By Umberto Bacchi
CHISINAU, June 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Laura was barely 18 when a palm reader told her she could make $180 a month working in beetroot farms in Russia – an attractive sum for a girl struggling to make a living in the town of Drochia, in Moldova's impoverished north.
That she had no passport, the fortune teller said, was not a problem. Her future employers would help her cross the border.
"They gave me a (fake) birth certificate stating I was 14," Laura, who declined to give her real name, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
That was enough to get her through border controls as she travelled by bus with a smuggler posing as one of her parents.
It was the beginning of a long tale of exploitation for Laura - one of many such stories in Moldova in eastern Europe, which aims to become the first country in the world to pilot blockchain to tackle decades of widespread human trafficking.
Trafficking generates illegal profits of $150 billion a year globally, with about 40 million people estimated to be trapped as modern-day slaves - mostly women and girls - in forced labour and forced marriages, according to leading anti-slavery groups.
The digital tool behind the cryptocurrency bitcoin is increasingly being tested for social causes, from Coca-Cola creating a workers' registry to fight forced labour to tracking supply chains, such as cobalt which is often mined by children.
Moldova has one of the highest rates of human trafficking in Europe as widespread poverty and unemployment drive many young people, mostly women, to look for work overseas, according to the United Nations (U.N.) migration agency (IOM).
Due to the hidden nature of trafficking and the stigma attached, it is unknown how many people in the former Soviet country have been trafficked abroad but IOM has helped some 3,400 victims - 10 percent of whom were children - since 2001.
In Russia, Laura was forced to toil long hours, beaten and never paid. After ending up in hospital, she was rescued by a doctor, only to be trafficked again a few years later when an abusive partner sold her into prostitution.
She now lives with her daughter in a rehabilitation centre in the northern village of Palaria with help from the charity CCF Moldova.
"I had a lot of suffering," the 36-year-old said. "I am very afraid of being sold again, afraid about my child."
SCANS AND BRIBES
Moldova plans to launch a pilot of its digital identity project this year, working with the Brooklyn-based software company ConsenSys, which won a U.N. competition in March to design an identity system to combat child trafficking.
Undocumented children are easy prey for traffickers using fake documents to transport them across borders to work in brothels or to sell their organs, experts say.
More than 40,000 Moldovan children have been left behind by parents who have migrated abroad for work, often with little supervision, according to IOM.
"A lot of children are staying just with their grandfathers or grandmas, spending (more) time in the streets," said Lilian Levandovschi, head of Moldova's anti-trafficking police unit.
Moldova, with a population of 3.5 million, is among the poorest countries in Europe with an average monthly disposable income of 2,250 Moldovan Leu ($135), government data shows.
ConsenSys aims to create a secure, digital identity on a blockchain - or decentralised digital ledger shared by a network of computers - for Moldovan children, linking their personal identities with other family members.
Moldova has strengthened its anti-trafficking laws since Laura's ordeal and children now need to carry a passport and be accompanied by a parent, or an adult carrying a letter of permission signed by a guardian, to exit the country.
With the blockchain system, children attempting to cross the border would be asked to scan their eyes or fingerprints.
A phone alert would notify their legal guardians, requiring at least two to approve the crossing, said Robert Greenfield who is managing the ConsenSys project.
Any attempt to take a child abroad without their guardians' permission would be permanently recorded on the database, which would detect patterns of behaviour to help catch traffickers and could be used as evidence in court.
"Nobody can bribe someone to delete that information," said Mariana Dahan, co-founder of World Identity Network (WIN), an initiative promoting digital identities and a partner in the blockchain competition.
Corruption and official complicity in trafficking are significant problems in Moldova, according to the U.S. State Department, which last year downgraded it to Tier 2 in a watch list of those not doing enough to fight modern day slavery.
Moldova is eager to prove that it is taking action as a further demotion could block access to U.S. aid and loans.
Many details have yet to be agreed before the blockchain project starts, including funding, populations targeted, the type of biometrical data collected, and where it will be stored.
But the scheme is facing resistance from some anti-trafficking groups who say it will not help the majority of victims - children trafficked within Moldova's borders and adults who are tricked when they travel abroad seeking work.
"As long as we don't have job opportunities ... trafficking will still remain a problem for Moldova," said IOM's Irina Arap.
Minors made up less than 20 percent of 249 domestic and international trafficking victims identified in 2017, said Ecaterina Berejan, head of Moldova's anti-trafficking agency.
"For Moldova, this is not a very big problem," she said, referring to cross-border child trafficking, adding that child victims may travel with valid documents as their families are in cahoots with traffickers in some cases.
But supporters of the blockchain initiative say low official trafficking figures do not account for undetected cases, and they have a duty to attempt to stay ahead of the criminals.
"Many times, authorities are late in using latest technologies," said Mihail Beregoi, state secretary for Moldova's internal affairs ministry.
"Usually organised crime uses them first and more successfully ... Any effort (to) secure at least one child is already worth trying." ($1 = 16.7230 Moldovan lei) (Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Katy Migiro.
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