Bulgaria is already seeing the outcomes of the first legislation passed to combat trafficking, a problem which affects tens of thousands of women in the Eastern European country. But despite these advances, public sympathy for the victims remains low.
SOFIA, Bulgaria (WOMENSENEWS)–Elena doesn’t talk much about her time outside Bulgaria. Tricked into forced prostitution in Western Europe by a job advertisement calling for secretaries in 2002, Elena spent nine months in bondage before escaping and making her way home.
"It was a hell I would like to forget," says the slim 23-year-old, who asked to use a pseudonym. "But the difficulties I am facing now just seem to make that impossible."
Even though Elena’s family was glad to have her back home, she’s found the readjustment immensely difficult; the attitudes of both herself and her loved ones changed.
"My family does not ask me for specific details and try to pretend like nothing has happened, but often I catch them quietly looking at me," she explains. "It is hurtful and unnerving, but, like them, I don’t really want to talk about it at all. I just want my life back."
Elena is not alone. Aid organizations estimate as many as 15,000 Bulgarian women have fallen into the hands of traffickers since this small Balkan nation emerged from behind the Iron Curtain in 1992, with thousands more falling victim every year. Like women from other Eastern European and former Soviet countries, Bulgarian victims of sex trafficking rarely find their way home; less than 5 percent of the victims have returned. While new legislation with stricter punishments of traffickers hopes to address the problem, there is little public sympathy for returning victims. They are almost always viewed as willing participants to their forced prostitution.
On a global scale, it is impossible to know precisely how many women and young girls are trafficked each year for sexual exploitation, but international aid groups and non-governmental organizations believe the number to be between 700,000 and 2 million. Hundreds of thousands of them come from Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
Those being trafficked out of Bulgaria often end up in European Union countries, particularly the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Greece, Italy and Spain. Bulgaria has also emerged as a transit and destination country for women from other impoverished former Soviet Union countries, like Romania and Ukraine, and–to a lesser extent–women from the Middle East and Asia.
The Cinderella Dream Destroyed
"Too many young girls dream of marrying a rich man and being happy–their very own Cinderella story–so when they see or hear of chance to get out of the country, they rarely ask too many questions in case the answers destroy their dream," says Maria Tchomarova, director of La Strada-Bulgaria, the local chapter of a European-wide organization offering recovery services to trafficking victims.
In a country where women constitute 65 percent of the long-term unemployed, young females desperate for work and a higher standard of living are easy prey for traffickers. Some are lured by job advertisements promising them work in a foreign country; some through unscrupulous "mail order bride" services; and some through acquaintances and friends already broken by traffickers temporarily sent home to recruit others.
"We’re talking about exploitation and slavery without mercy," says Tchomarova. "A very small percentage of the women have any idea what they’re getting themselves into."
For most victims of trafficking rings the outcome is pure terror. Once reaching their destination country the women commonly have their passports taken from them and learn they must prostitute themselves to pay off their travel-related costs. They are often sold and resold to different owners. Those who resist are often raped or beaten for days, weeks, even months until they agree to cooperate.
"While the physical abuse is horrific, it is the mental torture–the breaking of the spirit–that causes the most severe damage, is the hardest to recover from," says Tchomarova, who has personally worked with dozens of trafficking survivors.
"The pimps employ all sorts of mental strategies to convince the women they are worthless–telling them no one would marry a former prostitute, that no one will believe the woman was unaware, or that she came willingly so she deserves the treatment," she explained. "In the end, less than 10 percent of these women are able to stand up to the mental anguish."
First Legislation on Trafficking Passed
Aware of the growing problem and under pressure to clean up Bulgaria’s act before scheduled entry into the European Union in 2007, authorities pushed through the country’s first legislation dealing specifically with trafficking in May 2003.
"We started late," admits Ralitsa Againe, a member of the Bulgarian National Assembly who lobbied other parliamentarians to support the Combating Traffic in People Act. "Institutions created by this legislation are just now getting off the ground and there is a lot more that can be done, such as better and more efficient regional structures, border control and educating of public opinion."
The 2003 law calls for crisis and support centers for trafficked individuals, federal prosecutions and the establishment of a national commission to combat trafficking, a body that officials hope will be operational in early 2005. Under the new law, penalties for convicted traffickers–which previously carried a maximum sentence of 12 years–can go as high as life in prison.
Authorities have had some successes. Bulgaria and France launched 20 joint operations in 2003, resulting in the conviction of 18 Bulgarians involved in trafficking. Similarly, in the Netherlands, joint operations continuing since 2002 have led to the conviction of 11 Bulgarian citizens for pimping, five of whom are also currently facing trafficking charges.
At home, authorities have identified 34 organized crime groupings dabbling in trafficking, launching 26 investigations and garnering six prosecutions.
But legal and enforcement issues are only part of the problem. Public perception of trafficking, despite aid organization and government media campaigns, remains unsympathetic.
"Most Bulgarians still equate trafficking with prostitution and there is little support for the victims," says Tchomarova.
Non-governmental organizations working on the rehabilitation of victims are scarce, with only about 10 nationwide. These groups typically focus on psychological counseling, free medical care, legal representation and job training.
Trafficking erupted out of the closet and into public consciousness in May 2003 with the arrest of popular rap singer Ivan Glavchev Jr.–known by his stage name Vanko 1–on charges of forced exportation of Bulgarian women to other European countries including Italy, France and Belgium.
The chart-topping rapper stood accused of inducing more than a dozen young women–one of them a minor–into prostitution, while his father, Ivan Glavchev, and cousin, Dimitar Rachelov, faced charges of transporting girls across international boundaries for the purpose of forced prostitution.
At the conclusion of a highly publicized trial last November, Vanko 1 received a 12-year sentence and a 120,000 Bulgarian Lev (about $75,000) fine. The judge ordered Vanko 1’s father to serve a 5 year jail term and pay 50,000 (about $31,000), and sentenced Vanko 1’s cousin to 10 years and a fine of 100,000 (about $62,500).
"Discussion was intense on the Vanko 1 case, but despite serious and indisputable evidence, public opinion–particularly among the young–remains supportive of him," explained National Assembly member Againe. "His work, and the fact that ‘older’ people don’t understand the music, youngsters seem to feel, is more important than whether or not he forcefully exported women."
"In fact this case was widely viewed more as ‘news entertainment’ than a serious issue facing our country," the lawmaker added. "And that is probably the most frightening aspect."
Juliette Terzieff is a freelance journalist currently based in Buffalo, N.Y., who has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, CNN International and the London Sunday Times in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and South Asia.
For more information:
Coalition Against Trafficking in Women–
The Ongoing Tragedy of International Slavery and Human Trafficking: An Overview Coalition Against Trafficking in Women:
La Strada: prevention of traffic in women:
Trafficking Alert International Edition (July 2004):