25th Mar 2023


Roma exploitation: end of the dream

  • Roma workers are traded like 'cattle' (Photo: Boryana Katsarova/cosmos/Agentur Focus)

Luludja holds up her modest rose bouquet in a French brasserie, moving along from table to table. She’s thinking of her family, the people she’s doing it all for. Most of the money, however, will be banked by a man in her home country, hundreds of kilometres away. She forces a shy smile. Her lips are painted bright red.

Tonight most guests decline. They do not look her in the face and fail to notice the glistening green eye shadow she is wearing. After two hours and stops at various cafes and restaurants, Luludja finally manages to sell a rose for €3 to a young man in horn-rimmed glasses. She also sells her body, for €35.

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“That was more or less a standard evening,” she says the next morning.

Luludja works the streets in Frejus, a town on the Mediterranean coast in France. The holiday resort is not too far from Saint-Tropez, where the rich go to have their holidays amidst their yachts. The summer sees hundreds of thousands of tourists flocking into the seaside resort. That is when dozens of Bulgarian Roma prostitute themselves on the streets.

Luludja came to western Europe from Central Bulgaria four years ago. She had seen images of the Côte-d’Azur on TV and pictured herself there leading a better life. She says the flowers bring in about €5 to €8 per night, not enough to pay off the debt she made by coming here. “In the end, the bouquets are just bait for potential clients wanting more than flowers.”

She says she did not see anything wrong in selling her body. But she does not want to give her full name.

“The work I do allows me and my family to survive,” she says. That is the most important thing at this point. The morning after her flower tour along the bars in the old town, she is in a muddy meadow in Frejus where she and her husband Daniel live in a trailer between piles of junk and rotting garbage.

Her mouth contracts and her face tightens when she is asked how exactly she got to France. After a while her husband Daniel – his hair neatly gelled back, polished leather shoes on his feet – starts talking, hesitantly. He says a man in their slum near Plowdiw offered to drive them.

Because Bulgaria is in the EU, people can travel to any EU country from there. They just have to be able to afford the trip. Or get into debt with a driver. Plowdiw is about one hundred kilometres from the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. Their slum is in the territory of a clan leader whose name Luludja’s husband does not want to give. But everyone knows it is the territory of King Kiro.

King Kiro and the clans

King Kiro lives in the area of Bulgaria that is the starting point of many Roma’s journey West.

He is one of the people making a living from the misery of thousands of Roma who migrate to western Europe. He has built up a network of drivers, who sometimes work as traffickers too. The allegations are documented in Italian police reports.

Whenever Roma children steal something in Italy, when houses are torn down in France or when women prostitute themselves in the Ruhr, King Kiro will be banking part of the money. His official name is Kiril Rashkov. He is half bald and grew up near Plowdiw. His face is plump, holding two beady eyes with pouches underneath.

King Kiro is one of the most renowned Roma bosses, but by far not the only one.

“Western European intermediaries underestimate the level to which Roma families are organised,” says Tihomir Bezlov, a criminologist from the Centre for Democracy Studies in Sofia. “Authorities ignore the connection between different robberies reported in cities like Berlin and Vienna,” he adds.

The criminologist analyses the structures of organised crime in Europe for the United Nations. “Only very seldom is a criminal network organised chaotically. Most thefts and cases of prostitution involving Roma in Europe are related to a strictly organised system with a boss at the top," he says, his stern look piercing through his aviator-style glasses.

“German criminologists are naive,” he adds.

Kiril Rashkov began his career in socialist Bulgaria. He controlled the gold and silver smuggling to Turkey.

Rashkov was protected by politicians for a long time. He profited from the fall of the Berlin Wall. Already in 1984 he was convicted for corruption and illegal financial transactions, but was given amnesty by the new government in 1989, which allowed him to further expand his business. He changed to alcohol smuggling and bootlegging, to human trafficking and interest-rate dealing. His former criminal career is common knowledge in Bulgaria. It has been described in many media outlets.

