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AWHERENESS: Human Trafficking in Romania and Moldova

Annie Ling | Moldova

“That’s where the police would take us to the forest. The boys, they would tie them up, so if there were two tree poles, they would tie their hands, then they would kick and hit them. And that’s where they would leave us. They would leave the boys tied up. And then we, with pain and struggle, we would take pieces of glass or tin, because you can find them all around, and then cut free all you can.”

- Tunde, 24-years-old, Cluj-Napoca, Romania

Tunde was living with a gang of street youth when she was trafficked by her boyfriend. The gang was regularly assaulted by the police as easy targets.

Romania and Moldova are beautiful countries with an ugly problem. Every year, thousands of women, men and children are trafficked outside and within the borders for sex and forced labor.

In many cases, children and young adults turn to the streets to escape harsh conditions at overrun orphanages or domestic abuse at home. Those affected by trafficking are often exploited by the ones closest to them: a family member, a partner, a lover. Psychological manipulation, coercion, and physical violence form the basis for a majority of these stories.

Human trafficking is rooted in various systems of oppression. Hearing these stories, it is impossible to understand and address human trafficking without addressing broader socio-economic realities, gender inequality, domestic violence, corruption, racism, and poverty.

Awhereness is a collaboration with trafficked survivors to trace their stories and expose the places that enable trafficking. Trafficking is pervasive, making it hard to detect. It takes on many different forms, often in the most mundane places: at home, parks, transportation hubs, cafes, and beyond.

“Awhereness” the project grew out of conversations and focused research between close friend and collaborator Patricia Chabvepi, a Romanian human rights activist and myself nearly two years ago.

Trafficking in Romania has swelled since 1989, with the end of communism. Upon joining the European Union in 2007, Romania relaxed its border patrol measures, making free flow of both goods and people easier across borders. However, as the country’s economy is also improving, internal trafficking is also gaining traction. The situation is even more critical in Moldova due to the rise of orphanages amidst a struggling economy and lack of employment opportunities in the country. Most people in Moldova want to live and work abroad, which makes the trafficking of human beings a perversely easy endeavor. Moldova is the poorest nation of Europe, with a large percentage of its children growing up in state institutions, not necessarily because they are orphans, but because their parents do not have the means to raise them.

My first exposure to the problem of human trafficking was through a number of awareness raising campaigns, seminars, reports and articles. Being from Romania, Patricia had been aware for years of Romanian young women being tricked into prostitution abroad, but only vaguely considered what this really meant and what exactly drove them to these jobs abroad as "waitresses" and "dancers." During a volunteer opportunity with a New York-based organization that works with victims of domestic abuse, Patricia confronted the reality that domestic abuse and trafficking often go hand in hand.

Human trafficking is a cunning beast that takes on various and evolving forms as result of underlying systems of oppression. Hearing these stories, it is impossible to understand and address human trafficking without addressing the broader socio-economic realities, gender inequality, domestic violence, racism, and poverty.

Trafficking today has a much more ambiguous and deceptive appearance, thus making it harder to expose. What happens now is often done under the cover of legality, with proper paperwork and even some portion of consent. This makes law enforcement particularly difficult, as does corruption.

Trafficking stories are personal. My hope is that these images would invite the viewer to contemplate more deeply the problem of human trafficking and to gain an “awhereness” of the context in which trafficking is born and bred through the personal stories of survivors.


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