“It’s so painful to realise we are victims”

Women trafficked from Romania to Spain for sex reveal the path from tragedy to recovery. Published here on The Black Sea

Text by Feliciano Tisera, Vlad Odobescu and Michael Bird
Illustrations by Sorina Vazelina
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“When they start to rape you, you stay quiet, as you don’t want to be killed. You stay completely paralyzed by fear, because it’s a way to suffer less. Because if you resist, you don’t have many options against five men.”

Now living in Spain, Amelia Tiganus grew up in Galati in east Romania in the early 00s. When she was 13 years old, five local boys gang-raped her. The men were known as hooligans in the neighbourhood, but they never faced arrest. And they came back to her. To rape her several times. Amelia says that at that time in Galati, it was common to be raped.

“They threatened me by saying that my parents would know I was a whore,” she says now. “So it got easier for them to access my body. I was trapped by those threats and I could not do anything to get rid of the rapists.”

The boys were known to everyone in town.

“I did not turn them in. Few girls turn in their attackers. Their friends would be out there making the victim’s life hell. Plus society is always casting doubt on the woman’s words, and saying ‘She must have done something’, or ‘She deserved it’.”

When she was not with the men, locals in town would kick her and spit on her. “All my society put a stigma on me. I had the label of ‘whore’ because I was raped at 13. Being a good girl was out of reach.”

Her parents did not know.

“My biggest worry was not to disappoint them and – like every child – I wanted to be loved and my parents to be proud of me, so I felt I had done something wrong. I was afraid of telling my parents, in case they rejected me.”

Suicide was in her thoughts.

“[I could not do it] because of the love I had for my sister and I did not want to leave her alone, because I would kill anyone who did to her what they did to me.”

Her friends abandoned her.

“The parents of other girls forbid their daughters to be with me, fearing they could be raped as I was. So I was isolated. And I think the same happens to other girls [in the same situation]. There were a lot of us, but we were scattered, not having a relationship between one another. Because it was shameful.”

Despite a desire to study, Amelia left school, and, at 14, started working in a car-wash, then in a shop sewing clothes.

“I started to say to myself: ‘Ok, I am a whore. I want to have sex with a lot of men’. It was easier to cope with. Because having someone lying over your body while you think ‘I do want’ is easier than thinking ‘I do not want’. At the bottom of your heart you do not want it, but it is a way to protect yourself.

“I was ‘empowered’ in sex. But it was not a real empowerment. I did not live my sexuality, but the sexuality of others. We are not open to listen to someone who says: ‘You are a victim’. Because it is so painful to realise that we are victims. So we become arrogant – just to have the illusion that we have the control.”

“Most exploited girls don’t see themselves as victims”
When she was 18 in 2002, a friend from Galati contacted her, asking if she wanted to move to Spain. The country was fast becoming a major destination for hundreds of thousands of Romanians looking for jobs, which included sex work.

“Other girls, like me – labelled as whores –  knew that in Spain and Italy we could make a lot of money because there was a demand for prostitution.”

But her friend sold her to a trafficking gang for 3,000 Euro. Amelia was under their control for three weeks. She escaped, but was alone in Spain with no work permit or money, so started working as a prostitute. For five years she was circulating around brothels in Spain, changing her location more or less every two weeks. 90 per cent of the girls that worked there were Romanians – many from Galati and its sister town Braila.

In that period, a prostitute earned 4,000 Euro per month. She split her earnings 50-50 with her pimps, sent money home, and was semi-free.

“Those pimps playing the role of businessmen are taking advantage of our situation to make us work very long shifts. Although I was presumably free to do it and that I was able to leave, I could not take a day off. I had to stay in the room for which I was paying 70 Euro per day. From 5 PM to 5 AM, I was not allowed to enter my room alone, I could only enter with a man and if the room was already paid for.”

The vast majority of pimps were Romanians. They come in two types, argues Amelia – those who use psychological violence and those who use physical and psychological violence. Many girls could not escape because the pimps threatened to harm their families in Romania.

But in the majority of cases the pimps are smarter. To ensure the loyalty of women, they use the strategy of love. Many are the ‘boyfriend’ or ‘husband’ of the girl.

“The girls do not even think about escaping because what they have is a relationship with a man and a life together. They believe in that story. Most girls who are being trafficked or exploited don’t identify themselves as victims.”

Nine years ago she left prostitution to live with her Romanian boyfriend.

“I wanted to work in a normal job,” she says. “But one month after we started a new life, he asked me to go back to the club because he could not find a job. Although he did not look for one! But I was fed up with prostitution. After five years, I said ‘Enough’. I sat in a chair and I said no to clients and ran up debt with the brothel.

“My boyfriend’s answer was to put all my clothes in two garbage bags and leave to Romania with his BMW and all the money I earned, while our house in Spain was in his name. I put everything under his name because I understood it was all for us, for our love. So I lost everything.”