Meanwhile, Luludja works the streets, Daniel does all kinds of jobs on various construction sites. Every few days a colleague of the driver who brought them there passes by, Daniel says. He knows their brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles and aunts.

That is one of the reasons why they do not want to give their full names.

“We will lose our honour if anything were to happen to our family in Bulgaria,” Daniel says. They are also afraid that if they do not pay, something just might happen. A worker from the Caritas charity in Frejus says Luludja has even tried to urge her daughter to work the streets in order to be able to pay off the debts.

Everyone in the neighbourhood knew the driver, says Daniel. He had lent many of them money before. The costs for the trip westward in his minivan, €200 per person, could be paid later, when they had made money in the West.

These debts increased the pressure for them to take any job they could find. Whether they will ever be able to settle the interest and compound interest is unsure. They say the debts keep increasing with new, random amounts being added. By now, they are more than €1,000 in debt.

The Roma, who at the moment are widely covered in the media in France, are camping in fields between garbage and junk. Early in the morning, police officers, or angry locals, chase them away. Previous years have repeatedly seen Roma being deported, even though they are EU citizens. There are even pictures of Roma camps that were set ablaze.

The exploiters profiting from the Roma’s poverty and hopes, on the other hand, gain little media attention.

Father of a minority

Walzenstrasse 15, Duisburg-Hochfeld, Germany.

The floor is covered with broken bottles, the courtyard lined with pieces of old furniture. A pungent smell of urine penetrates the houses. Alina and Juri are sitting on a bed in their four by three garret. Alina has her black hair tightly combed back and is wearing a gold necklace. Juri is wearing a dark training jacket.

In an oak cupboard two arm’s lengths away stands a pink glass statue of a cat. In the adjoining room, Juri’s brothers and their families are having tea. All of them are Roma from a village near the eastern Bulgarian town of Shumen and migrated to Duisburg a few months ago.

Juri and Alina’s story – these are not their real names – is the story of many Roma in Germany and western Europe.

The Berlin Institute for Population and Development estimates that there are 2 million Roma living in western and northern Europe. There are no studies on how they arrive there, what the lives of most of them look like and how much the drivers make by exploiting them.

Roma unions resent the fact that without job permits they are driven into illegal employment. Bulgarian criminologist Bezlov assumes that “a significant part” of them turn to criminality because of their dependence on people like Kiril Rashkov: “many are victims first and only become perpetrators later.”

Living under the same roof as Juri and Alina are nine adults and nine children. There are four rooms, the toilet can be reached by walking down a small staircase. Water supply is interrupted regularly. Together they have to pay €750 a month for the net rent. The colour of the walls has faded, the plaster is crumbling. About 80 people live in the four-storied house, all of them Roma.

The owner of 15 Walzenstrasse is Turkish businessman Arif K. He is the final link in the chain of money lenders and drivers in Bulgaria and Romania. They drop off new people every day, K. receives them.

He collected the passports of Alina, her husband Juri and other Roma in his house as bargaining chips. He only returns the passports after rent, debts and interests have been paid. Whoever fails to pay is thrown out. Window open. Clothes, suitcase, oak cupboard and glass cat on the street.

“There are enough Roma who would move in if they could ... where else are they supposed to go?,” says K.

K. rents out several houses to Roma people and has come up with strategies on how to get his money. He has instructed Alina to apply for child allowance at the Duisburg youth welfare office. The form states Arif K.’s account number as the beneficiary account.

The city of Duisburg was informed of the process. They did not want to comment.

Back in Bulgaria, Kiril Rashkov regularly used to invite journalists and politicians for a drink in his palaces, where he would play the role of successful businessman.

When there, the guests would be treated to salmon rolls and schnapps. It was a cheerful event. Rashkov felt safe. He would be seated on a golden throne, like in a bad fairytale. Critical questions were answered with a wide smile and tales of his successes growing mushrooms, trading gold, speculating on the stock market and in real estate. He liked portraying himself as the "father of a minority,” someone providing jobs for the “poor Roma people.” After his PR campaign, positive reports began appearing in Bulgarian media.

