Sat, 11/01/2008 - 07:47

Human trafficking is reaching frightening levels as a record number of sex slaves are trafficked into and out of Bulgaria

svetlana's journey.jpg

The last 18 months have been a whirlwind of reshuffles for the Bulgarian Government in its efforts to iron out creases in the infamously weak judiciary – marred by grey areas and organised crime. One of the less publicised appointments was that of a new secretariat to the National Anti-Trafficking Commission in June 2007. In June 2008 the US State Department Trafficking in Persons report noted this change saying that "the Government of Bulgaria does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so."

A vague statement which barely touches on the issue of people trafficking. The facts are stark. In a statement, the Council of Europe Secretary General, Terry Davis, revealed that "every year, more than 600,000 people are sold in Europe. They are the victims of international criminals. More than 80 percent of them are girls and women, and 70 percent of them are forced into sexual servitude." A separate report by the council echoed the dire straits of the situation: "People trafficking has reached epidemic proportions over the past decade, with a global annual market of about 30 billion euro."

The Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, which entered into force in February 2008, has so far been ratified by 14 countries. Bulgaria is one of them, yet it still officially falls in the Tier 2 Watch List of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. This means the country is being monitored over its unsatisfactory compliance in eliminating human trafficking. It is ranked alongside Thailand, Argentina, Uzbekistan and Cambodia.

The hapless women dragged into this squalid underworld are often stuck in a circle of lies, drugs and abuse. A recent BBC documentary, Ross Kemp on Gangs: Bulgaria, gave a saddening insight into the world of these girls. After being allowed by their pimps to be interviewed, the girls – their faces hidden with old handkerchiefs – divulged tales of how they were sold by their poor families (it is estimated that a third of trafficking victims shifted from Bulgaria are gypsies), duped by promises for legitimate work, blackmailed and beaten by men under the guise of a boyfriend, or became addicted to drugs after being given laced cigarettes. When asked if they would be willingly exported to other countries to continue prostitution, the harrowing response from one frightened girl was: "For my guy, I would go to the end of the world."

Bulgaria was, and still is, a popular mid-way point for Moldovan, Romanian, Russian, Ukrainian, Armenian, Lebanese and Uzbekistani sex slaves toward their final destinations in countries such as Germany, Switzerland, Norway, Italy, the Netherlands, Greece and Belgium. However, recent reports show that the trends have shifted to cater to Bulgaria's business and tourism, and rising amounts of women and children are being trafficked into and within Bulgaria. The Trafficking in Persons Report states that "officials reported an increase in the number of Bulgarian victims trafficked internally, primarily to resort areas along the Black Sea coast, and in border towns with Greece, for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation."

This increase has not gone unnoticed by tourists in resorts such as Sunny Beach, with comments such as "If you are taking children, avoid Sunny Beach like the plague!" being left on the Holiday Watchdog website.

Often, driving along the main roads and tourist routes, such as the motorway linking Burgas and Varna, numerous prostitutes can be seen touting for business in broad daylight, with a pimp watching in the wings. In response, Animus, an NGO that offers support to victims of violence, has recently begun working with the tourist sector to help recognise and stem sex tourism. This cooperation includes seminars and training programmes for victims, businesses and government officials.

One of the main problems is that until very recently the legalisation of prostitution was hanging in the balance. There have been several controversial efforts to completely legalise it, but the interior minister and the chief prosecutor have finally put a stop to all speculation by strongly rejecting all moves in 2008. The report praised the decision as "a strong effort to reduce the domestic demand for commercial sex acts."

But ultimately, is the legislation against prostitution and trafficking being upheld? The current criminal code prohibits trafficking for both sexual exploitation and forced labour, citing penalties of between one and 15 years' imprisonment. According to the report, penalties were "sufficiently stringent and commensurate with those prescribed for other grave crimes, such as rape." However, the only real significant prosecutions and investigations only took part once the Bulgarian Government realised it was under investigation. The report acknowledged that "the Government of Bulgaria made substantial progress during the reporting period." Including, of course, the rushed new appointment of the anti-trafficking secretariat.

The report also commented on Bulgaria's inconsistent convictions and investigations, noting a drop in 2007. During 2007, police conducted 179 sex trafficking and 22 labour trafficking investigations, compared with 202 sex trafficking and six labour trafficking investigations in 2006. In 2007, authorities prosecuted 78 offenders on trafficking charges, down from 129 in the preceding year. Courts convicted a total of 73 trafficking offenders in 2007 – 71 convicted for sex trafficking offences and two for labour trafficking offences – compared with 71 convictions in 2006. In 2007 five traffickers were sentenced to five to 10 years' imprisonment and 33 others to five years' imprisonment; 48 percent – 35 of 73 convicted traffickers – were given suspended sentences or had their sentences reduced to less than one year.

There were continued reports of generalised corruption: during the reporting period, the government investigated one border police official allegedly involved in trafficking.

Yet these facts and figures tend to be kept schtum with the Bulgarian media, with franker portrayals found in popular culture rather than the Bulgarian press. Violeta Markovska, the star of Bulgarian hit movie Seamstresses, teamed up with American filmmaker Michael Cory Davis to make the harrowing film Svetlana's Journey. The movie is based on a true account of a 13-year-old Bulgarian held captive as a sex slave for eight months after her adoptive parents sold her.

Face to Face, an NGO working for prevention of forced prostitution which was among the project's sponsors, is at the fore front of tackling Bulgaria's notoriety in people trafficking. It sets up support groups to educate vulnerable girls. Face to Face has shown that the people exposed to greatest risk come from orphanagest and small towns and villages, and holds workshops and programmes in these areas. Public faces in Bulgaria, such as models Maggie Valchanova and Elena Angelova also campaign for Face to Face.

But during and following the report, the Bulgarian Government set up various much needed support groups and treatment centres. In preparation for the next investigation, the report offered some additional recommendations to Bulgaria, among them to "improve data collection and methods for assessing trafficking law enforcement statistics; provide funding to service providers for victim assistance efforts; sustain efforts to investigate, prosecute, convict and sentence trafficking offenders; and vigourously investigate, prosecute, convict and sentence government officials complicit in trafficking." Still, one can't help but wonder how well, after so many false starts, these initiatives can continue.

Links and references

Michael Cory Davis

Michael Cory Davis



Actor-turned-filmmaker-and-humanitarian Michael Cory Davis on raising awareness in Bulgaria and worldwide

interview by Katherine Watt

When did you become aware of the extent of people trafficking in Eastern Europe?

I was in Sofia attending a Face to Face fundraiser. At that point I didn't intend making a film, but I discovered there was a lack of awareness about the issue concerning children who are preyed upon, particularly in orphanages. I decided media would be the best way to help educate them.

When you discovered Svetlana's Journey, what was the most salient aspect?

The fact that the crime can be so insidious. It could make someone willing to kill themselves to escape it.

What was the reaction towards the film from Bulgarians – businesses, individuals and organisations?

It was very supportive. I had a wonderful group of friends in Bulgaria – foreigners and Bulgarians – who offered their talent, time and support. Even getting the financing took a short period, with M-Tel coming on board and TopForm Studios helping to produce. I was also able to cast actors and crew that genuinely wanted to make a difference in the world and in their country.

The film won awards at the Hollywood Film Festival 2005, but do you think Bulgaria was ready for such a stark portrayal?

I think so; after all, it was aired on television. Because of our efforts at Face to Face, we were able to rally community support and later generate resources for orphanages. With the creation of the Commission on Trafficking in Persons, headed by Antoaneta Vasileva, the country is moving in a better direction.

What about the recent report?

I believe the Trafficking in Persons Report unfairly placed Bulgaria in the Tier 2 position. Bulgaria has done more than many countries to spread awareness, so I believe it should be upgraded to Tier 1. How many countries have made a film, aired it on TV and created a new law to help prosecute traffickers?

Do you think the public are more aware? Have you had any feedback from victims or support groups?

The film and my subsequent films have done a great job to raise awareness about the issue – but the issue is bigger than Bulgaria and America. It's a worldwide epidemic.

Do you have any future projects to raise further awareness of people trafficking?

I have a new film that I'm developing, titled Close to Home. It focuses on the issue in the United States, as we have the same problem but no one will acknowledge it.

For more information about Michael Cory Davis, visit Svetlana's Journey was produced by TopForm Studios. Executive producers were M-Tel and Face to Face.

Issue 26

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