Grisly Summer Kidnapping and Murder Shines the Spotlight on Romania’s Human Trafficking Nightmare

By David M. Shoup

Romanians were shocked this summer to hear of the tragic death of a 15 year old girl kidnapped and murdered in Caracal. The case was met with outrage after it was discovered that police took over 19 hours to enter the house in which the victim was held, and several high profile firings within Romanian law enforcement quickly followed.

Despite the shock of July’s violent tragedy, its international coverage is turning the spotlight onto a larger societal issue involving the victimization of thousands of Romanians: human trafficking. 

Silvia Maria Tabusca is a Romanian human rights attorney and EU legal expert who urges legislative as well as procedural reforms to stem the rising tide of kidnapping and human trafficking cases in Romania. For short term and emergency solutions, Tabusca acknowledges that emergency response service training will help. 

“For 112, we need training,” said Tabusca. “That person that answered the phone, they didn’t know how to help the victim, they didn’t know how to help her escape, how to make her calm down. They asked very stupid questions, and they didn’t know what to do.”

Pressed on what other police reforms or improved training might prevent tragedies like these from occurring, Tabusca sighed.

“I think we need to fight this corruption in the system. The main case for me is the case of corruption… they will postpone some of these trafficking cases for years to reach the statute of limitations, and in the end everyone goes free.”

Silvia Tabusca is helping to lead the fight against human trafficking in Romania

According to Tabusca, this horrendous kidnapping case should raise alarms about the rise of human trafficking by organized crime syndicates in Romania and the simultanteous inability, or even unwillingness, of local and national authorities to bring traffickers to justice. 

“Before 2015, I’m not aware of many cases of kidnapping,” Tabusca said. “But now we have lots of cases of kidnapping. Often it will just be said that they ran away with their boyfriend, and the police don’t do much about it.” 

At the end of July, Skynews released an explosive documentary shedding light on the bleak circumstances under which many young Romanians fall prey to human trafficking. The video centered on the efforts of a fearless Romanian psychologist named Iana Matei, whose victim support organization, Reach out Romania, has rescued and nurtured 470 trafficking victims. 

“In today’s Europe there are parents who sell their children, because the society is numb,” Matei says.

Matei laid bare the brutal process in which parents sell or give away their children under false hopes of overseas work, the children soon disappearing into a sadistic ring of organized crime and abuse.

“You groom them in the flats, when they turn 13 or 14 you put makeup on them and sell them in the streets, then when they turn 18 you export them… to England… wherever you want.”

According to Tamara Barnett, Director of the United Kingdom’s Office on Human Trafficking, more than 5,000 victims of human trafficking were identified in the UK in 2017, a 35% increase from the previous year. Of the Romanian victims identified in the UK, the majority of them were working in forced prostitution or childen forced to beg through organized crime rings. 88% of these victims are eventually deported back to Romania, where many will end up in the same circumstances. 

“In some senses there’s a gray spectrum,” Bennett said from the Office of Human Trafficking’s London headquarters. “Some of them will know they’re being very low paid but it may be better pay in the U.K. than back home. Sometimes they come willingly to the UK and then things go wrong.”

Tamara Barnett, Director of the UK Human Trafficking Foundation

“Some people have managed to escape, leave or get help,” says Barnett. “We have the organization Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority that license farms, so in the cases of forced agricultural labor, which are very public, sometimes the Gangmasters Authority will spot them and help.”

At least 3.5 million Romanians live and work abroad, according to the Lufkin Foundation for Research and Migration’s 2018 report, and the UK is among the diaspora’s top four destinations (following Italy, Spain, and Germany). 

Romania doesn’t follow EU legal standards which are used to identify trafficking victims. Whereas the UK and all other EU nations, which criminalize organized begging and other petty crime commonly associated with human trafficking in order to better identify victims and ringleaders, Romania does not. 

“In Romania, because our criminal law does not mention this type of exploitation, our traffickers cannot be sentenced or investigated for these crimes,” said Tabusca. 

“I’ve never understood why we didn’t respect the European directives and also I do not know why we don’t amend this legislation, because a large number of kids, people with disabilities, and others are exploited through begging and petty crimes abroad.”

Tabusca’s description may sound particularly bleak, but her point was demonstrated in full six months ago, when the ringleaders of a Tandarei-based child trafficking ring that operated in Romania and the UK were released after 52 judicial delays and postponements following charges brought in 2010. 

The 2010 charges were brought by Operation Golf, a joint British-Romanian police investigation into the massive organized crime group, which involved multi-million dollar mansions, automatic weapons, and 181 children, many of whom are now missing. At the time of the ringleaders’ acquittal in February, Bernie Gravett, the now-retired British Superintendent who supervised the operation, expressed exasperation at the corruption implicit behind the errors of impunity (the case was tried in Harghita). 

A Tandarei gang member arrested in the UK during Operation Golf

“These guys have millions and we knew at the outset it was a risk,” Gravett told OZB Magazine reporter Stephen McGrath, writing for the Sun. The investigation also revealed that Romanian trafficking victims could earn as much as 800,000 RON per year while working as prostitutes in the UK, the money used to build mansions and buy luxury cars for the ringleaders in Tandarei. 

When asked how deep the influence of Romanian trafficking organizations reaches in the state apparatus, human rights attorney Silvia Tabusca did not go so far as to point fingers directly, but offered this caveat. 

“I can’t imagine that these organizations grow so powerful without the authorities being aware of their activities,” Tabusca said. “It’s impossible for me to think that thousands of kids are exploited and missing each year, and the number of Romanians that are exploited is higher month after month, without those in power knowing what’s happening.”

For Tamara Bennett at the UK Office of Human Trafficking, while she is proud of the investigative work on the British side of Operation Golf, she believes that the UK’s contribution to fighting trafficking is still just one slice of a bigger pie. 

“We’re certainly one of the leading countries [in the fight against human trafficking], but sometimes others will lead in different areas,” Bennett said, pointing to two EU partner nations across the channel. “So, even if we’re better at identifying victims, our support system isn’t as good as in the Netherlands or Belgium.” 

Barnett cited “weaknesses down the line,” in the British system, such as losing witnesses who could offer valuable testimony in trafficking cases, due to an inadequate victim support system.

If there is any light at the end of this tunnel, it is in the few non profit organizations such as Reach out Romania which aim to rescue and heal trafficking victims. Reach out Romania Director Iana Matei said she does not receive any government funding, instead turning to Western European philanthropic institutions to assist her work. 

“They are very young and they end up in a very abusive situation and then when they get the courage and seek help they are again blamed by the society; somehow it’s their fault or they knew what they were getting themselves into,” Matei told SkyNews last month. “It’s not like that at all. These girls are survivors and in my opinion they are the heroes.”

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