Bulgaria has long struggled with corruption that has allowed human trafficking and organized crime to spread beyond its borders. But experts say the police and judiciary are starting to fight these problems.
Victims of trafficking are often sold into prostitution
Slavery isn't a word that comes to mind as you stroll along Sofia's fashionable boulevards. But Bulgaria has long been a haven for traffickers who target the country's poorest people, using violence and threats to force their victims into labor, prostitution and crime rings in the West.
According to Risk Monitor, an NGO working to prevent organized crime and corruption in the country, trafficking may have become more visible with the collapse of communism 20 years ago. But it has a history that reaches back to the days of the regime.
"During communism in Bulgaria, it was impossible to say for ideological reasons that trafficking, exploitation or prostitution was happening - these things were very well hidden by the state," said Iva Pushkarova of Risk Monitor. "The communist state itself supported the trafficking of human begins - not entirely for sexual exploitation, but for labor."
When the communist government was ousted in 1989, organized criminal groups took over the trade in forced human labor.
"These criminal organizations were created by the state during communism," Puskarova said. "They just separated themselves from the state after the fall of communism."
Lured abroad under false pretences
Because of her work, Pushkarova has become familiar with the stories of many women and girls who have been forced into crime or prostitution by human traffickers - girls like Rosaria, who was married off to a man 10 years her elder when she was only 16. Her husband took her to Italy, where he said she would work in a restaurant.
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"He took me to the owner of a restaurant, and during this meeting, the owner gave my husband a lot of money," she recalled. "I didn't understand why. They said I would live in the restaurant because it was safer than walking home every night. I was taken to a room and I started to understand I was sold as a prostitute."
Rosaria was not the only Bulgarian girl being held captive in the rooms above the restaurant. She said that when she told the others that she wanted to escape, they told her it was too dangerous. The owner of the restaurant had the support of the local police.
Eventually, one of the girls gave Rosaria a pamphlet from an organization which rescues and protects people who have been trafficked. Rosaria hid the pamphlet until she could convince a client to let her use his mobile phone.
Two weeks later, the owner of the restaurant found out that the Bulgarian police were searching for Rosaria, and threw her out. She found the local police station and returned home to Bulgaria.
In many cases, though, it's not safe for victims to return home after they've been rescued. And those who do, often struggle to overcome the trauma they've experienced, said Svetlin Markov of Animus. The organization in Sofia runs a crisis center, a 24-hour hotline and reintegration programs for survivors.
"We try to help empower women to be more confident about the future, to be more confident in society, and to see that even though they were victims of trafficking in this society, there are individuals who can help," Markov said.
Lack of government commitment
But Markov said that, for the Bulgarian government, trafficking simply isn't a priority. That's reflected in a lack of funding for Animus, meaning the crisis center can only accommodate survivors for one month. After that, they need to find their own accommodation. It's an almost impossible task, as they have no money and there are no shelters.
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"Under the anti-trafficking law in Bulgaria, the national commissioner is responsible for setting up shelters, but for almost six years, there haven't been any working shelters in Bulgaria," Markov said. "Our crisis unit is an exception."
Raising funds to fight trafficking is a difficult task in a country which saw its EU funds stopped last year because of corruption and poor administration. Both Markov and Pushkarova said funding, improved social policy and education were the keys to preventing trafficking.
"You need to address the roots of the problem and the roots of the problem are social," Pushkarova said. "They come from being completely uneducated, to being marginalised from society, to being unemployed for a very long time."
She said that while there's a long road ahead, there have also been some improvements.
"My research shows that the Bulgarian judiciary and police have done an enormous amount of work in the last year," she said. "We are on the brink of a great wave of successful court proceedings, and at present, we're in the midst of social change."
Author: Saroja Coelho (dc)
Editor: Sabina Casagrande