3rd Oct 2023

Lives for sale: Booming market for Bulgarian babies in Greece

  • Dolno Ezerovo quarter, Burgas, south-east Bulgaria: Cutbacks in health and education had damaging effects in rural communities where many Roma live (Photo: Juliana Koleva)

"Ah, don't even ask, in our village almost everybody has left a baby in Greece. I at least managed to buy myself this little house with the bloody money, so we'd have somewhere to live with the kids. I haven't squandered a single lev. But many people here give away babies for the easy money - they drink, they eat, they party. When the money runs out, they just sell the next baby."

This is Stanka, a woman in her 30s from Bulgaria's marginalised Roma minority who admits she sold a new-born boy in Greece a few years ago for €3,500 ($3,700), a crime for which she is currently on trial.

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"I regret it all the time and can't stop thinking of that boy, but I was young and stupid. I couldn't imagine any other way to earn some money to feed my other two children, I had no hope," she says, her voice trembling.

"You should have seen where we lived, with my mother and the rest of the family, more than 10 in a room with no glass in the windows, no doors, a dirt floor, no electricity or water. You wouldn't even want to house an animal there."

She starts crying as she recalls how people came to her home from the nearest big town and offered to sell her third baby, which was on the way. Everyone else was doing it. She thought it was the answer to her problems.

Now she lives with her husband and two boys, 10 and 12, in a single-storey house in the same small Roma town of Ekzarh Antimovo, about 40 km inland from the Black Sea port of Burgas. The home is run-down and basic, but for her a huge step up.

Stanka's house in Ekzarh Antimovo, south-east Bulgaria. Bought for €3,500 from sale of newborn boy. (Photo: Juliana Koleva)

Hundreds of women

Stanka is one of dozens of Bulgarian women each year who are known to have sold new babies to couples in Greece desperate for a child of their own, officials say. They suspect the real number is in the hundreds.

Mothers can earn up to €5,000, but sometimes less than €1,000, according to court documents seen by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN. Middlemen take the biggest cut of what the adopters actually pay.

As Stanka points out, the practice appears to attract little social stigma among Romas, who make up the vast majority of known cases.

A distinct regional ethnic minority with their own culture and language, Romani, they are often poor, jobless and ill-educated. Many live apart in run-down "ghettoes," and face pervasive discrimination.

Anti-trafficking police and prosecutors say it is rare for the mothers, who usually have other children already, to regret their actions, or for them to invest the money in something lasting like a house.

Usually the women, often only 18-19 years old and rarely over 25, decide to sell during an unwanted pregnancy, but more recently police have noticed some who conceive with the sole purpose of selling.

Velichka, a mother of three from the Roma ghetto in the eastern provincial city of Sliven, is perhaps more typical than Stanka. She has no home of her own and no money left from the €1,500 she received for her child - only half what she had been promised.

She earned a two-year suspended sentence in Bulgaria in 2009 for selling her baby in Thessaloniki, Greece, after police were tipped off. She has no qualms in telling her story, though the details she relates paint her as more of a victim than did the account she admitted to in court.

Velichka, who says her only employment has been as a prostitute, now blames her father for forcing her to sell her baby and says he spent the money on gold jewellery and a television. She still lives with her parents.

In Greece she sold a kidney, and in that way, according to police, made the contacts that led her to sell her child a year later.

She reveals her deepest secrets, then asks for money to help her buy medicines for herself and daughter, but finally gives up.

Bulgarian police say they suspect the baby trade with Greece may go back as far as the 1990s, when the collapse of communism in eastern Europe suddenly opened up the borders, but has been growing steadily in recent years, especially since Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007, making those borders all but vanish.

Roma quarter in Nikolaevo, central Bulgaria, where people live isolated from Bulgarian society: no running water; no electricity; no education; people sleep on the floor, in the mud. (Photo: Juliana Koleva)

Hundreds of women

The traffickers here are mostly Roma men and women who lived for many years among ethnic kin in Greece and have good contacts.

They focus on the Roma ghettoes around the Black Sea ports of Burgas and Varna and in the relatively poor east - the towns of Sliven, Yambol, and Stara Zagora between the coast and the more affluent capital Sofia.

