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sold by a friend into the most profitable business in europe

November 24, 2010

The women sold into sex-slavery
Sold into prostitution – often by friends or family – then trafficked across the continent, thousands of Eastern European women every year find themselves trapped in lives of unimaginable misery.

The women in these photographs are among many I interviewed for a report on sex trafficking in Eastern Europe. Some of them were fragile; some were very strong; all were trying to leave behind a hated past while still coming to terms with profound emotional distress.

Polina, a girl from Ukraine, shouted at me, ‘My story, do you want to hear my story? You have heard it – over and over again.’ Clearly distraught, she told me how, a year after she came back from the Czech Republic, where she had been sold into prostitution, the police came to the door and started to question her. Her new husband and mother-in-law then chased her away from home. She had not told them that she had been sold as a sex slave by a good friend. Her life was destroyed, she said.

In London I met Svetlana, a young Moldovan who was sex trafficked into Britain. She took me round Soho and pointed to the windows of various flats: the one with a cracked window was a ‘stinky’ place; the one with a red light was a bit less grim. I entered five rooms where the working girls operated. I met two Romanians. One was wearing tiny white socks and a pink robe thrown over a black Spandex costume. She was from a city two hours from my native town.

Sex trafficking is one of the most profitable illegal businesses in both Eastern and Western Europe. In Moldova, the poorest country in Europe, where female unemployment may reach 68 per cent and a third of the workforce lives and works abroad, it is estimated that since 1989 between 200,000 and 400,000 women have been sold into prostitution elsewhere – perhaps 10 per cent of the female population. The country is the main exporter of sex slaves for the continent.

I went to the capital, Chişinău, to find women who had survived and managed to get home. I wanted to know how they lived with the traumas when they reached their home countries, where even their own families might not know what they had experienced abroad; how they lived under a shadow of fear that a mother or husband might find out and throw them out. One survey found that a majority of trafficked Moldovan women had been victims of domestic violence.

I learnt that it may begin with the offer of a well-paid job in a world they have only dreamt about. Remittances from migrants, many sent through Moldova’s ubiquitous Western Union offices, are estimated by the World Bank to be more than half a billion pounds a year, financing consumption that, by local standards, is stunning: a car, a bigger house, better food, better clothes.

The pull of emigration is particularly strong for young people and parents struggling to feed their children. Moldovan women have been sent to more than 40 countries, among them Turkey, Russia, Romania, the Czech Republic, Albania, Italy and Spain, Britain, Israel or Saudi Arabia.

But the horrible reality is this: a girl’s own acquaintances, close friends, relatives or boyfriends may sell her for the equivalent of £100, £300, £1,000, depending on how attractive she is.

The moment she agrees to take the job of a shop assistant, nanny, bartender or something similarly innocuous, the business starts. All documents and travelling expenses will be paid for by the traffickers, but she must repay the debt out of her first month’s income.

Once she reaches her destination the girl is taken into a brothel and forced to work as a prostitute. Her passport is taken away. Such women are supposed to be free after the debt is paid back, but they are invariably sold to another pimp – often in another country – in a vicious circle that generates a lot of money. It keeps the business running and the girls in captivity.

They never receive money from the client or the pimp. They are not allowed to contact anybody. They are isolated, threatened, tied up, or even force-fed drugs to control them. Many speak of being raped, urinated on, badly beaten up. Ninety per cent of sex-trafficked women contract sexually transmitted diseases, hepatitis or Aids. And many suffer psychological trauma – advanced schizophrenia and multiple-personality disorder.

Escaping is not easy. It’s not a simple matter of jumping out of a window and becoming free, especially when some of the regular clients are police officers.

There are countless cases of missing women. A search in Moldovan villages revealed the emptiness of places where the women were formerly a natural presence: there were families living in hope that one day they would see their mother, daughter, wife, sister again; and children who didn’t remember how their mother looked.

In one house I found a little altar built around an old picture of a missing woman; in another the bed of a vanished 15-year-old. When women lucky enough to be repatriated arrive home, a decision has to be made about whether to pursue criminal charges against those who exploited them.

