The German-run social program in northern Romania reportedly took large sums of state money to 're-educate' wayward teens — and instead turned them into forced labor. The project's managers deny any wrongdoing.
Last week five individuals linked to a social welfare program were arrested in Romania on suspicion of having smuggled, falsely imprisoned and gravely abused dozens of German children and teenagers. The Romanian public prosecutor said the suspects, including the project's German manager, of having established a criminal organization for the purpose of exploiting young Germans as slaves for their own benefit. At least four German children have so far reportedly given testimony of their brutal abuse.
Investigators say the German project managers and their Romanian henchmen deprived their German victims — aged between 12 and 18 — of food, kept them locked up and beat them. They took their passports and identification cards and forced them to carry out heavy manual labor on farms. At night, the young Germans were often made to sleep in barns alongside livestock.
The project leaders and a few of the children in question deny the accusations of abuse and exploitation.
‘Re-educate' through 'barbaric methods'
For 15 years, a German couple has been running the Romanian social welfare project in question. Situated in the country's rural northern Maramures region, it promises to help troubled teens from difficult family backgrounds a new start in life. "Projekt Maramures," as it is known, is funded by the German state, and promises to help teens who are mentally unstable, addicted to drugs or who have had run-ins with the law, get back on their feet.
Life in Projekt Maramures, however, is hard. German teens are made to get up at 5am and then feed the cows and pigs, clean the barns, collect wood from the nearby forest, and plow the fields. They are required to help build houses, work in forges and make fabrics using looms. Day in, day out.
German social services sent troubled teens to the Romania-based project in the hopes of setting them back on the right course in life. The German-led project, located in the town of Viseu de Sus, sought to "re-educate" the youngsters through heavy labor. Romanian prosecutors in charge of fighting organized crime, said the group used "barbaric methods."
The Projekt Maramures 're-education' camp is located in a remote rural location just south of the border with Ukraine
A lucrative business
News of irregularities involving the social program first broke in 2007 in the Romanian press. One year earlier, German weekly Der Spiegel reported that nontransparent organizations in regions outside of Germany that are difficult to monitor were systematically exploiting troubled children. Social programs that abuse and exploit youngsters reportedly also exist in Poland, Greece, Russia and the Caucasus, Latin America and South Africa. All these projects have in common a model that forces children to carry out heavy labor, meting out severe punishment for supposed wrongdoings, and discipline using violence, food deprivation and imprisonment. Der Spiegel has already covered the ongoing at Projekt Maramures in great detail.
The German state reportedly pays between €4,000 and €6,000 ($4,400-6,600) per month to Projekt Maramures for taking care of troubled teens. After spending several months in the program's central headquarters to get settled in, German youngsters are then housed with Romanian families, who are paid between €200 and €600 monthly — and who were also entitled to use the teens as unpaid laborers. The project takes charge of some 30 children annually.
The Maramures region, on the northern edge of Transylvania, is a pastoral and agricultural region where most locals live by manual labor little changed by industrialization
Reports by Romanian authorities on Projekt Maramures reveal the true extent of the abuse, showing that German teens were even subject to medical procedures without their consent. Girls were reportedly given injections several times a year "so that they would not get pregnant." Romania's public prosecutor says several teens even attempted suicide as a result of the psychological and physical trauma they sustained.
DW contacted the Romanian public prosecutor to inquire whether German and Romanian authorities were guilty of dereliction of duty. While the public prosecutor said there was no evidence to suggest this was the case, it did say the accused might have had accomplices working for the local police, town hall and social services. These individuals then warned the project managers of planned visitations, giving them time to "sedate" teenagers deemed "problematic" with certain drugs. Local Romanian authorities, meanwhile, deny the accusations.
DW likewise requested information from Romania's Ministry of Labor and Social Justice about whether Romanian or German authorities had failed to provide adequate oversight, but received no comment. The ministry only stated that a special commission is now looking into the Projekt Maramures case.