The government marginally increased victim protection efforts. In 2021, the government identified 312 trafficking victims (35 sex trafficking, 277 labor trafficking), a significant increase from 138 in 2020 but proportionate with previous years. All identified victims were Moldovan citizens. Thirty-two of the identified victims were children (11 sex trafficking, 20 labor trafficking, one both sex and labor trafficking); the vast majority were girls. In response to the influx of Ukrainian refugees who fled Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and arrived in Moldova, the Ministry of Interior trained and instructed Moldovan-Ukrainian border checkpoint officials to screen refugees for trafficking indicators and set up a mobile task force to patrol the border checkpoints and monitor for signs of trafficking among the refugee population. The National Referral Strategy (NRS) governed identification and referral procedures but expired in 2016. Thus, in cooperation with civil society, the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Social Protection (MLSP) developed a new NRM in 2020, although the government did not adopt it during the reporting period. Therefore, authorities continued to utilize the current NRS, which observers reported as obsolete. Observers noted the government designed the NRS’s guidelines to identify Moldovan citizens exploited in other countries; however, the guidelines did not include third-country nationals and Moldovans exploited in Moldova. Moreover, the guidelines were not obligatory for relevant state bodies working with immigrants. Under the terms of the NRS, teams of local officials and NGOs in all regions of Moldova coordinated victim identification and assistance. While the law permitted the local teams to identify victims and provided access to services irrespective of their willingness to participate in criminal proceedings, according to civil society, in practice, victims received assistance only after law enforcement identification and if they participated in criminal proceedings. According to an NGO, individuals previously arrested for commercial sex, previously incarcerated, or those with drug addiction were less likely to be identified as victims. Although national-level implementation of the NRS was mostly uniform, regional implementation varied widely. Observers reported police only referred the most vulnerable victims, including children, individuals experiencing homelessness, and victims who needed protection in order to participate in criminal proceedings. Observers also reported law enforcement did not correctly and fully inform all victims about the assistance available at the national and local levels. Similar to previous years, a limited number of identified victims received assistance—23 percent (70 victims) in 2021, a decline from 37 percent (51 victims) in 2020.
Observers noted overall inadequate resources, including insufficient funding, hampered government efforts. The government often relied on NGOs and international organizations to supplement government funding. Adult victims received assistance in seven government-funded centers and shelters across the country, offering medical, legal, and psychological assistance, regardless of their cooperation with law enforcement. Male victims received specialized services, including social and rehabilitation services, and accommodation at a dedicated center. Overall, victims received short-term assistance (30 days) from two specialized shelters operated by MLSP in partnership with an international organization. Observers reported long-term assistance for victims, particularly long-term reintegration support, such as education, counseling, and job-placement, remained a challenge, leaving victims at risk of re-victimization. Additionally, medical and psychological assistance was limited because many victims did not have medical insurance. Civil society psychologists and attorneys remained the most qualified to assist victims, especially in the regions outside of the capital where government social workers frequently lacked trafficking-specific training. Foreign victims received the same access to care as Moldovan citizens; however, refugees and asylum-seekers received assistance in specialized centers under the Migration and Asylum Bureau. Observers noted a lack of adequate and immediate social support, including shelter, medical care, and counseling, for foreign victims before determination of their legal status. Moldovan law permitted foreign victims a 30-day reflection period, during which they could receive assistance and protection while determining whether to cooperate with law enforcement. Foreign victims who chose to cooperate with law enforcement received temporary residency. Observers pointed out foreign victims did not have the right to social integration assistance and were expected to return to their country of origin at the conclusion of criminal proceedings.