Doing so can be dangerous. Human trafficking rings operate with impunity in Moldova, where they are for the most part under government protection and where a number of local government officials are involved with the rings. No government officials have ever been charged with human trafficking or prostitution offences in Moldova.

Ex-victims turn out to be effective recruiters. Because they are women they tend to gain the trust of their targets more easily than men might, particularly when those targets are their own friends, sisters, cousins or daughters. And, after a successful ‘promotion’ to recruiter, some ex-victims take positions as traffickers or madams. It is the business they know.

Repatriated victims of trafficking are also vulnerable to ‘retrafficking’. They nearly always come home to the same poverty and domestic troubles. They know the same people, often including those who trafficked them.

Some believe that because they now understand the dangers of emigration they will avoid them next time. But many women, having once worked as prostitutes, seem convinced that they are incapable of earning a living another way.

Not Natasha, by Dana Popa, is published by Autograph at £14.95 (

A version of this article appeared in Frontline ( Some names have been changed


12 hours with a sex tourist

July 20, 2010

For those checking in with us at cross borders, here is a blog entry from love 146 and remnant magazine written from my recent trip to the phillipines:

Having taken a road trip from the U.K. through Eastern Europe in January, I’m now on the road (or the air, more accurately) toward the Love146 Round Home in Asia. I have to move quick while the Icelandic volcano is on lunch break. I found myself in a window seat next to a couple of what my dad would call “hard working lads”: sun-drawn skin from a construction site causing an unnaturally furrowed brow, one in his 50s the other mid-20s.

I’m flying out of the U.K. at a time where the first three pages of most tabloids are still the story of the Cumbria shootings of Derrick Bird which left 12 dead. On the morning I leave, the headline is “Gunman’s Double Life as a Sex Pervert” accompanied by images of a Thailand sex bar with scantily clad girls dancing. My neighbor for the flight introduces himself by showing and tapping his finger on the page, stating, “Now that’s got to be a bar we need to find.” Our destination for this flight is Bangkok, Thailand.

He seemed to assume my travel had similar interests. I commented that I wouldn’t be stopping there, but heading on to the Philippines. “Not been there,” he replied with a grin and a wink, “We’ll have to try that on our next trip.” As though I had superior knowledge as a fellow sex tourist.

As it turned out, this was the older gentleman’s fourth trip to Bangkok. This occasion it was to be a celebration of his divorce. He, followed by some other friends on a later flight, would be spending six weeks in Bangkok to watch England play their world cup matches in tacky English-friendly bars and to have sex with girls. In fact, the five friends’ common denominator was that they all go to the same pub in the U.K. It was clear the guy in front of me had been primary evangelist to the group concerning the draw of sex tourism. He was a true believer, and this, the best possible use of his time and money.

I sat and wondered at how the sexualization of culture and the normalization of sexual exploitation is far from something passive. In fact, it is being assertively pushed along with a nod, a wink and a wry smile. It’s not hidden smoky corners, but around the open public places of life and work. In fact, the U.K. killer in today’s tabloids had often shown his friends video footage of his own sex acts with young girls in Thailand.

I asked the older gent, “Is it true that girls come up to you as soon as you walk into a bar?”

“You bet.” 

“But doesn’t that just get on your nerves?” 

“Only when you have been up all the previous night having sex with them!”

I could tell I was in the presence of a genuine stereotype: a guy who travels for sex because it’s easy, uncomplicated and no longer on his moral compass as even questionable behavior. He was another one of those guys who genuinely feel that the girls he pays for sex want to be there. He believes he is in fact doing them a favor, or worse (such a common statement), that they are there because they enjoy it. He has no comprehension that the smile masking their suffering is to avoid a beating from their pimp for disappointing a client.

I found out later in the flight that these weren’t rough tough co-workers. It was a father and son. Slightly stunned, I sat and pondered our own Western mindset and moral decay where a father would want to share his participation in sexual exploitation as a bonding experience with his own son.

