The two countries continue to grapple with the phenomenon despite steps taken to fight it.
By Paul Ciocoiu for Southeast European Times in Bucharest -- 18/09/12
"Authorities need to develop the poor communities where most of the victims come from so that people have a viable alternative," Iana Matei, head of the Romanian anti-human trafficking organisation Reaching Out, told SETimes. [Victor Barbu/SETimes]
At least 540 Bulgarians were victims of human trafficking in 2011, while Romania investigated nearly 900 similar cases last year. The increase, attributed to sexual exploitation, confirms that the two countries remain both source and transit areas in the region for such illegal activities, experts say.
In Romania, the number of the cases in 2011 is up from 717 the previous year. At the same time, anti-human trafficking authorities indicted 480 persons in these cases, compared to 407 in 2010. More than 270 offenders were convicted, up from 203 two years ago. In Bulgaria, of the 112 offenders convicted last year, 95 received a court sentence for sex trafficking.
"The number of those with effective sentences went up last year. For the first time ever … we have sentences of over 10 years of jail time, six of them passed in 2011. This is the first serious step … to show both citizens and criminals that the latter are not untouchables," Antoaneta Vasileva, chief secretary of the National Committee for the Fight against Human Trafficking, told the Bulgarian National Radio.
The Council of Europe's Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA) concluded in June that Romania, despite having taken steps to combat the phenomenon, should pay more attention to several aspects.
A reinforcement of the co-ordination and co-operation between all anti-trafficking actors needs to be organised, and there is a need for further measures to tackle the root causes of trafficking, especially through fostering access to education and jobs for vulnerable groups, the report said.
GRETA also recommended better training for relevant professionals, especially border police staff who can ultimately recognize and identify victims of human trafficking, practical assistance and effective access to compensation and legal redress for the victims.
In terms of investigation and prosecution, the Council of Europe urged Bucharest to step up proactive investigations into trafficking for the purpose of labour exploitations and into any alleged involvement of public officials in offences related to human trafficking.
But, the phenomenon flourishes amid a precarious economic environment, GRETA's experts warn.
"It is widely recognised that an improvement of the economic and social conditions in countries of origin and measures to deal with poverty are an effective way of preventing trafficking," Claudia Lam, an expert with GRETA, told SETimes.
She said that prejudice is a main obstacle for the victims' social reintegration. "This has implications for access to school, vocational training and, particularly in times of dire economic conditions, the job market," she said.
Lam also noted that one exposed social category are the children of the more than two million Romanians working abroad. "Children left behind by their parents who have gone abroad constitute a group vulnerable to trafficking in Romania and we stress the need for the Romanian authorities to strengthen preventive measures in respect of such children," she said.
In a written statement released to SETimes, the National Anti-Human Trafficking Agency said that last year it assisted 807 victims, both in legal proceedings and counseling. More than 60 victims were repatriated last year, 27 of whom suffered sexual exploitation, 22 were exploited for labor while 10 were used for begging, the agency said.
The agency also said that it gives great importance to raising awareness of human trafficking, organising more than 1,250 prevention actions in as many education institutions in 2011.
But specialists warn that combating the growing phenomenon takes more than education.
"Authorities need to develop the poor communities where most of the victims come from so that people have a viable alternative," Iana Matei, head of the Romanian anti-human trafficking organisation Reaching Out, told SETimes. "They can easily do that by accessing European funds," she added.
At the same time, the educational system needs a total upheaval, Matei added.
"We need children able to develop a personal, independent thinking which leads to a solid life experience. Last but least, we need decentralization of the human trafficking fighting system because, just to give you one example, we, the NGOs, do not know what happens to the victims after they are repatriated."
"But all these ask for a central co-ordination, and unfortunately there is no political will in this regard," she said. "Unfortunately, human trafficking is not on the politicians' priorities agenda, too busy fighting themselves. But this is a growing phenomenon that more and more minors fall prey to and this calls for serious measures in order to fight this unfortunate trend."