Groups Battle Modern-Day Slavery

It's hard to think that the slave trade exists today. But it does. It exists in the form of human trafficking.

"I think Americans would be shocked to find out that there is slavery in America today," says David Blood, director of NGO Winrock International in Moldova. "There is trafficking. It does happen. It happens in our own cities. Americans who have no idea have probably met young women who have been trafficked."

The U.S. government estimates between 600,000 and 800,000 people are being trafficked each year from 127 countries. Moldova is one of them and has been identified as the source of much of Europe's human trafficking.

Most often, the victims are women and children headed to the Middle East and other European countries. They often become slaves forced into the sex trade.

What is human trafficking? According to Blood, it is, ''the forced exploitation of individuals, forced to work. When you talk about the work being forced, it's not necessarily physical force, it could be through threats or violence, threats of reprisals against the individual who has been trafficked providing sexual or other services.

"It could be through threats or reprisals against their family," he adds. "It's very typical scenario when a young woman is told that, 'We know where you're from, we know where you live, we know where your parents are, and we will kill them. If you try to run away, if you don't service this client, if you don't have sex with these 10 men today, then we will harm or we will kill you or your family.'"

Some say trafficking has reached epidemic proportions, that it's a $42.5 billion illegal industry for the traffickers, so the rewards are high.

In the tiny poor country of Moldova, in the furthest corner of Eastern Europe, the average salary for a Moldovan is less than $100 a month. In the villages it's even less. It's no surprise that many girls dream of a better future. But these dreams can turn into nightmares.

Nadia is a victim. When ABC News filmed her, she didn't want her face shown. Four years ago, she left her home in search of better opportunities. Instead, she was lured into a trap by a criminal gang that held against her will. Nadia became a slave.

"I was taken to a house where I was told I had to become a prostitute," she says. "I didn't want to do it. I was only 14 years old."

Her story is like other victims'. Nadia said her captives beat her until her jaw was broken. But she didn't dare to leave, even as her profits were taken, because of threats against her family.

"I was sold several times," she said. "I was living in a basement. There was always a huge line of clients and I couldn't service them all."

Nadia was lucky; a young client took pity on her and helped her escape. She now is staying in a shelter for trafficked victims where she can get psychological care and a temporary place to stay.

Most victims can't return home. Because of the stigma attached to prostitution, many are rejected by their families. More than 90 percent of them need medical and psychological treatment for insomnia, nightmares and suicide attempts.

As many as 5,000 Moldovan women are duped into slavery each year. Twenty five percent of Moldova's four million population travel overseas in search of better wages.

Many of the victims come from poor rural areas and strive for a better life. As they search for better work opportunities overseas, some of them fall into the trap of human traffickers, who often are people they know.

At a shelter in the capital, ABC News met 28-year-old Oxana. She was betrayed by a friend and was promised a bartending job in Dubai.

"We had 20 to 30 men, clients, in one day," she says. "I couldn't escape. We were locked up in an apartment. We weren't allowed to make phone calls. We had no money."

Oxana is one of the fortunate ones, because she managed to escape.

"We waited until everyone was asleep," she says. "We found the key that was hidden by this girl. I took the key, we opened the door slowly so we don't wake anybody up and I went to the police station."

Because of the stigma attached to prostitution in Moldova, Oxana is too ashamed to tell her family.

"I don't see my brother or my mother," she says. "They don't know what happened to me."

In one rural village, ABC News met 23-year-old Irina and her 19-month-old son, Mihai. Four years ago, her boyfriend promised her a job at a restaurant in Portugal -- but that was all a lie. Instead, she was handed to a group of men who brought her to Dubai and forced her into the sex trade.

"They told me that I had to first study the language and then work as a prostitute," she says.

She was forced to work for a year and a half and became pregnant by one of her clients. Irina only escaped when she was arrested and deported to Moldova. Irina says she's focusing on her son and his future, while she tries to recover from her ordeal.

"I want him to grow up happy," she says. "That's pretty much what I live for."

The U.S. government has linked human trafficking with organized crime and is working with governments like Moldova to fight the traffickers. In 2003, President Bush announced a $50 million initiative to help combat the problem -- around the world and at home. Some of the money is going to a center in the capital.

Petru Plop, chief of the Center to Combat Trafficking in Human Beings, says, ''We've started a centre to combat trafficking, which is a unique centre in this region. We have very good results. The building is being renovated, and after it is complete we expect to improve our ways to deal with trafficking. … We are grateful and appreciate everything the U.S. embassy has done for Moldova, and once the building is renovated we'll have all the necessary means to combat human trafficking."

The American humanitarian organization Winrock International has set up support centers where many girls like Irina can get help. They offer educational programs and vocational training to try and prevent others from falling into the same trap.

Blood says that although it is a huge problem, help is being provided.

"There are a lot of efforts taking place right now trying to help young women," he says. "There are a lot of individual success stories, but it is hard to say if the level of trafficking is going down because it is such a lucrative enterprise."

Aid groups are also trying to warn young girls about the dangers of trafficking. There are educational dramas on television, workshops that offer career training, and after-school discussion groups that spell out the threats. It is all part of the effort to keep young girls from ending up on foreign streets of affluent cities.