Roma, Migration and Human Trafficking

By Ostalinda Maya

In 2011, I coordinated a study in human trafficking for the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) focusing on the trafficking of persons of Roma ethnicity in five Central and Eastern European countries: Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia.

Among its findings, the report highlights the high vulnerability of the Roma minority to trafficking. The main vulnerability factors identified were: structural forms of ethnic and gender discrimination, poverty and social exclusion, low educational achievements, high levels of unemployment, usury, growing up in state care, domestic violence or substance abuse. Below is a video summary of the research.


One of the key intentions of the ERRC report was to clarify that trafficking in persons and migration are not the same thing. Therefore, from the outset, the report is critical of governments such as Canada, Italy, France and Finland that have, on occasion, identified trafficking as a chief cause for the migration of Roma across their borders. Recently, an article reminded me of the importance in making this distinction explicitly clear.

The article titled Joint Bulgarian-French project against human trafficking focused on the Roma minority concerns a pilot project in Bulgaria to prevent human trafficking with a focus on Roma. The author explains that the willingness of France to contribute financially to this project was because the country had “suffered the consequences of the problems of immigrant Roma people”. I do not know if that is indeed the motivation behind this initiative but I find the statement in this article problematic in the following ways:

Firstly, while Roma migration (and in some cases trafficking) for begging or pick pocketing is a reality for some Roma, it does not tell the whole story. There are an unknown number of Romani migrants who are doing well and contributing to their host societies. For example, Ana Ileana is a Romanian migrant living France that has a regular job as a nurse and there are countless other Roma like her. However because they do not conform to Roma stereotypes, they remain invisible. Having faced discrimination in their home countries they may choose not to reveal their ethnicity.

Secondly, the article confuses two different concepts: migration and trafficking, which is counterproductive. Even though there is some relation between these two phenomena (namely that migrant people are vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking) they are intrinsically different. 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).

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.

Trafficking in persons is a problem of enormous proportions.  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.

Ostalinda Maya (Spain / Mexico) is an independent consultant. She studied Anthropology and Development at the University of Sussex (England) and Law at the College of Law (London). She has worked in various organizations such as the European Roma Rights Centre and the Mario Maya Foundation and currently collaborates with the Spanish National Federation of Romani Women Kamira.