When she left the brothel, she became depressed. But she found solace in study.

“I read books of psychology and discovered feminism and the existence of patriarchy, and I arrived at that point of being aware of what happened to me,” she says. “I could put a name to what happened. Everything crystallised. So I decided to take the stigma out of me and tell everybody, because I thought it was unfair to shut up.

“A lot of us say nothing after leaving prostitution. We do not want anyone to know. A lot of women say they have rebuilt their lives, but to live in silence is not to rebuild your life. The world has to know there is something wrong and is letting this injustice happen.”

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Woman for sale on Calle de le Montera. Madrid

Tourism hub: Romanians and Nigerians split market
Calle de la Montera is the bustling pedestrian spine of Madrid’s tourism centre. McDonald’s and open cafes are packed with European pensioners and American inter-railers munching on churros con chocolate, with a view onto sex shops and beggars.

Here girls between 18 and 25 stand under trees, against shop facades, walk up and down a narrow strip of pavement, in tight clothes, platform heels and ripped short jeans. They are hard-faced, quick-talking, stubborn in negotiation and pop bubble-gum.

We are trying to talk to Romanian girls. We suspect they are all Romanians. We start asking them where they are from. All the girls who we think are Romanian, are Romanian. Some have been here for years. Decades even. Others are new on the scene.

The upper part of the street close to the McDonald’s on Gran Via is dominated by Romanians, the lower half towards Puerta del Sol by Nigerians.

We talk to a girl, black-haired, early twenties, just over five feet tall, she has been there for six months, in the same location, a prime spot.

She looks at us – we are two men – and says she will talk for 15 minutes for 50 Euro. It seems 25 Euro is the going rate for 15 minutes of full sex. We are being charged double – because there are two of us.

Later we mention to a former client of prostitutes that 25 Euro seems a low price.

“Yes,” he says.

“But what happens if you don’t finish during that time?”

“Ah – the girl gets bored, she taps you on the back and says – ‘Come on, guy, get on with it, I don’t have all day’.”

Spain: “The Pimp State”
Spain is seen as the capital of sex work in Europe – with between 40,000 and 100,000 prostitutes, according to the interim findings of a report by the Universidad de Comillas. The report estimates that ‘at least’ 30 per cent of these women are from Romania, but the figure could be higher. Meanwhile around one in five Spanish men admit to paying for sex.

But the prostitution law is “in a kind of limbo”, says Magdalena Queipo de Llano, international chief in ACCEM, a humanitarian NGO that assist victims of trafficking.

The controversial new Law of Citizen’s Security, passed in 2015, does not criminalise prostitution, but gives fines to anyone engaging in acts of ‘obscene exhibition’ or those against ‘sexual freedom,’ for which the fine is between 100 and 600 Euro.

Also subject to fines are clients who ask for sex and prostitutes who accept money near a school, park or where there could be a risk for traffic safety. The fine for that is between 601 and 30,000 Euro.

The idea is to shift the problem off the street. The new law means the police sweep up prostitutes in areas where the neighbours complain – but do not provide a safe area for sex workers.

“Instead of going to public places, clients go to brothels – which are not recognised as brothels under Spanish rules,” says Silvia García of civil rights NGO Hetaira. “There is no labour relationship recognised between employer and employee. They don’t have a legal instrument to confront a system of work which can be very abusive.”

There are around 1,600 brothels in Spain, where they are known as ‘clubs’. But this is a grey market, where women who engage in sexual services can sign up to the authorities as ‘waitresses’ in order to pay their taxes. As far as Spain is concerned, a prostitute is employed – but not as a prostitute. This generates an industry for small towns, which cash in on the tax revenues of a euphemistic business. This is one reason why Amelia Tiganus calls Spain ‘The Pimp State’.

Now women are in night clubs, in apartments or contactable through small ads and flyers. Some still walk the streets undisturbed. One accosted a writer of this article outside a nursery school – which shows the law isn’t really working.

More are online, advertising themselves as though they were part of an online dating agency.

“This gives the impression girls are freelance, but they are not,” says Queipo de Llano. “Many young guys between 18 to 25, instead of going to a disco, go in a group to a club and they consume women. We try and make them know the girl might be forced [into her job].”

ACCEM has made a profile of the typical victim of human trafficking in Spain: this is female, between 23 and 27 years of age – and Romanian. But few women have the confidence and support to challenge their aggressors.

Maria [not her real name] is one who succeeded. In 2003, as a 22 year-old woman, she was persuaded by one of her neighbours in Romania to travel to Spain for a “well-paid and good job opportunity”. She took a two-day journey via bus across Europe to reach Spain, travelling as a tourist. When she arrived, her neighbour sold her to a pimp for 3,000 Euro.