Do you want to buy a woman?

Some years earlier, he had occupied the number one position in an organogram drawn up by an Italian investigative unit.

In 2006, law enforcement officers arrested more than 200 boys and girls aged between six and 14. The Italian police had in the meantime found documents according to which Roma had put their children under the trafficker’s care. The children were transported to Italy in minivans, and from there on to southern France, Vienna, western Germany and London.

In return, the parents received about 10 percent of the catch. The Italian police observed broken arms and legs of children who had not stolen enough. At then end of the trial, 41 Roma were sent to prison. Because there were no useful witness testimonies, the Italian police dropped the charges against Kiril Rashkov.

Rashkov lived like a feudal lord. In Katunitsa village near Plowdiw, on “Maritza” Street, six concrete palaces dwarf the small houses of the approximately 2000 villagers. One for his wife, “Queen Kostadinka,” another one for his daughter, "Princess Sabka," and one for each of his three sons, Angel, George and Kiril Rashkov Junior.

The rooms are tiled with marble, big crystal chandeliers hanging over the heavy furniture. For his 60th birthday, his sons reportedly gave him a camel for his adjacent private zoo.

Bosses like Kiril Rashkov displaying their wealth makes Bulgarian investigators become suspicious. It is a first clue.

“For our investigations we walk along the Roma settlements. Next to almost every slum there is some magnificent building that belongs to the leader,” says Bezlov. The palaces next to the swampy huts can easily be seen, even on Google Earth.

According to Bezlov’s Centre for Democracy Studies, the bosses have divided the villages among each other. King Kiro’s influence stretched out across several slums. In those slums Roma are living in hovels put together with corrugated iron or cardboard. Many of them have ferret about through the garbage to find food. Public healthcare is not provided.

That is why many of them set their hopes on western Europe.

About a 20-hour drive away, in the middle of the Ruhr, business is booming for pimps with eastern European women.

In a tearoom in Duisburg-Hochfeld – a working class district with dilapidated house fronts one after the other - oriental songs are playing through the speakers.

“I can order any Roma person from Bulgaria or Romania for you for €1000 or €2000,” says a hollow-cheeked man. He says the women were brought to western Europe through his contacts, in order to work here. He can also “deliver” Roma to the neighbouring cities of Krefeld and Essen. Afterwards they will be passed on to the Netherlands or Belgium: “strictly business.”

“Do you want to buy a woman?” he asks as he pours some more sugar into his tea.

“She can go home with you a few days as well, no problem ... For €600 you can use the woman over the weekend in whichever way you want,” he adds.

The pimp laughs, showing his golden teeth. With his massive necklaces, black Audi A8 and gelled back hair he looks like a comedy villain from a b-movie.

“All straw men and traffickers work for this or that Roma king. That’s the way the system works. The Roma are grateful that I get them clients. It enables them to pay off the debts they have with the bosses,” he notes.

The Duisburg police knows of a building in the centrally located Charlottenstrasse that houses dozens of Roma children who are sent to the Ruhr, Rhineland and Belgium to steal, according to a civil servant.

He does not want to give an official statement because the investigations are still going on.

But his Bulgarian colleague Bezlov does not think much of isolated local investigations against activities like those of King Kiro. “The Roma criminals operate across borders, the police should, too,” he says.

The Centre for Democracy Studies has described the cycle in a recent study. Almost 90 percent of Bulgarian Roma are unemployed and do not have a steady income. Social security hardly suffices to pay the rent, even for the run-down houses they live in. It seldom accepts Roma people. Banks do not want to give them any money. They have to turn elsewhere to borrow. The study estimates the number of loan sharks in Bulgaria at 500. The interests they make are thought to be as high as 100 percent. According to the study, it creates debt that “will keep spiralling down for an entire lifetime”.

Far-right extremists mingle

On 24 September 2011 one of King Kiro’s men ran over a 19-year-old Bulgarian in Katunitsa. The word was that the King had given the order.