A ready market awaits them across the southern border in Greece where often childless couples are willing to pay to bypass a state adoption system which can leave them waiting seven or eight years.

Greece, unlike Bulgaria, permits private adoptions and thus makes this kind of deal easier.

The Mitera Infant Centre in Athens, Greece's biggest state institution for adoptions, says only one in five of some 500 annual adoptions involve the state. Each year the centre arranges around 35 adoptions but receives 150-200 applications.

Bulgarian authorities say Greeks have been paying up to €30,000 for a girl and €40,000 for a boy. Greek police say adopters pay anywhere from €3,000 to €30,000, with prices down slightly in recent years because of the economic crisis. Four out of five babies up for sale were boys.

"It's not just that the parents want to have a boy, boys are more expensive and therefore the criminal rings prefer them too," said an officer from the Greek police anti-trafficking unit who declined to be named as he takes part in undercover operations.

The young mothers, however, get only a meagre share of this money, Bulgarian police say. The rest goes to traffickers and other intermediaries.

"It is not uncommon afterwards for the traffickers to cheat the women out of their promised money, throwing them €500 or so or even just a ticket home to Bulgaria," says one investigator.

The road routes south to Greece are easy and well-worn.

Traffickers drive the pregnant women across the inner-EU border without passport checks, and if guards do ask the purpose of their trip, they usually cite seasonal agricultural work.

The women, mostly treated as suppliers of goods, are then put up in lodgings they are not allowed to leave until it is time to give birth. After that they return to the lodgings while the deal is finalised.

Doctors, lawyers involved

Stanka relates her experience.

"I was in an apartment with two other pregnant women. I don't even know where they took me, it was a city that began with R I think. I was told not to leave the house as it would awaken suspicions. But during my stay they didn't treat me badly, perhaps they didn't want me to give up and betray them," she says, in faltering Bulgarian - like many of her peers she attended school briefly and has contact with almost only Roma speakers in her daily life.

"When the time came they took me at the hospital, it looked as if they were familiar with the medical team. After the birth they became rougher - they made me sign some documents that were incomprehensible to me, almost threw the money at me - just half of what we had agreed - took the child and sent me back to Bulgaria."

She and other mothers told BIRN that teams in the hospitals seemed to have been specially organised by Greek members of the trafficker group, and knew what they were involved in.

Bulgarian police and prosecutors say this tallies with their findings.

"The network cannot be organised without doctors, local lawyers and prosecutors sometimes," one officer told BIRN.

The dozen Bulgarian prosecutors and police from the organised crime division who helped with this article all declined to be named because rules forbade them to talk to the media and because exposure might harm future operations.

Once the pregnant woman is in Greece, it seems very easy for her to leave the baby behind without anyone knowing.

One method that Bulgarian investigators have encountered for legalising the adoption is for a Greek man to claim he is the father of the child. A few months later the mother relinquishes her parental rights in his favour.

But the most common path is private adoption. A lawyer or an obstetrician helps a couple find a woman who wants to give up her newborn. All they must do is sign a private agreement. That was that - although since 2013 the adoption must also be ratified by a court.

No money is supposed to change hands. But the absence of regular checks has created a fertile black market, authorities acknowledge.

Bulgarian supply, Greek demand

One Greek couple told BIRN of their daughter's experience a decade ago.

Unable to have her own child, Elena (not her real name) had tried for years to adopt through from a state-run children's home but in vain. Eventually she and her husband gave up and decided to pay.

They found out about an Athens lawyer who could find babies from Bulgarian mothers.

The couple paid €25,000 and soon the lawyer arranged a meeting outside one of Athens' main hospitals. Elena waited in the car with her father. One of the traffickers who had arranged the adoption opened the door and placed the baby in her lap. "Elena was glowing with happiness," her father remembers. She was a mother, at last.

The couple later completed all the legal paperwork for the private adoption of their daughter. Theoretically, social services should make scheduled and spot visits to check up on the child. But no one ever did.

A few years later the little girl saw a pregnant woman and asked her mother: "Were you like that too before I was born?". And Elena replied: "You are not a baby from my belly, but you are a baby from my heart," her mother recounted.

