Bulgaria: White slave trade profits from the crisis

Prostitutes in Strasbourg, France.
Prostitutes in Strasbourg, France.
18 October 2011 – Sega (Sofia)

Rendered desperate by poverty and a lack of secure employment, a large number of young women yield to the siren call of recruiters who make use of bogus offers of training and temporary jobs to lure them into prostitution.

The majority of campaigns to prevent human trafficking have failed to make any real impact. Recently the European parliament even went as far as to announce that all the measures undertaken by the EU to combat this scourge were ineffective. According to data published by the Council of Europe, trafficking is one of the main funding sources for organised crime: moreover the “white slave trade” is a sector of the underground economy which has developed exponentially in recent years. Most of the victims of trafficking are women, who account for approximately 80 % of the 800,000 people who are trafficked every year.

EU member states have been regularly encouraged to assume their responsibilities: to provide funding for victims so that they can return to their home countries, or to offer them administrative protection if they want to remain in the EU. These women also have to be convinced of the need to give evidence against their jailers, and, where necessary, be provided with security to ensure that they do not suffer reprisals.

Promises of well-paid work

In practice, cases where all of these procedures are implemented are relatively rare. Take for example Bulgaria: according to data from the National Anti-Trafficking Commission, the number of trafficking victims reached 500 in 2010, twice as many as in 2009. In the first part of this year, up until the month of April, there were 154 victims: 141 women and 13 children. And reported cases are only the tip of the iceberg: as you can imagine, the actual numbers are much more worrying.

The countries that present a risk for Bulgarians are the Netherlands, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Cyprus and Sweden. In most cases, the goal of the trafficking is sexual exploitation, but, at the same time, the number of cases of forced labour is also on the increase. A few days ago, we were informed of the arrest of two Bulgarians living in Sweden, who were attempting to lure their compatriots to the country with promises of well-paid work and comfortable accommodation. In fact, their victims were forced to pick fruit and to live in tents in the middle of the forest; their identity papers were confiscated and they were never paid.

However, the sentences meted out in the handful of cases that come before the courts have not been sufficient to reverse the trend. In the course of an operation a few years ago, police arrested two men who were attempting to traffick women to Greece.

The pair toured the Bulgarian countryside to recruit new girls whom they later forced to work as prostitutes in Sofia or neighbouring Greece, and to hand over 50% of their earnings. Although they were initially sentenced, they must have been acquitted at some later stage of the judicial process, because last summer their pictures turned up in the British press, in the wake of their attempt to “place” white slaves on UK territory.

A handful of bigwigs

Authorities have also warned against traffickers who are resorting to increasingly imaginative methods to entrap their victims. For example, they have recently taken to offering “training courses abroad,” notably language courses. At the same time, physical violence is less and less prevalent, because it has proved to be less effective than psychological coercion in the form of threats and pressure exerted on family in the country of origin.

In Bulgaria, the main causes of the development of trafficking continue to be illiteracy, the collapse of moral values, racism, ethnic discrimination, poverty, unemployment and the ailing economy… And these latter causes in part explain a change in strategy on the part of the traffickers who are increasingly presenting themselves as representatives of employment agencies -- a phenomenon that is likely to continue in the context of the current economic crisis, which has forced many people to seek desperate solutions to the problem of their catastrophic material circumstances.

Awareness campaigns can do little to improve this sad picture. The real job of combating trafficking remains in the hands of national and international police organisations. And that is as it should be. After all, it is worth wondering why European police forces, with their immense repressive apparatus, are unable to arrest the handful of bigwigs who manage the trafficking business.

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