[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Thursday, 24 August 2006, 13:18 GMT 14:18 UK
Romania struggles with sex trade
By Nick Thorpe
BBC News, Craiova, Romania

Stelu in the prison theatre
Stelu's story was contradicted by the girls' statement
Stelu asked me to bring him a teddy bear.

This would have been a simple, man-to-man transaction, if Stelu was not a convicted criminal, serving an eight-year sentence for trafficking girls to Italy.

In fact the cuddly toy was a first birthday present for his baby son, whom his wife was due to bring to see him two weeks later.

The prison where Stelu is serving his sentence, in Craiova in southern Romania, was purpose-built in the 1890s. The buildings are low, the cells packed, three bunks deep, three bunks high, 50 to 60 men to a room.

I was so naive... at first I thought she meant, we would have to sweep the street
Alexa, victim of trafficking

Stelu, like most, but not quite all of the traffickers I met, feels hard done by.

"I was on my way to Spain with a friend to look for work," he says, softly.

It cannot have helped his case in court that he looks like a man of physical, rather than verbal power.

"A friend of my wife... heard that we were going, and she asked if we could give her a lift. I left her in Italy... and she got involved in prostitution there," he adds

'Violent criminal'

The organised crime police give a very different version. They describe Stelu as a violent criminal, who not only trafficked many girls to Italy, but also organised pick-pocketing rings in Spain. The judge believed the written evidence of the girls against him.

"They made it up - to get residence papers in Italy," Stelu protests.

We went in search of the girls, in the run-down suburbs of Craiova. All are in Italy now. It was impossible to hear their versions.

In a village near Buzau, in eastern Romania, Alexa and her friend Alina proved more accessible. They used to work in a village shop, for 1.7m lei a month (26 at the time).

Promises of work

Two boys, Dani and Tavi, started visiting them there, chatting them up. They said they could get them work, one as a waitress, another as a housekeeper, in Bologna. The girls jumped at the chance.

The prison in the Romanian town of Craiova
The prison in Craiova was built in the 19th Century
So many Romanians work abroad - more than three million, or one in seven of the population.

They thought they would be lucky. Of course, they had heard of trafficking. But they did not think it could happen to them. They even introduced the boys to their parents.

As soon as they got off the bus in Bologna, things started to go wrong.

A Romanian woman called Ana confronted them with some bad news. They already owed the organisers of their trip 2,000 euro (1,354) each, for their transport, accommodation, passports and visas so far, she said.

The only way to work off their debts, they were told, was to work on the street.

"I was so nave", Alexa said, "at first I thought she meant we would have to sweep the street."

The girls were split up, and forced to have sex with up to 30 men a night. They were never left alone.

Suicide attempts

When Alina was suspected by another girl of not handing over all the money she received, she was beaten by her Albanian owners for three days.

So far, we have not reached the big fish - the coordinators of the criminal networks
Alexandru Jonas
Centre for Combating Organised Crime

After several suicide attempts, Alexa managed to trick her guards and fled.

I met their pimp, Ana, in the police station in Buzau. Her tragedy is that she started as a victim of trafficking, then joined the pimps in the hope of a better deal.

"If you knew how bad it could be," I asked her, during one of several meetings, "why did you recruit other girls?"

"Because I loved him," she said of the Albanian pimp who persuaded her to bring more girls from Romania.

"I wanted to make a new life with him."

Ana was arrested in an undercover operation by Romanian police. She was caught red-handed, about to take possession of her next victim, who turned out to be a woman police officer.

In the first six months of this year, 104 people were convicted of trafficking in Romania - mostly to western and northern Europe. In the same period, 995 victims of trafficking were rescued, three-quarters female, one-quarter male.

"It's very easy to catch the small fish... the small traffickers, the recruiters," says Alexandru Jonas, of the South-East Europe Coordinating Centre for Combating Organised Crime (SECI) in Bucharest.

"So far, we have not reached the big fish - the coordinators of the criminal networks."

In the toy shop I tried to find a teddy who looked just like Stelu. So his son would remember him, during the long years of their separation.

EU raises Balkan hurdles
15 May 06 |  Europe
Meeting the human traffickers
06 May 06 |  From Our Own Correspondent
EU targets Moldova smugglers
07 Apr 06 |  Europe

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific