the same time, we are the institution that provides services to an identified, referred to us victim, but the referral aspect is not up to us, and if she is not identified and referred to, of course we have no one to work with. It is a whole chain; and we are part of this chain, which at some moment in time may not function properly. The pandemic uncovered many issues in the system and I am not talking only about the victims of human trafficking – it uncovered the weaknesses in all systems. During the pandemic our Center received an increased number of sexually abused children. How can this be explained? The child is restricted to leave the house due to the pandemic and the abuser is always close to the child.

Unfortunately, the number of abused children has significantly increased and most often, the abusers are not third persons but are persons who are in close proximity to the child. I am referring to the life partners of mothers, to biological fathers, grandfathers. 

The biggest challenge is that an abused child needs long-term intervention which we cannot provide, including psychological intervention and assistance. The child comes here to us for an emergency placement period, which lasts up to 45 days, and during this period the authorities already at the place of living of the child must make a decision about the future of the child – will he/she return to the biological family or will there be identified another type of service for the child. These children are those people who could end up being trafficked. From the confessions of girls who were trafficked offered to the Center’s psychologists, it is clear that these girls were sexually abused in childhood. 

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Cu DREPTul: Mr Prosecutor Sergiu Russu, I would like to ask you as well, what are the latest biggest challenges in the anti-trafficking system, from your perspective and based on your work and the institution you represent?

Sergiu Russu: The problem of all institutions in the Republic of Moldova – high staff turnover – plays against us. People with necessary knowledge and skills to investigate such crimes leave the system, while the newcomers require training, and after a while, change jobs again and vacancies appear. Another challenge is that there are still many aspects that cannot be covered, many legal aspects – our legislation is adjusted to 2010, to 2014, but in the meantime, technologies and access to technologies have developed a lot, children who previously had little access to these devices, to different applications on the internet, are now more vulnerable, and this involves a lot of risks.

The law has not been amended in line with the technologies, the law remained somewhere in 2014, while the technologies made a leap.

I believe that we are going to pass a stage of adjustment and adaptation of the criminal law, the criminal – procedural law, other normative acts that cover the respective field in order to ensure balance between the reality and the norms. Another challenge is the fact that many legal professionals do not perceive the danger of the respective phenomenon clearly enough and look at this form of crimes as if some intimate, personal information has been collected and they do not see any harm in this, the person was not psychically injured, has no health-related sufferings. And many fail, because in my opinion, the psychological impact that a child as a victim of abuse and sexual exploitation can suffer, especially through the use of technology, particularly when, for example, the entire school knows that the photographs of the victims are freely accessible in the internet, is even higher or as equal as bodily injures that a child can be subject to.

Cu DREPTul: To what extent did the attitude of specialists in the field change towards the victims? Are they their allies or on the contrary?

As for the attitude of the specialists, often practitioners  somehow accuse the victims for getting in trouble: ‘You wanted to take the picture’, ‘You caused the situation’, ‘You sent it, you did not think’. It is an absolutely wrong approach, an approach that from the very beginning discourages the victim from coming to us and cooperating.

Sergiu Russu:  In the past I have explained the situations when the victims are interviewed repeatedly, they are re-traumatized; this usually happens in court when even if a magistrate hears the victims in the criminal prosecution or when an investigative judge undertakes the procedure stipulated under Article 101 of the Criminal Procedure Code, many magistrates choose to interview the victim in person so all parties could ask questions. Often such requests of the defense are accepted and hence, the victim is traumatized again. In my opinion, rather than such justice, it is better to generally skip the hearing and convict or acquit the person on the basis of the evidence that exists in the case file, or based on an expertise or some direct testimonies. The prosecutors sometimes forget about the principle instituted by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – supreme interest of the child during all proceedings, including criminal proceedings. The child is not a piece, not a piece of the procedure, the child is first of all, a child. And we have to ensure that all his/her rights are observed and try to diminish the trauma the child went through already but not to worsen the situation. 

Cu DREPTul: How did the dynamics change, the list of target countries for human traffickers?

Sergiu Russu: Only the number of trafficked victims to the Russian Federation has reduced. It was a classical country of destination for trafficking until 2014, until the visa liberalization regime entered into force. After visa liberalization, the trend or movement vector of our nationals both from the point of view of migration as well as trafficking has shifted towards the states of the European Union. You know very well, we have more than one million citizens abroad in different countries of destination and among these people there are some who are lured and exploited by traffickers. Currently, our citizens have no right to work in EU Member States based on their identity documents – they have to legalize. The legalization process and the lack of the right to work are often used by traffickers to lure, shelter and, subsequently, exploit our citizens.

Cu DREPTul: Until recently mostly women and children were seen as victims of human trafficking. To what extent this perception reflects the reality?

Sergiu Russu: The profile of victims of human trafficking does not include just children and women. Indeed, we admit they are most vulnerable and their exploitation is the worst, and I am referring to sexual exploitation, but very often, men are also victims of human trafficking who are even more difficult to talk with. Men end up working in different countries in inhuman conditions and there are cases starting from consequences for the physical health and ending with cases when they have to sleep under bridges, to request the assistance of consular representations to be repatriated, and many other examples.

The men account for 66% of the total number of victims of human trafficking in the Republic of Moldova.

Hence, there is a need to be careful every time one accepts a job; it is necessary to get informed about the legal term of stay in a country every time one travels, how to get in contact with the relatives in case of any sign of danger and so on. This advice I want to give to people who are listening to me. 

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Cu DREPTul: At the end of this discussion, I would like to ask Elena Botezatu to conclude. Elena, how can we overcome this situation? What actions should be taken first of all?

I think it is important to understand that there is a need for a strategic change, we need actions to start from the highest level, from the political level, to assume certain commitments and change our approach regarding prevention and fighting trafficking in human beings.

Elena Botezatu: First of all, we should approve the Action Plan on the implementation of the Strategy for preventing and combating human trafficking. Of course it would mean a commitment assumed over a period of time when the authorities should implement actions in this field. Another step would be to ensure adequate financial resources, sufficient to be able to implement those commitments that the authorities undertake, and if these costs cannot be covered from the public budget, to have an efficient collaboration with both non-governmental organizations and development partners. Another important aspect is the coordination of policies in this field because with the reform and new structure of the Permanent Secretariat and with a smaller number of persons who coordinate these policies, it is clear that there is not enough capacity. Respectively, we have to revise the way it is structured and the number of responsible persons who have a mandate to coordinate policies in the field of human trafficking. Of course all these cannot work efficiently without building the capacity of all experts, specialists, people involved at different levels, and this requires necessary continuous information, ongoing training; it is important to take into account the changes in human trafficking, so that our actions are undertaken at the same pace as the changes that we see in cases of trafficking in human beings.

Each of us, every member of the community should be more sensitive to the needs of people who seek help, and when we notice some violations or problems of a certain person, we should inform immediately the competent authorities.

A trend that we have noted in the cases studied by the “La Strada” Center in the recent years is the fact that more and more information and communication technologies are used in recruiting or exploiting young people, in particular, and for the first time in history, we got a conviction for trafficking children for sexual purposes committed exclusively online. On one hand, this tells us that we should be better informed and specialists should be trained on how these technologies are used to commit a crime; on the other hand, this should make us change a little bit, especially our investigative methods as well as the actions we take in each criminal case, because these new cases should make us, the experts, adapt the measures we take, so that we can be one step ahead of criminals.

This text is an excerpt from the CuDREPTul podcast. The full version, audio and text, exists only in Romanian.