There were two referral mechanisms to support child victims: the NRS and the Inter-sectorial Collaboration Mechanism for the Protection of Children. The former referred child trafficking victims to NGOs that provided psychological, social, and legal aid. The Ministry of Education, Culture and Research maintained a mechanism for identifying and reporting child abuse, including trafficking, in state institutions. Nonetheless, reports persisted of management in state institutions participating in the exploitation of children. The Center for Assistance and Protection of Victims of Human Trafficking (CAP) assisted child trafficking victims and offered legal, social, and psychological assistance, as well as accommodation to child victims. In 2021, CAP assisted 19 child victims in the shelter in Chisinau, an increase from 10 in 2020. The CAP shelter in Chisinau remained the only facility for child victims and provided limited social services for 30 days followed by placement into permanent housing and continued counseling and assistance. Authorities also placed child victims in foster care, orphanages, state residential schools, group homes, or other types of temporary residential facilities due to the lack of dedicated facilities. However, during the previous reporting period, the government began construction of one of three new regional centers for integrated assistance for child victims and witnesses of crime, including trafficking, designed to provide specialized medical, psychological, and social care and allow for forensic medical examinations and interviews with trained specialists in a safe environment. The government envisioned the first center, located in Balti, to serve children from 12 cities and districts across northern Moldova and operate under the management of the National Center for Prevention of Child Abuse. The government planned for the remaining two centers in Chisinau and Cahul to serve the central and southern part of the country. In 2021, the government repatriated 16 children under the government decision that regulated repatriation of trafficking victims, individuals in crisis, and unaccompanied children, but it did not confirm how many were trafficking victims. Civil society reported the lack of services for resocialization and reintegration for child victims of sexual exploitation put them at a higher risk for institutionalization and further trauma. Civil society also reported the need for increased cooperation between social protection, health, and law enforcement. In 2021, CCTIP and other law enforcement agencies facilitated trainings for its officers on trafficking, child pornography, child online sexual exploitation, and child protection. The government financed a 24-hour, NGO-run hotline for children who experience violence, neglect, or exploitation and provided psychological counseling and information to parents and children. The hotline received seven trafficking-related calls—six led to investigations of child labor and one to a potential case of unspecified child trafficking.
Overall, the government did not adequately protect victims participating in investigations and prosecutions. Authorities seldom fully informed victims of their rights or about court proceedings. In addition, law enforcement did not routinely provide victims with status updates of their cases, leaving many victims unsure if their traffickers had been identified, arrested, or charged. The law required adult victims to confront their alleged traffickers in person, putting victims at risk for re-traumatization and likely deterring victims from reporting crimes. Although the criminal code allowed children younger than 14 to be interviewed in specially equipped rooms, observers reported the rooms did not correspond to international standards and were usually located in the courts. Moreover, judges permitted traffickers to be present during child interviews. Judges frequently disregarded laws and regulations designed to protect victims during trial proceedings, thereby violating victims’ rights and allowing traffickers to intimidate some victims in the courtroom such that the victims felt pressured to change their testimony. Authorities could fine or imprison victims for making false statements if they changed their testimony, whether unintentionally due to the trauma experienced or deliberately due to bribes or intimidation. In 2021, two trafficking victims, however, benefited from witness protection programs (zero in 2020). The government issued protective orders for a male labor trafficking victim, and, separately, the government relocated a victim for security reasons. The law allowed trafficking victims access to free legal assistance without providing proof of indigence; 29 victims benefited from public legal representation in 2021. However, the quality of legal assistance provided by public lawyers was not sufficient. Public lawyers did not receive special training to assist victims and did not always understand a victim-centered approach to criminal justice. Victims continued to rely mostly on NGOs for legal assistance, and NGOs relied on donors to fund the services. The State Guaranteed Legal Aid Council, in partnership with an international organization, provided a trafficking guide with recommendations for legal aid lawyers on how to better assist victims. The law allowed victims to file for compensation for material damage, such as medical treatment costs or destruction of property, but only if prosecutors filed charges against traffickers or cases ended in convictions. The criminal code exempted trafficking victims from criminal liability for committing offenses because of their exploitation. However, when authorities classified cases under related statutes, such as the article criminalizing forced labor, victims were no longer exempt from criminal liability. Similarly, when authorities reclassified sex trafficking cases to “pimping” cases, victims were no longer exempt from punishment and could be charged with commercial sex offenses.