'I was trafficked from Romania'

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Media caption"Sex traffickers put a gun to my head"

The UK says it will be at the forefront of the global fight against modern-day slavery, which is still a common reality for Romanian sex trafficking victims. This is the story of one of them.

It's a scene that could be in any suburban house in Bucharest. Lunch is being prepared, onions are being chopped and peppers sliced. But this kitchen is actually in Romania's only emergency shelter for trafficked women.

"In the mornings and afternoons I'd have 15 clients," says Mihaela, who was trafficked three times across Europe from Romania to work in the sex trade against her will.

"In the evenings, through to the next morning, they'd bring another 20 to me."

The 26-year-old says she was trafficked out of Romania to Hungary, Austria and Switzerland with a gun to her head, beginning from the age of just 16.

She has waived her right to anonymity so that she can tell her story to help others.

"I had a lover and he was part of the mafia traffickers," she says.

"Back then, I was much thinner and had a great figure and he told me we could make a lot of money abroad and he wanted to have a family with me."

Like many vulnerable people, she ended up being retrafficked.

In 2014 she thought she was being helped by a kind woman at Bucharest train station, but she was instead lured into another trafficking ring.

In the end it was a client wracked with guilt who helped her to escape.

'Need for affection'

Mihaela is now living with her baby daughter, who was fathered by her last trafficker, in Romania's only emergency shelter for trafficked women.

Image caption Mihaela is supported by Romania's only emergency shelter for trafficked women

Monica Boseff, executive director of the Open Door Foundation in Romania, runs the shelter in the country's capital Bucharest. It provides counselling and aims to build the women's self-esteem.

Volunteers from Brazil, America and the Netherlands help at the shelter, which has room for 18 women and has helped 200 in four years.

Men also work there, as the foundation wants the women to learn that men can be trusted.

Mrs Boseff says the traffickers tailor their recruitment methods to entrap people like Mihaela, who grew up in an orphanage.

"They [the traffickers] push emotional buttons that we all have as human beings - the need for affection and for some one to love and care for us," she says.

"That's why they prey on people who're vulnerable and who come from backgrounds where there was no support of a loving family."

'Vulnerable teenagers'

Image caption Many of the locals in Nicoresti still drive a horse and cart

In the eastern village of Nicoresti, traffickers prey on girls, luring them away by promising love or money.

At least one girl a month gets involved with the pimps, says Briton Claire Melinte, who founded a community centre for children in the village after marrying a local man.

She says they recruit the girls using the so-called "lover boy scheme".

This is when men befriend vulnerable girls and act like their boyfriend, giving them attention and affection to gain their trust before they hand them over to be trafficked.

Image caption Claire Melinte founded a community centre for children in Nicoresti

Mrs Melinte says traffickers drive in flash cars into the village, where locals still drive horses and carts.

She says it is "mostly young, vulnerable teenagers who fall in love with the pimps - who are normally older".

"The local school finishes at 14 or 15. So there are lots of girls with no education and nothing to do all day," she says.

"They are very, very vulnerable."

'Not sorry'

Valentin Preda trafficked 15 women to Italy over five years and is now serving a five-year sentence for people-trafficking in a jail near Bucharest.

He worked with family members, including his mother, but other traffickers work as individuals or within organised criminal networks.

Image caption Valentin Preda was caught trafficking women to Italy over a five-year period

He admits he used the "lover boy" method to recruit women and says trafficking should not count as a crime if the girls go willingly.

"You really don't think that it's someone's daughter; you think just that you have to make money and that's it," he says.

"I wouldn't be sorry to start again."

Image caption Water is still drawn from a well by residents who do not have running water in Nicoresti


The US State Department's annual report on modern-day slavery states that Romania "does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking" but says it is "making significant efforts to do so".

Adrian Petrescu, the Anti-Trafficking Agency's acting director, insists the situation has improved and says more than 500 people are prosecuted every year.

He also argues that it is not just a Romanian problem.

"It also impacts other countries where the demand exists for cheap labour or sexual services or where the opportunities are for forced begging," he says.

Romania remains one of the top countries of origin for the estimated 10,000 to 13,000 trafficking victims in Britain - with Nigeria, Albania, Vietnam and Poland.

Theresa May has set up a £33m fund to help these countries tackle the problem.

However, Romania will not qualify because on paper it is too rich to benefit from British aid.

But for Mihalea at least, a positive future is now in sight.

"For my future I want a family... a good husband, a father for my daughter, and in the future I would like to be what I wish."

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