Iana Matei, a psychologist by training, is the leading figure in Romania's fight against human trafficking. In an interview with SETimes correspondent Paul Ciocoiu, she describes her efforts to rescue young girls amid a flawed legislative system.
By Paul Ciocoiu for Southeast European Times in Bucharest -- 31/10/11
Reaching Out founder Iana Matei. [Victor Barbu/SETimes]
SETimes: Tell us how your organisation, Reaching Out, started.
Iana Matei: It was established in 1999, becoming the first such organisation directly protecting victims of human trafficking, at a time when the Palermo Protocol was not in place yet, nor did we have specific legislation in Romania. The first victims I worked with were under age -- we would call them abused children -- and had been trafficked in the former Yugoslav countries where they had been lured with the promise of well-paid jobs.
SETimes: A method which is still being used, isn't it?
Matei: Indeed, but now we also have this so-called lover boy method in which traffickers pick the future victims one by one after they spend a couple of months with a girl until they convince her they allegedly want to marry her. What is worse in these cases is they start recruiting girls at the age of 12 and13, when they are easy to manipulate and control.
SETimes: Are most of the victims under age?
Matei: At this moment, yes. Unlike the first years of our activity in 1999-2003, when 70% of the victims were over 18 years old, and 30% were under age. Now this percentage has reversed. At this very moment, the youngest victim in my care is 13 years old.
The first funds came from the US Department of State. Then an American partner organisation … a German governmental organisation, UNICEF, then came the European funds. Lately, we have received funds from Make Way Partners, a US organisation.
I started by raising awareness among the women and girls in the whole country about what human trafficking really was. I did that by means of a movie I myself shot with a hidden camera in Macedonia and that I showed in schools. The movie showed the entire route from recruitment, transportation to exploitation based on the testimonies of the girls I had saved.
SETimes: How many employees are there here? And how many girls have you saved so far?
Matei: Eight employees, me included. And we have managed to save about 460 girls since we started.
SETimes: Why did you choose to work with trafficked women?
I started doing prevention in the orphanages to talk kids out of running away. One day, the police called me and told me they had three prostitutes in custody and needed my help to take them to a medical examination. But when I got there, I found three scared girls still crying, with their faces smeared with mascara. They were 14, 15 and 16 years old.
Reaching Out requires girls to go to school and to learn a skilled trade. [Victor Barbu/SETimes]
When I asked them how they ended up in the street they told me pointblank they had been sold [by their parents]. I remember being furious for the following couple of months that something like that could happen in Romania.
When I started asking around, I realised no one wanted those girls, not even the Child Protection Authority, which said the girls would be taken to an orphanage. This is how I started my programme.
SETimes: How do the girls get to your organisation?
Matei: They are brought by the police, by the NGOs in the destination countries and girls we identify and take them away from traffickers. We currently have 12 girls at the centre, the most was 19.
SETimes: A small number compared to the proportions of the phenomenon.
Matei: I agree, but the assistance we give them is a complex process and cannot be done in haste, as happens in the state institutions. These kids have problems, have special needs; they need attention. They go out in the street because they lack love, care in their families; this is the starting point.
SETimes: How much time does a victim spend at your centre?
Matei: That depends on their age. Those who are above 18 integrate faster; we work with them more easily because they are mature. Those under age spend an average of one year here because otherwise they risk falling victims to human trafficking again.
SETimes: What exactly do they go through here during this reintegration process?
Matei: First, medical assistance. Then psychological assistance, individual and group therapy.
Also life skills: that is what they weren't taught in their families. Every day a girl is on duty, she cooks or cleans for the rest of the group. We also have a sewing workshop, then professional training and school.
If they are under age they go to school, regardless of the educational stage. I insist they graduate at least from primary school (8th grade) and professional training. We place a great accent on education because they have to know they can do something in this life, and they ended up this way because they were told at home they are good for nothing.
Matei says family dysfunction is a root issue and anti-trafficking legislation is flawed. [Reuters]
SETimes: How many of them do reintegrate in the end?
Matei: About 86%. These girls complete a school cycle, get a job and keep in touch with us afterwards.
SETimes: What is the main obstacle that prevents reintegration?
Matei: The flawed system, the lack of co-operation among state agencies. Then, even the school. We have to conceal the real stories of these girls when enlisting them back in school because they risk being discriminated against or even harassed.
SETimes: What about their families? Do they accept them back?
Matei: We always started from the premise children are born good. We do family counseling, negotiate the parent-child relationship and if all goes well, the child returns home and we keep an eye on her. But most of the time the obstacle resides in the parents themselves and that is the main obstacle in preventing them from reintegrating.
SETimes: Overall, what is the main cause of human trafficking?
Matei: Disorganised families, lack of education and information about human trafficking, an educational and health system that malfunctions, child protection that malfunctions. And all these components pass the responsibility to each other.
SETimes: What has been concretely done by state authorities to approach this problem? And what still needs to be done?
Matei: Anti-traffic legislation, a national strategy and an action plan, but all these have been done in haste, by fits and starts, because these measures were asked for by the EU and the US State Department. It was all put on paper to look good to the West but then we realised what was written there doesn't work.
We also have conflicting laws. For instance, as concerns under age victims, one law says we have to reintegrate them into their families. But how can we do that if the mother sold her daughter for a bottle of vodka and a pack of cigarettes?
Another obstacle is Article 44 of the Romanian Constitution, which says all the assets are legally obtained. We are interested in confiscating a trafficker's fortune because this is how we deal him a serious blow. Money is the very reason he does human trafficking.
But in Romania, it is the prosecutor who has to prove this money was illegally obtained, unlike the legislation in many Western countries, where the defendant has to prove he got his assets in a legal manner.
In Romania, human trafficking occurs at low risk, with high profit.