Olga lives in a quiet suburb of the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, where she shares a home with her brother and her young son, Kolya. She’s a devoted mother and spends a lot of time at home with Kolya. When he goes to school next year Olga will stay at home. She doesn’t have much chance of finding paid work because she is almost blind. Her eyesight was fine until she was trafficked from Moldova to Kosovo and sold to a pimp who battered her into submission.
Like many women who have been trafficked, Olga never particularly wanted to leave her own country. But her life in Moldova was tough. Her father was an alcoholic who frequently lashed out. Olga eventually persuaded her mother to throw him out and for a while there was peace at home. A few years later Olga married her boyfriend. She was still a teenager when they had their first child. But her marriage turned sour when her husband hit the bottle and turned into a belligerent bully. Olga left him and struggled to support herself and Kolya.
After almost two years of abuse, another trafficked woman helped her hide in a cupboard and then flee when the bar owner left the premises
‘I was a single mother when I was 21,’ she explained.
‘I was working in a local factory, but lost my job because of the economic situation. After that the only work I could find was in the Chisinau food market. I worked outdoors 10 hours a day, even in freezing weather. But I still couldn’t pay my bills.’
Moldova has been one of the poorest countries in Europe for many years. The economy has slowly improved during the past five years, but an average local salary still pays the equivalent of just $7 per day. Olga’s income at the food market was less than $10 a week.
* * * *
The advert that changed her life was brief.
‘Girls and women under 35. Well paid jobs abroad.’
Olga and her friend Vica saw this ad in a local newspaper, and thought they’d found a fantastic opportunity. They called the contact number and met a Moldovan man who told them they would be employed as healthcare auxiliaries in Milan, earning $1,000 a month each. This was a staggering offer for the two young women. When he asked how soon they could start work, Olga and Vica both agreed to leave Chisinau a week later.
‘I didn’t want to leave my son,’ says Olga. ‘But I wanted to provide for his future, so I had no doubt it was the right decision.’
A major cause of human trafficking is chronic poverty. The traders who recruit, transport, auction and abuse migrants know exactly how to turn desperation and aspiration into profit. But people are not trafficked just because they are poor.
Restrictions on legal migration, demand for cheap disposable labour, and domestic violence are all part of this ugly picture. Women who are trafficked into sex work endure some of the highest rates of domestic violence in the world. Like Olga, many have been brutalized even before their journey starts.
* * * *
Olga and Vica left Chisinau on a minibus with eight other Moldovan women who believed they were going to Italy too. After crossing the border to Romania they drove on narrow country roads avoiding towns and cities. Olga was already uneasy. She had been given a fake passport at the border and instinctively knew something was wrong: but she was intimidated and, like the others, said nothing. They were all constantly watched. After several days they crossed the Danube River to Serbia, and their journey continued overland until they were instructed to walk through a forest at night, following a guide. When they emerged from the trees they were told they were in Kosovo.
‘We were all taken to a bar,’ says Olga quietly. ‘We were told we owed a lot of money for our journey and we had to work to pay it back. Some of the women were auctioned in the middle of the bar and taken away. The rest of us were kept there and ordered to start work.’
Women are rarely kidnapped by traffickers. They don’t need to resort to kidnapping, because women frequently come to them. In countries like Moldova, Albania and Ukraine, traffickers use word of mouth to recruit young women, especially in rural areas. These traffickers often work alone, or with just one accomplice, and trade small batches of women at a time because it is more discreet. Quite often they offer women lucrative sex work abroad, claiming the women will work independently and become wealthy immediately.
But the picture is complex. ‘Victims of trafficking’ are not all poor Eastern European village girls lured into foreign brothels. Independent self-motivated women get caught up, too.
* * * *
Bright grew up in Edo Province in southern Nigeria. She lived in Benin City, where she had a good job and excellent prospects. Nevertheless she was recruited by a woman she knew, called Nancy, who promised her a lucrative contract in Italy.
‘I know there are many women who will wonder how anyone can be conned into thinking they are going to work abroad and make great money,’ she told me when I met her at a refuge in Sicily. ‘But I want to tell them, “come and live in Nigeria!” These madams know exactly what to say to persuade you to leave your home and go with them.’
‘I know there are many women who will wonder how anyone can be conned into thinking they are going to work abroad and make great money’
Nigerian trafficking networks are dominated by women, who often return from Europe and use their visible wealth to recruit young women to work abroad with them. They fly the women to Italy, which has strong trade links with Nigeria. There are now at least 10,000 Nigerians working in the Italian sex industries. Some have chosen sex work because they are poor, and unregulated sex work is tolerated in Italy. Many others, like Bright, have been trafficked. Bright willingly flew to Italy with Nancy, expecting to be working in a private hospital. When they arrived in Rome, Nancy sold her to a Nigerian madam who demanded Bright earn $150 a night by selling sex on the street.
* * * *
Whilst Bright was forced on to the street in Rome, Olga was sold to another bar owner in Kosovo. He lived in the southern town of Prizren, where he kept Olga in his basement like an animal. She was forced to dance in the bar at night – and to have sex with customers. The owner selected who Olga had to go with. For almost two years she was not allowed outside alone. Apart from being taken to hotels by ‘punters’, she was confined inside the bar.
‘It was hell,’ she says. ‘I drank, just to forget their ugly faces.’
* * * *
After three months on the streets of Rome, Bright was sold to another Nigerian, who brought her to Sicily and installed her in a private apartment. One of the clients who paid to see Bright asked her whether she had chosen to sell sex. Bright explained her story, and the man offered to pay the madam for Bright to be free. Unlike Eastern European traffickers, who abuse women until they are physically spent, Nigerians traffic women on the principle that once her debt is expunged she is free to go.
‘Even though it was a terrible time for me, I know I was lucky,’ says Bright.
‘I spent a long time just recovering here in the refuge afterwards. But now I am ready to go out again.’ She has just started working with the organization that supported her when she was first released from her pimp.
* * * *
Olga also escaped. After almost two years of abuse, another trafficked woman helped her hide in a cupboard and then flee when the bar owner left the premises. She fled to a local police station and was taken into protective custody.
When I asked what had pre-empted her escape, this is what she told me.
‘If I had stayed at that place any longer I would have been blind. I had no choice. He was beating me in my head and in my eyes.’
Olga returned to Moldova with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and then flew to Kiev, for eye surgery. The surgeons did all they could to repair her detached retinas, but she is still almost blind. She survives on a small state disability pension. When I met her, she insisted I tell her story using her real name. ‘I have nothing else to lose,’ she said. ‘I have survived but I am not the same person that I was.’
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