Those who travel for sex tourism undertake a dehumanization of the other, in this instance those who are in the bondage of sexual slavery, either forced by fear of violence or through the oppression of economic poverty. For those of us who live in places where our fellow countrymen are booking sex holidays, we must re-sensitize ourselves to the humanity of these wonderful, beautiful and precious people. We must spread the word that these women and girls are someone’s daughter, sister or mother. Let’s work to abolish myths that tell us they are less than worthy of our high regard and respect. Let’s tell their stories. Let’s honor their lives. Let’s sing and shout about their humanity.

I have been asking myself a lot of questions since I arrived in Manila and will, I am sure, be kicking myself all the way to my next encounter with a sexual predator. The sad answer is no, I didn’t confront their thinking. I have been around pimps, pushers, traffickers and victims in Europe where it is the girls who are crossing borders to a location for sex. Until this moment, I had not had contact with “users,” where it is they who are crossing borders for sex. This was totally new.

Honestly, I was utterly shocked and rattled by the normality of it all for them. My thinking process was dominated not by confronting “them,” or challenging “their worldview,” but by the confrontation taking place within “me,” the challenge to my own worldview. I was very uncomfortable as I realized the stewardess and others on the flight probably thought we were traveling together and may have assumed I was a sex tourist as well. As I looked around the plane, I wondered how many would even care. How many were going for the same reasons. This thought has plagued me since arriving in the Philippines.

Sometimes there are encounters with sexual exploitation where I am an activist; engaging with people and on behalf of people around these issues—where confrontation can be appropriate action. And sometimes there are times, like many this past January driving the trafficking routes of Europe, where I am a painfully silent observer, learning and gathering intelligence for later battles.

Occasionally I walk away wondering if I lost a fight or missed an opportunity. In this instance, I wore the mask of an interested party and gained as much real information as I could. Sometimes I walk away feeling I have failed someone—a victim or a perpetrator. In reality, I have to draw comfort that I did learn and gain understanding and while I may lose some fights, we will ultimately win the war. This helps me sleep at night, on the increasingly rare occasions that I am able. It certainly makes me value those who work covertly on the streets in victim identification and those who work undercover as a primary focus of their contribution to ending child sex slavery.

As I have said above, much of what took place in the interaction with my two traveling companions was about a work going on in me, and trust me, it has and will continue to add fuel to the fire of my own abolition endeavors alongside you.

War On Vienna Streets

May 21, 2010

Vienna Austria : On Sunday a girl involved in prostitution was burned alive for not paying protection to the Mafia. This was on the streets myself and a colleague visited earlier this year where each street is full of a specific nationality and fought over ruthlessly. Pavement footage is Money in this world, cold hard cash dictates the lengths pimps and in this instance, Romanian mafia will go to control the girls. The girls mother back in Romania had no idea of the life her daughter was suffering within.
The girl in question remains in an induced coma with severe burns.

Paper Dreams

May 18, 2010

Take literally 2 minutes to watch this creative video short. In a nutshull it sums up whats happening to most children in Moldova as a result of the economy forcing migration. Paper Dreams

losing cbi facebook

May 9, 2010

Hi folks, thank you for trekking with us these last few months.
Our blog will continue here but i wanted to ask you to consider joining our partner group on Facebook ‘Official Love146’ as we may be losing our CBI facebook shortly due to admin issues.

Go to facebook – search Official Love146 and join to continue to track with us as their european prevention programme.

Thank You
Gaz and Team

Mummy’s Candy Kisses

May 6, 2010

Today is my third day visiting our prevention programme in Moldova and i was especially keen to get out of the capital city Chisinau to see the rural villages. It was not that there isnt enough to do in the city, but i was keen to temper all of our meetings about the programme with some face to face time with those most at risk.
The roads in the capital are terrible, they have not had any money for repairs since the end of the communist regime 20 years ago, where my host reliably informs me that ‘what you could have bought a car for one day, could not even buy a loaf of bread the next’. It was therefore of little surprise that outside of the city there are more holes than roads and that a journey once taking and hour can now take three.

