No one likes to talk about trafficking… especially it seems the trafficking of Roma women and girls.

I am currently a board member for Heart.Beats.Slavery – a documentary about how ordinary people can help end human trafficking. There are hundreds of ways to make a difference and the film will encourage the audience to act on the hope available through their own life. However, it got me thinking about the situation of trafficked Romani women and children and the awful black-hole in which they find themselves. Countries such as Canada, Italy, France and Finland claim that trafficking is the leading explanation for the migration of Roma across their borders.

However, according to a 2011 report from the ERRC (European Roma Rights Centre), “Trafficking in human beings does not explain Roma migration, which is due largely to structural poverty, marginalisation and discrimination. Voluntary migration offers an opportunity for a better life. The results of this research confirm that trafficking of Roma is indeed a concern, but that beyond inflammatory remarks by high ranking officials and the media there is a near total absence of data and effective policy to prevent trafficking in Romani communities. Furthermore, research shows that available social inclusion policy and practice is failing to reduce the vulnerability of a significant part of the Romani population.”

In fact, Roma represent 50-80% of trafficked persons in Bulgaria, up to 70% in parts of the Czech Republic, at least 40% in Hungary, 22 around 50% in Romania and at least 60% in Slovakia.

Unfortunately, highlighting the trafficking of Roma women and girls also shines light on some of our cultural practices – practices which have been used to bolster stereotypes against us. There are proven links between “exploitative begging, forced and child marriage, prostitution/sex work, which have a disproportionate impact on Romani women and girls” and human trafficking. Communities are unwilling to address these issues because of the implied complicity of the Roma in their own fate and the heavy discrimination we face, especially from police and other law enforcement agencies. Trafficked women and children are often afraid that they will be targeted for illegal acts they committed at the hands of their trafficker and are therefore reluctant to report their situation.

In fact, “The overwhelming lack of support available to Romani trafficked persons negatively impacts the ability of many to re-integrate, leaving them highly vulnerable to re-trafficking.”

So, why aren’t we talking about this? In all the debate over racism, discrimination, and marginalization, why aren’t we trying to help Romani women and children avoid trafficking and providing culturally-sensitive options for women and children who have been victimized?

Honestly, I think a large part of the reluctance to address this, especially in affected communities is the stigma that comes with such victimization – both from Roma and non-Roma alike. Women are not supposed to address such topics openly and freely outside of the company of other women, even then some topics are permanently taboo. How can victims and non-victims alike address this topic when it is a forbidden subject? Consider, for example, rape victims who are often beaten and banished from their communities. Women are blamed for the actions of non-Roma society and must pay accordingly.

Migration refers to the voluntary movement of people while trafficking in persons is a form of modern day slavery and is by definition, not voluntary (for a full definition of human trafficking please see the United Nations Protocol to prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons).

Ostalinda Maya, one of the coordinators of the original study believes that, “We have seen in the past how this confusion has allowed the fight against trafficking to be used as a pretext to promote policies that violate the rights of Roma such as the ethnically-targeted census and fingerprinting of Roma and Sinti in Italy in 2008 or the French efforts to end migration and expel Romanian and Bulgarian Romani EU citizens in 2010. The United Nations estimates that each year 2.5 million people globally are in forced labour (including sexual exploitation) at any given time as a result of trafficking, nearly half of whom are children, and it causes immense pain and suffering to those that fall prey to it.”

Considering the gravity of the situation, it would be a travesty to use anti-trafficking initiatives to promote policies against Roma or to deter migration, which provides opportunities for people to better their lives. Otherwise we may find that the misuse of anti-trafficking policies leads to an increased vulnerability of Roma by increasing racism, reducing opportunities for education and employment, and blocking the benefits that come through migration.

This is a topic of immense concern to Romani communities – lets not hide because we’re afraid of it, or we think that it “doesn’t happen here”. According to the Polaris Project, “100,000 children are estimated to be in the sex trade in the United States each year, with the total number of human trafficking victims in the U.S. reaching into the hundreds of thousands”. It’s a global problem – a problem that we can all take a stand against, Romani or not.

Read the full ERRC report here.

Below is a promotional trailer for Heart.Beats.Slavery: