Why is the above photo not of a woman in chains? Or tied up in a shipping container? Why does it not imitate what we are shown in the media? One might think that human trafficking only happens like in the blockbuster movie, Taken, where someone is kidnapped and sold into forced prostitution. In reality, it can be both simple and complex. 

The Bite explored this topic to help AISB students and faculty better understand Trafficking-in-Person (TIP), what it really is, and how people become vulnerable to it. We hope that identifying forms of manipulation used by traffickers and sharing firsthand stories from both renowned experts and survivors of this crime will lead to better awareness and advocacy for this significant problem in Romania.

What Do AISB Students Know About Human Trafficking?

When interviewing students about their knowledge of human trafficking, grade 8 student Melina S., says, “I don’t know a lot about human trafficking, but I do know that it is a big problem, and I think the school should talk about it more.” 

Grade 9 student Gregor V., says he knows human trafficking is a very serious issue, especially in Romania, and that it is a large underground business that should be stopped. He also stated that the topic is not addressed in the curriculum and we need to address it.

“I know a little,” says grade 9 student Francesca B., such as the fact that “it is a big issue in Romania and I know that the issue is not looked at. I also know that a lot of the human trafficking cases are being overlooked. I think it should be taught in school, at least in Humanities, because being aware of different things is important. This is a big issue that impacts many people’s lives, and it could happen to anyone, and I think it is important to be aware.”

Grade 9 student Charlotte J. says, “I know that human trafficking is the sale of a person whether it’s to do sex work or other types of work, and that men usually lure women into bad situations and they manipulate them. When I think of a trafficker I think of an old man who has no moral compass and is a sad person. For starters, I think [victims] could be less fortunate and that they could have a lower education.”

Charlotte’s answers highlight the stereotypical thoughts surrounding the possible vulnerabilities of victims and their potential traffickers.

After interviewing AISB students, it was clear that better education on the vulnerabilities of human trafficking is needed in our school curriculum to raise awareness about this dangerous issue. We also noticed the repetition of common stereotypes such as, “traffickers are only men,” and “the only people that get trafficked are people of a lower economic status.” The reality is more complex than that, and people from all socioeconomic statuses are at-risk, including AISB students.

Human Trafficking in Romania

The United Nations (U.N.) defines human trafficking as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of people through force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them for profit.” Men, women, and children of all ages and from all backgrounds can become victims of this crime, which occurs in every region of the world.” 

The main types of human trafficking that are prevalent in Romania are sex trafficking and labor trafficking. According to the U.S. Department of State, Romania has one of the largest numbers of TIP victims registered across Europe annually. 

Human trafficking is an illicit business model that is thriving around the world, including in Europe. It is estimated by the Global Slavery Index that there are 50 million people enslaved today. In Romania, many girls are promised good work opportunities and are manipulated to go to Western countries such as the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and the Netherlands; once they get there, their freedom is forcibly taken, and they are forced to do sex work.  

This problem has continued to grow over the years in Romania because some of the current anti-human trafficking laws are not being implemented effectively. Furthermore, some of the laws need to be revised. 

For instance, the current law in Romania provides for 3-10 years in prison. If the victim is a child, the penalty is 5-10 years. Legal scholars considers this a disproportionately weak sentence for a severe crime and thus does not serve as a sufficient deterrent.

In October 2022, courts applied a “statute of limitations calculation,” which means a perpetrator can’t be prosecuted after a certain amount of time has passed after the crime, leading to the dismissal of several human trafficking cases. 

According to a United States government report from the Office to Monitor and Combat Human Trafficking, Romania does not meet adequate standards to combat human trafficking

Human trafficking is also thriving and expanding as a business because of inadequate knowledge and awareness of law enforcement. Many police officers are not familiar with how to identify and detect trafficking, so cases often get overlooked or unidentified. 

Victims of human trafficking also often suffer from significant psychological trauma and manipulation, leading many not even to realize they are being exploited. Because of this, they don’t seek help. This makes it even harder to identify victims and offer them support.