Away from the Balkans few people know of this contemporary trade in the region.

One story that did make global headlines in 2013 was when Greek authorities seized Maria, a blonde five-year old living with a Roma family near the town of Larissa, on suspicion she had been abducted. It turned out she had been unofficially "adopted" and was an albino Bulgarian Roma from Nikolaevo, near Stara Zagora. She is now in care pending an official adoption elsewhere.

Nikolaevo, central Bulgaria: Maria's family house. People shocked by Maria story two years ago. Nothing has changed, except a new family now lives in Maria's old home. (Photo: Juliana Koleva)

Bulgarian authorities and Roma leaders agree that dire poverty and lack of opportunity drive women to sell their babies, and that within their community, there seems to be little objection to the practice on moral grounds.

"For them the child is not a big value, they don't feel the sale of a baby as a problem, just a livelihood," says Michael Stefanov from A21, a foundation that fights human trafficking.

Gancho Iliev, a Roma who heads a foundation to help his community in the Stara Zagora region, says conditions in the ghettoes are dire.

"There is no 21st century, no water, no power. People sleep on the floor in the dirt with the chickens and other domestic animals. They are isolated from other Bulgarians."

"There is no proper education, medical health care, or religion," he says. "Nearly everyone is unemployed, just a few make a living in agriculture or clean the streets for petty cash. There is nothing to give them values, morality."

He says the authorities do little to help and that there is no real political will to improve their lot.

No emotion

A policeman from Sofia's anti-trafficking unit recalls his first cases.

"I met a girl - she came into this very office with her mother and they both cried so much and regretted selling the baby. They couldn't stop crying," he says.

"That is why I'll always remember the woman who was next. There was nothing, no emotion of any kind. She talked about the sale as if it was of no importance, as if she had sold a watch or a TV set."

The attitude of the second woman, he says, is the more typical.

Police from both countries said most trafficking probably goes undetected. Even when they uncover a case, making a prosecution stick can be a nightmare, particularly since cross-border coordination of investigations does not prove easy.

A Greek anti-trafficking policeman said that apart from tracking the criminal rings down, the biggest challenge was to prove a financial transaction.

"That's what makes a private adoption illegal," he said.

Months of investigation and surveillance might be inadequate unless the gang is caught red-handed. Without that, cases ran a risk of being very weak when brought to court.

One human trafficking expert from Bulgaria's General Directorate for Combating Organised Crime estimated that only about one in 10 such crimes in Bulgaria was ever solved.

The low risk of detection, difficulty of prosecution and often mild sentences in Bulgaria make it a profitable easy business for all involved.

Bulgaria tightened up its trafficking laws a decade ago and has some of the toughest penalties in Europe. Anyone who convinces a woman to sell her baby or transports or houses her during the process can face up to 15 years in jail, and the mother can also be prosecuted.

However, evidence is hard to collect, since all involved have an interest in remaining silent.

The biggest success in cross-border efforts to combat the trade, the so called Lamia case, came after one mother changed her mind and sought police help to recover the child she had just parted with. But such cases are few.

More usually traffickers, aware of dangers as in that case, just let the women go, as one mother, Fana, told BIRN.

Suspended sentences

As a result prosecutors often cut deals with traffickers who agree to plead guilty and in return often receive suspended sentences of less than three years.

This is why only three people are serving sentences in Bulgarian prisons for the baby trade, according to justice ministry figures.

Although there have been cases involving mothers from nearby Albania and Romania, it seems Bulgaria is the centre of the trade.

A tally of Greek police statements show that from 2010 to 2015, more than half of the people, mainly traffickers, arrested for illegal adoptions were Bulgarian citizens. Greek police sources told BIRN most were Romas.

"We think Bulgaria is leading this type of traffic. It is much closer to Greece and transporting a pregnant woman there is quite easy. Albanian women face tighter border controls," says the NGO worker Stefanov.

"Another reason could be religion … especially among the Albanians, who are highly religious."

Prosecutors and police say widescale impunity is simply persuading more women to follow suit.

One young Roma girl from Kameno, a poor village near Burgas with a big Roma quarter, tells how her friend and other close relatives were tempted into a sale.

"When you are on the brink of survival and can't provide for your children, and you see more and more families travel to Greece with a pregnant woman and return without the baby … After which they start celebrating and partying the same night because they have come by some money … That is when you begin to consider it," she says.

She once asked an acquaintance if she missed the twins she had sold.

The young woman just shrugged her shoulders, motioned to her other children, and said: "It was their turn, how otherwise would I be able to feed these here."

In her village the traffickers live well, she says.

"I'll tell you where to go and look for them, but I won't come with you, I am afraid even to be seen speaking with you," she says.

Village of Kameno, southeast Bulgaria: Locals and police believe up to 10 well-to-do homes in Roma quarter built with baby trafficking money. (Photo: Juliana Koleva)

We visit the street she indicated. On one side are run-down shacks, where the locals and police say the pregnant women are recruited from. On the other are a dozen or so flashy new multi-storey houses, freshly painted, surrounded by high walls with wrought-iron grilles, and smart cars in the yards where men with gold chains, rings and chunky bracelets hang out.

Locals and police say about half of these houses were built from the proceeds of baby trafficking. Many residents of Kameno, Roma and Bulgarian, say they are surprised the authorities seem to turn a blind eye to it.

Burgas police told BIRN they were very aware of the source of this wealth but had little hope of compiling evidence that would stick in court.

In May this year, for example, members of two of the families owning lavish houses in Kameno appeared before the district court in Burgas.

The three traffickers - Stanka Raycheva and spouses Racho and Silvia Dinkovi - confessed to taking a pregnant woman to Lamia in Greece in 2010 and getting her to sell her baby. The mother, who faces a separate trial, testified against them.

Despite this, and comprehensive evidence from Bulgarian and Greek police, two of them got a suspended sentence of just under three years, and the other a fine.

A police officer from Burgas who worked on the case told BIRN such light sentences would never serve as a deterrent.

"The traffickers lack any respect for the system and it becomes virtually impossible to prevent the spread of this crime," he said, banging a fist on the table in frustration.

He said the investigation took over 18 months and he and his colleagues had become demotivated by such an outcome of all their hard work.

Bulgarian officials say they can find out nothing from Greece about what happens to the babies after they are born.

Experts from Bulgaria's Commission for Combating Human Trafficking say Greece's National Adoption Registry is even more secret than the records of the Bulgarian anti-terrorist services. Every time they try to locate a baby, they get the same response: We have no Bulgarian babies here, and we do not give information on Greek citizens.

Burgas district court: Silvia Dinkova (middle), her husband Racho Dinkov and their neighbour Stanka Raycheva (her parents in the picture) were charged with baby trafficking. (Photo: Juliana Koleva)

What should be done?

Ersi Fotopoulou, a lawyer from the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki who has dealt with numerous adoptions, said Greece should reconsider the ban on money changing hands - a rule that ensures that when money is involved, the lion's share goes to the traffickers.

"In the United States, the law is more honest and allows for a financial transaction as long as it's visible," she says. "In Greece, we cover up the issue. There will always be money involved."

Many Bulgarians, among them the families involved, argue that adoption in Greece will give the children a much better life than their siblings have amid the dust and poverty of the ghettoes. But aid workers say with no follow-up controls, no one really knows what kind of lives these children live.

A senior anti-trafficking aid worker in Sliven, who declined to be named, said Bulgaria and Greece could not stop the trade.

"If the rewards remain as high and the risks as low as they are now, it's just too tempting and it's likely to carry on and maybe grow," she said.

She suggested a partial solution that seems likely to fall on deaf ears.

"Perhaps both countries should consider some kind of legalisation - to impose clear rules for payment to the mother, for her support during pregnancy, for payment of medical examinations, accommodation. At least this would stop the black market, which mainly benefits traffickers and middlemen."

Juliana Koleva in Sofia, Burgas, and in Bulgaria's Roma communities, with Kostas Kallergis in Athens. This article was produced as part of the Alumni Initiative of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by the ERSTE Foundation and Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, or, BIRN.

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