Out on the street and monitored by the other women, a pimp forced her to have sex with men and stole her earnings. For nine months, the gang beat her up to keep her silent. An NGO, Proyecto Esperanza (meaning ‘Project Hope’ in Spanish), which operates outreach work across Spain, contacted her. At first she told them that she had no problems, that she was not being forced to do anything, and that she had no pimp. Slowly she and an outreach worker built up a relationship. One day she was experiencing a personal crisis, opened up and said “I can’t stand this anymore. I never chose to be here. I want help”. The charity organised her escape.

“I found a place to stay,” she says. “The NGO helped me with all the different documents, and with medicine, and I recuperated with the help of a psychologist.”

Maria reported her case to the authorities, and the judge declared her a protected witness. Her trafficker was arrested and imprisoned and other women were released. In less than two years, the men were set free and were looking for Maria. She had to change her address, but remained in Spain.

Today she recounts her experience nervously, still fearful of the threats from the gang on her family in Romania. She does not give away too many details – such as where she comes from – and where she lives now.

“In time, I learned the language – it’s tough,” she says. For 11 years she has worked, she says proudly, ‘legally’.

“I had to make my life from the beginning,” she adds. “I go out to dinner, play sport, have friends from Romania and Spain. Now I want to make a family.”

She visits her relatives in Romania, but only for two or three days. “Everything I built up would no longer exist if I returned to Romania.”

Marta González, general coordinator at Proyecto Esperanza, says that Maria was brave, because she was ready to risk all to free herself.

But some women cannot spend time out of work to recover in a shelter.

“In a few cases, some victims have said: ‘I understand, I have this opportunity, but I need to work, I need to have money to send to my family,’” says González. “They are in an irregular situation, especially if they don’t know the language, and they tend to go back to prostitution.”

Proyecto Esperanza has not seen only uneducated women from Romania – one victim was a translator, who needed more cash, so came to Spain for work.

“There was a woman who came to Spain with her husband, had a child here, had different jobs, and when the crisis happened, she lost her job, they split, and the kid went back to Romania. She could not find a job anymore, so was in a vulnerable situation,” says González.

Two Romanian men befriended her, and asked her all about her life, before exploiting her. This was a form of social engineering. She was forced to have sex with men in a private flat. If she refused, the men would threaten her family.

“They told her: ‘We know now where your child lives in Romania. We are here and we are also there. If you don’t do what we tell you, you won’t see child anymore.”

This means a major part of the recovery process is that victims need to regain trust in people, after those close to the women have used violence and forced slavery upon them.

“It affects you, friendship, relationships. One of the most difficult things to overcome is ‘how can I trust someone, when I did trust someone and they did this to me?’”

González has also seen “quite a few cases” of girls from Romanian orphanages. Romania continues to have a major problem with abandoned children who are kept in state institutions. “There are these very young girls, who turn 18, and have to abandon an institution, where they have been all their life,” says González. “They do not have structured family or support, so they are very vulnerable to a boyfriend or someone offering opportunities in Spain.”

Foreigners talking to Romanian prostitutes on Calle de la Montera, Madrid

Foreigners talking to Romanian prostitutes on Calle de la Montera, Madrid

Made in Romania: Europe’s largest prostitute network

Trafficking in Romanian women hit a high point between 2002 and 2010. It started in the early 2000s when work migration boomed between Romania and Spain.

In the first six to seven years, most of those coming to Madrid were from Țăndărei, a town of 12,000 in the South-East of Romania, says Marinela Ifrim, a Romanian working with ACCEM in Madrid. At that time, a Romanian had to spend up to 10,000 dollars to pay someone for a visa and travel to Spain. “They came with huge debts and, in the first years, they would work only to repay the debts,” says Ifrim.

Criminal groups were operating scams to bring over Romanians. Many of these were run by Romanian gangster Ioan Clamparu, known as ‘Cap de Porc’ [Pig Head], who became Romania’s most wanted man during that decade.

Born in Botosani, his other nicknames include Omo, Ion de Madrid and ‘the Ghost’ – because he had poor social skills.

Clamparu cooperated with a Romanian travel agency in the early 2000s which acted as a front to traffic women. Noticing that the Spanish market of prostitutes did not include young girls, his gang trafficked over 600 from Romania – some in their 20s or younger, promising many jobs in domestic service or hospitality. The members forced girls into debt, took away their ID, and then asked them to pay back the debt through sex. The women came to dominate the Madrid zones of Casa de Campo and Marconi, generating between 300 and 600 Euro per day. Allegedly, he offered one ‘unique selling point’ to the clients of his enslaved women – the girls would not just offer sex, they would also kiss.

By 2004 he had set up a network of family clans in different Romanian regions, modelled in part on the Italian mafia, helping him gain the nickname of ‘the Godfather’ [Nasuc].