We arrived at a very delapidated looking area, not a village as i expected but the outer suburbs, still with apartment blocks but where broken windows are replaced with plastic sheet or even bricks, where your wardrobe is whatever you are wearing right now and where there is never enough wood for the fires, i cannot imagine the harsh winters here. I can in part understand how the government wish to demolish what remains standing of these old buildings, i can understand the natural expansion of the city, i cannot however imagine nor understand a government with no plans to relocate these people, just to render them homeless.
Today we were visiting a survivor of trafficking who has made her way back to her village and back to her family.
Her story starts as many do with someone close by suggesting to you that they ‘have the answer to all of your problems, a job just over the border with great money, you will be the saviour of your family and your drunken violent husband’.
This was not a young woman, not at all the mid to late teens or early twenties we have become accustomed to, this woman was thirty, and i feel it is important to share through her story the diversity of trafficking demand.

Lena was lured by the promise of change and so she took the advice and promises of her neighbour to heart and headed to Ukraine and the port of Odessa to set sail for Turkey. She had her passport taken from her and the nightmare began as she was told not to make a sound, not to draw attention at the border or she would be killed. On arrival in turkey she was taken immediately to the basement of a townhouse where she endured forced prostitution and abuse solidly for the next 2 months. There is not really much that can be said about this, i did not want to ask what took place there any more than she would want to disclose it.
She was eventually freed during a police raid, she had her personal items and her mobile phone returned to her and was placed on the boat back home. On arriving in Ukraine she was offered a safe house and rehabilitation, but instead chose to go home, desperate to see her children. All she had that she could sell was her phone, and instead of buying a ticket home as first priority, she used the money to buy chocolate, chocolate for her 3 young children at home so they would think she had enjoyed a good happy and frutiful trip. She lives to this day next to the person who helped to sell her, but chooses to keep her head down, not to involve the police and attempts to keep the horror of her trafficking hidden from everyone, even her family. I understand a little more now the phrase ‘suffer in silence’.
I am pleased that she has finally found courage to speak of her ordeal.

All i can think about is this radiantly beautiful woman in front of me, with shining red hair swept back in a hair band, a mother returning home bearing chocolate, a smile of joy to see her family, becoming lost in the ecstatic embrace of her children. While at the same time desperately holding her tortured soul together with fragile hands.

Regardless of setting, many parents the world over share concerns for their childrens well being, it would be fair to say our daughters more so.
I can only speculate at the anquish for Lena, who even though time has passed still bears the burden of knowing how harsh the world can be, even as she gave birth to her fourth child, all of them equally radient girls.

I draw some small solace from knowing that she is not alone in her desire to keep these little ones safe.

Moldova:2 worlds in one – and both want to leave

May 5, 2010

I am writing today from my hotel room which is conveniently close to a foreboding russian embassy which means i wont get lost. Today i spoke in one school to two classes in two worlds, one class totally russian speaking, dressed in russian,physically different and the other, just 50 feet away was romanian with the same degree and cultural distinctive. The evidence of bygone eras of soviet and romanian rule.
We talked about the highs and lows of western culture and the UK and also that wherever there is need and people wanting to follow a dream, there are those whose personal success is derived from your suffering. So few of them knew about human trafficking and here of all places, the worst place for trafficking in Europe… Moldova.
I know the numbers, i know that 120,000 each year have been migrating, mostly illegally, and if illegally, generally at the hands of traffickers for sex or labour. I know too that 30,000 women and children have gone missing here in the last decade, but when i asked each class today who of them planned to migrate, i was still shocked to see all of them raise a hand without hesitation.
I realise even more now the importance of getting the ESCAPE prevention magazine into each and every hand and witnessed first hand girls recieving them for the first time, with pages about the dangers of travel and how to spot traffickers as well as how to survive and recover from domestic violence, so prevalent here. I felt a small, but significant sigh of relief that they had been armed with information.
People who live in deprivation should still be allowed and encouraged to dream without fear of exploitation and a stolen life.