15 February 2024, The Tablet

The ‘boyfriend trap’ – how natural yearning for love is abused by traffickers

by Ben Ryan

The ‘boyfriend trap’ – how natural yearning for love is abused by traffickers

Elena, like many young Romanians, moved to Germany for work. She had various jobs in restaurants and hotels.
PA/Alamy photo, posed by a model.

Love is utterly central to the Christian faith. Benedict XVI’s encyclical Deus Caritas Est opens with ‘“God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him”… these words from the First Letter of John express with remarkable clarity the heart of the Christian faith: the Christian image of God and the resulting image of mankind and its destiny’.

Human beings are made for love, and yearn for it. This yearning, however, can have its dangers, particularly when there are those who wish to use it to trap the vulnerable into abuse and exploitation.

During this period of Lent the Medaille Trust, one of the largest Catholic charities working on modern slavery and human trafficking is seeking to raise awareness of the “boyfriend trap”. This is a form of abuse in which women and girls are groomed by romantic partners and trafficked into sexual exploitation. Often victims are blown away by the intensity of a relationship they think is real, become reliant on their partner, isolated, and then unable to escape when things turn.

One of our Medaille service users is Elena (not her real name). Elena, like many young Romanians, moved to Germany for work. She had various jobs in restaurants and hotels. In early 2020 she met Stefan. He was charming and romantic and after a whirlwind romance he moved in with her.

Covid struck and the jobs in the hospitality sector that Elena relied on dried up. Fortunately, Stefan had a plan. They would move country. He promised to sort everything and Elena trusted him completely. It was only when they moved that things changed. Stefan forced Elena to work as an escort at bars and to sleep with clients. The money she made from this paid for all the living costs for Stefan and his friends. If Elena protested, she was badly beaten. Once she ran away, but was found and brought back by Stefan’s friends and beaten savagely.

One day Stefan had a new plan and moved them again. This time he trafficked Elena to the UK. Again, she was forced to sleep with clients. She became pregnant, but Stefan forced her to keep working until she was seven months pregnant, at which point he made her deal drugs instead, reasoning the police would be less likely to stop a pregnant woman. Once her son was born she was soon forced back into prostitution. To make as much money as possible Stefan used drugs to keep her working longer hours.

Elena finally escaped a few months ago with her child. She was recognised as a victim of trafficking and is now receiving support to rebuild her life.

Elena’s story is tragic, but all too familiar to charities like ours that work with trafficking survivors. Around 15 per cent of trafficking victims globally are thought to have been trafficked by an intimate partner. The House of Commons Home Affairs Committee reported last year that 64 per cent of women, like Elena, trafficked to the UK from Romania “had a life partner who was benefitting from the money… men groom women for exploitation whilst acting as their boyfriend”.

This year an early Easter meant the start of Lent coincided with Valentine’s day. For many people this will have been a wonderful time with their partner, but we are hoping that people might take a moment in Lent to pray for those who find their romantic relationship and yearning for love turned against them, be on the lookout for the signs of trafficking, and to support those charities working with victims.


Ben Ryan is Executive Director: Engagement and Strategic Development (Deputy CEO) at the Medaille Trust.


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