In Spain, the gang would control their movements using men or ‘trusted’ women. If the victims complained, they were subject to beatings or rape. If they got pregnant, they were forced to have an abortion. It’s alleged that girls who defied the gang risked being tied up, their teeth pulled out, or being attacked by dogs.

By the mid-decade he was operating the largest network of pimps in Europe, alongside 350 women, while his accomplices were transferring 200,000 Euro bundles in cash from Spain to Romania.

After seven years on the run, he and 190 of members of an international gang across 13 countries were arrested. Clamparu was sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2012, for forcing a 17 year-old to abort and incitement to prostitution. Now 48, his sentence has been reduced by a year and he is in a Romanian jail.

“Forced to have a tattoo of a bar code”

Today, trafficking continues, but it is not as intense as in the last decade. The numbers went up in 2015, according to police, but this may mean they are better at identifying cases.

“I am not sure it is increasing, but the problem is continuing to happen,” says Queipo de Llano. “Most of the woman trafficked for sexual exploitation were European – which means east European.”

Nigerians and Romanians are the main targets. The police reports detail an inventory of horror.

There are examples of Romanian women sold to traffickers by their boyfriends, neighbours or parents for prices of between 730 and 1,500 Euro. There is a case where a woman had to be available for sex with clients for 24 hours a day.

Another where a trafficked woman, during her period, was forced to insert a sponge into her vagina to soak up the blood, so that she could still be used for sexual exploitation. In a separate example, a girl was forced to wear a tattoo of a bar code on her wrist, detailing the amount of money she owed to the gangster clan – 2,000 Euro.

New anti-trafficking laws have made the situation easier to prosecute perpetrators, but González adds: “We cannot be satisfied at all by the level of convictions of the perpetrators of these crimes.”

Large criminal gangs become the focus of anti-mafia operations, the secret services, Interpol and Europol. And these ‘multinational’ networks are less present in trafficking today. Now there are more informal groups of, for example, a “mother, father and son” who exploit one or two women.

“Criminal gangs generate a lot of public awareness, but very small groups seem to be not such a threat and law enforcers are not so interested,” says González, “but according to the women and the situation they experience, it violates all of their human rights [in the same way].”

Trafficking stigma “to be fought”

A debate across European states is on whether to abolish prostitution due to the threat of human trafficking or to legitimize the industry and clean up the criminal element with the light of transparency.

Hetaira is a Madrid-based civil rights NGO that fights for the freedom of choice for women to be sex workers.

“Our work is based in fighting against stigma that sex worker has – it sometimes gives them low self esteem, so they withstand situations that in another position they would not,” says Hetaira’s Elisa Arenas. “We are trying to take out that stigma, so they can stand on their heels and not tolerate those things anymore.”

Hetaira calculates that only ten to 15 per cent of prostitutes in Spain are trafficked, although a report by the Universidad de Comillas estimates this figure is 33 per cent.

Arenas says one of the problems is that Romanian women have become a trafficking stereotype.

“It is not like that in reality. There is a lot of diversity,” says Arenas, “some are victims of a big gang. Another is a girl who is sold by [her boyfriend], another girl comes along and works freely. They are not always coerced to do what they do. This stereotype causes a lot of damage to the image of the Romanian woman.”

Men “must question” actions

Former prostitute Amelia Tiganus is now 32, studying psychology and working as a waitress. She is married and living in the Basque country, and campaigns on prostitution policy at feminicidio.net. She is against the industry, and calls herself an abolitionist.

“I wanted to focus attention on men who use prostitutes without questioning anything. They say ‘I know nothing’, while making use of the bodies of women, who are usually migrants of poorer countries who have their own stories. So I became an activist.”

Amelia now fights for more education on the issue in Romania and Spain.

“In Spain, consumption is not under question and, in Romania, sexual violence is not under question,” she adds. “While women are still considered objects to use and abuse, any institutional fight is useless.”

Since she left Romania, she has only returned twice.

“I do not like my country, nor the people, nor the mentality,” she says. “It makes me feel pain. My family, my town, the people, the environment, and everything. It makes me remember how they were all accomplices, and how nobody acted against that. Maybe they did not have the tools to realise what was happening and to be more fair to me.”

The memories do come back to her.

“From time to time I have to sleep with a light on, because if I wake up and there is complete darkness, I am not able to understand where I am. I do not know if I am being raped, or if I am in a brothel being exploited. These are very tough moments, where I cannot breathe because of the fear.

“I have flashbacks. It is like going back to the past and reliving all these things. I have pain throughout my body, as if a truck was hitting me.

“So I use a psychologist to help me. I can adapt and live with that. Since I became an activist I had to revive all this. Psychology made me put in place all the pieces of the puzzle of my life. I consider myself a survivor. I followed the path to overcome and empower myself. So I was brave, but I think what I do, more than courage, is the willingness to change the state of things.”

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