The graph above produced by the International Justice Mission (IJM) shows the registered numbers of victims of human trafficking and the suspected number of perpetrators.
While the conviction rate has remained steady, the rate of registered victims and suspected traffickers has risen dramatically. (Graph provided courtesy of International Justice Mission)

Case Study: Mara

The side-bar below shows a case study in which a survivor was trafficked and escaped. Mara (not her real name) was a 19-year-old Romanian girl manipulated into traveling to the United Kingdom by one woman and two men. She was raped many times by one of the traffickers and was told that there was no point in trying to escape as there was nowhere to go. 

After an especially horrific rape by the trafficker, she fled to a neighbor’s house where she got in contact with the West Midland Police. The police then contacted the International Justice Mission, who supported Mara through her trial and retrial, where she had to recount her horrible experiences many times. Because of the stress of recalling these traumatic experiences, she collapsed twice during the trial, which demonstrates the significant level of trauma that survivors often experience.

Report from the Midlands (UK) police:
A human trafficker who enslaved a young woman forced her into prostitution and repeatedly raped her has been jailed for a total of 22 years. Francisc Lazaroiu was sentenced to a 14-year jail term on Friday (March 1) at Birmingham Crown Court, after being found guilty after a re-trial of raping the 19-year-old at an address in Birmingham. He and his parents, Antonio Lazaroiu, aged 41, and mother Florina Ion, aged 39, had in July last year, each been jailed by the court for eight years for trafficking the youngster for sexual exploitation. The 23-year-old and his parents had been found guilty of controlling prostitution for gain and human trafficking after luring the Romanian teenager to the UK with claims of a job in retail. But the promise of a better life was a lie and they instead forced her into prostitution at their home in Handsworth, even driving her to clients in Walsall, and then taking the money she earned. They also subjected her to physical and verbal abuse, frequently beating her, with Francisc Lazaroiu also repeatedly raping her during the seven-month ordeal. But after one particularly brutal assault by Francisc Lazaroiu, the young woman fled the property in May 2021 and found sanctuary with a neighbor, who called the police. West Midlands Police tracked down Antonio and Francisc Lazaroiu, who had fled to Scotland, and arrested them before Florina Ion was later arrested in Southampton. The force’s specialist rape and sexual offenses team worked with the young woman to compile evidence against her three captors and, alongside an anti-slavery group International Justice Mission, also supported her through the court process.

What Are The Vulnerabilities?

When interviewing two different experts on the topic of TIP, they gave helpful insights on how to identify human trafficking in others, what to do in case you potentially identify someone you suspect is being trafficked, and finally, to learn the techniques that perpetrators use to lure and manipulate their victims. 

Caretaker Interview (caretaker name not revealed for security purposes) 

The caretaker stayed with Mara through the entirety of her trial, helping Mara with her newborn child and other aspects of her needs to ensure she was able to fully participate in the criminal proceedings. 

The caretaker says, “Well, she came from a lower-income family in rural Romania. Her formal education was limited. Her father passed away, which was a significant hurdle for her to overcome and her family to overcome. But she looked the same as any other girl.”

When asked about the importance of advocating for victims of TIPS, the caretaker says, “I think it was important to be with the victim just to give her that safety and security. Even if I can just take one anxiety off of her shoulders and let her know that her daughter is in good hands (during the trial), that she’s okay, that she’s not alone and that there are so many different people who are willing to support her, I feel like that goes a long way.”

‘Lover Boy Method’ and Other Trafficker Tactics 

Shawn Kohl is the Director of Anti-Human Trafficking in Europe for the International Justice Mission. He has worked in six different countries combating various types of human rights abuses. (Full disclosure: Shawn Kohl is the parent of the author.) 

Director of Anti-Human Trafficking in Europe for the International Justice Mission Shawn Kohl. (Submitted photo)

“We’re working on 56 cases,” Kohl says, “supporting government institutions in individual cases, and have supported over 126 victims currently.”

Kohl adds: “And what we’ve seen in a lot of our cases is that some of the primary vulnerabilities include having a lower socio-economic background, having a lack of formal education, coming from disorganized family structures (single-parent homes), suffering abuse, or they’ve had past trauma.”

Kohl says, “So there are two primary methodologies that traffickers tend to use,” Kohl says: “One would be kind of preying on their hope to get another job or a better opportunity, and the other is called the Lover Boy Method. The latter method is “where typically men would offer or pretend to be in a relationship with women and then over time slowly manipulate and coerce them into sex work, both in Romania and particularly abroad. This method can be used both in person and online, vis-a-vis webcam, and even on the wealthiest and most educated girls around.” 

A notorious example would be social media personality Andrew Tate, who has been accused of using the Lover Boy Method [of human trafficking] on girls to do webcam videos.“

Shawn Kohl

Kohl says that “about 50% of Romanian victims are exploited abroad, but even in those cases, we’ve seen that the grooming, recruitment, and sometimes exploitation begin in Romania. Traffickers will threaten and frequently carry out physical violence and oftentimes there are threats against the victim’s families or their children in Romania. This is a key to the coercion that traffickers use.”

Recorded testimony (see timestamp 1:24:05) by a survivor of human trafficking explains this method: “You think you found the one, prince charming, this is the one and you might (but) end up in a situation with no return, and maybe if you do get out of there it is either dead or maybe a client or maybe the police will save you, will do something.”

Are You Unknowingly Supporting Human Trafficking?

Kohl highlighted that people could be complicit in the exploitation of others without even knowing. For example, the shirt that you are wearing or the phone that you use every day could be tainted with slave labor. 

Another way that hides human trafficking in our societies is legalized prostitution. Human trafficking experts report that many individuals who provide sex services in destination countries, upon closer examination, are victims of human trafficking. Human trafficking is a business model that exists and only thrives because of the profits it creates. It is a simple supply and demand issue. To stop human trafficking and the profits it generates, we all need to have greater awareness of the products we use and the things we purchase. 

It is estimated that one million sex services are purchased in Germany every day. Many of those persons are from Romania or Bulgaria and there is a steep power imbalance between the seller and purchaser. Police are often ill-equipped to understand this dynamic when the victim comes from another culture. Improved awareness, both within the general population and government institutions, is needed to understand and stop human trafficking. 

Victims identities are kept confidential to minimize future harm. (Photo provided By International Justice Mission)

Romanian Government Making Great Strides

In April 2024, Romanian government officials gathered at an international conference that identified key areas for improvement. Training of police officers on investigations and understanding trauma are key findings of the Policy Paper offered by the International Justice Mission in partnership with experts with the Ministry of Justice in Romania. 

One key development has been the creation of the Parliamentary Commission Against Trafficking. As a one-stop “go to” entity within Parliament, the Commission has identified and submitted goals to better address human trafficking in Romania.  

A recent legislative initiative is to eliminate suspended sentences for persons convicted of human trafficking. A suspended sentence is when a perpetrator is convicted of a crime, but the judge “suspends the sentence,” meaning the perpetrator does not have to actually serve any time in prison. According to official records from the Romanian Ministry of Justice, one in five persons convicted of human trafficking offenses receives a suspended sentence. This means that those convicted persons will never serve a day in prison. 

In early April, corrective action and bills were submitted to the Romanian parliament by the president and vice president of the Parliamentary Commission.

On April 29th, this bill was passed in the Senate and now will need to go to the Chamber of Deputies and be passed there, OR, if no action is taken it will automatically become law. This law is likely to get passed unless the Chamber of Deputies overturns it. 

This is a huge win and will hopefully discourage other traffickers from committing these acts now that will have to pay for their crimes.  Additionally, knowing that their captors are in prison, survivors can finally gain a sense of safeness. 

How To Help

From what we buy at the market to what clothes we buy at the mall, are we always aware of the social and legal impacts of our purchases? As an AISB community, do we unconsciously support this by the people we follow on social media, like Andrew Tate, who mastered the Lover Boy Method of human trafficking? 

By understanding the vulnerabilities and applying this to our own lives we can hopefully not only avoid but put a stop to the exploitation of others. Some concrete ways of taking action include:

  • Develop skepticism of the influencers you follow on social media
  • Checking the things you own to see how it was manufactured
  • Talking to schools to involve them in classes (such as Humanities)
  • Supporting and donating to NGOs (IJM, UN, UNICEF)
  • Starting a service group to help people be aware of this huge problem.

We ALL need to be smarter, we need to be stronger, we need to stand up for those who don’t have our privileges, and most of all for the survivors who have suffered more than any of us can imagine.