It prompted multiple-day riots between Bulgarians, many of them right-wing extremists, and Roma. They set fire to Rashkov’s houses. The demonstrators said they also did it to condemn the corruption, the bonds people like Rashkov had with politicians.

But at a certain point the protests started to change from being directed against the criminal networks Kiril Rashkov had developed to turn towards Roma as such. An absurd situation: many Roma were victims of people like Rashkov, but were now being put in one box with him by Bulgarians. Far-right extremists claimed that all Roma were criminals.

If they had not done so already, King Kiro’s bonds with Bulgarian politics clearly surfaced, at least for a while.

On 28 September, the police arrested Kiril Rashkov. His houses were searched and his assets seized. The charges: he allegedly owed the state taxes and did not have a building permit for the construction of his houses.

Since the autumn of 2011, the 69-year-old is in jail in Sofia. His lawyer says he is not giving interviews.

“As far as we are concerned, there is no doubt that his network in Europe is still running ... Rashkov has a big family," the Centre for Democracy Studies' Bezlov says.

A high-ranking police officer of the Bulgarian ministry of internal Affairs, who wants to stay anonymous, noted: “King Kiro stands for a widespread system.”

Bulgaria has been a member of the European Union since 2007, but the EU has been holding off on Bulgarian entry into the Schengen zone, the free movement of persons. News of organised crime does not help in its Schengen-entry negotiations.

According to the police officer, all clan leaders work with usurers who manage their assets. They invest the bosses’ money and collect the debts through middlemen. “The bosses stay in the background,” he said. In most cases, they also created webs of dozens of companies to obscure their money business.

The invisible web

The French police estimate that most prostitutes who walk western European streets today are Bulgarian.

At least 10 percent of the pimps they arrest also come from Bulgaria. The head of the French special commission for human trafficking says that all the money they make is sent back to Bulgaria and Romania on boats or via worldwide transfer services such as Western Union.

Eurostat, the EU statistics agency, and the World Bank calculate the sum of the transfers to amount to roughly three percent of the countries’ GDP.

The money that Luludja gets from her clients flows back to Bulgaria as well, through her driver’s colleagues.

French social worker Philippe Loiseau knows the bleak side of women like Luludja. The heavy-set, bearded man works for the Secours Catholique, the French wing of Caritas, and visits Roma in five of their isolated sites around Frejus. For months he drove Luludja’s 14 and 17-year-old daughters from their camp site to school.

They would tell him how Luludja negotiated about them with a pimp. “Luludja wanted to pay off all her debts with her daughters,” says Loiseau. If he threatened to take her daughters to a children’s home, she would send them back to Bulgaria - at least that is what she told him.

Loiseau has been working with Roma for decades. He says clinically that Roma often steal, call on their children to beg and engage their grandchildren in street prostitution. They say that they do not have a choice, that they are stuck in a web of debt. “That’s what life looks like at the bottom rung, no matter where you come from," says Loiseau.

In western Europe too dozens of people make a profit from the Roma settlements.

There is the caravan dealer in Frejus who lets Roma have his 20-year-old car in order not to have to pay the €3,000 to have it scrapped. There are the construction workers who make a living repairing the collapsing walls, crumbling floors and broken tiles.

In Nice, in southern France, deep in the valley of the river Var, Roma together with north Africans and other migrants have started an unofficial flea market in an industrial zone on the outskirts of the city. A four-lane highway on the right and a motorway on the left enclose the site. A few hundred meters further down are DIY stores, furniture stores and motels for the transit trucks coming from Italy.

An old man has an oily car battery on offer, young men are stacking Polish cigarettes on their table, a few metres away car radios are scattered across the pavement - the black market. It is a secret travel tip for tourists and on Sunday mornings a lot of French people go there for groceries. The police ignore it.

Nice’s long-time, conservative mayor, Jean Medecin, once stated in an interview with a local newspaper that the migrants had better settle their criminal businesses amongst themselves, instead of “nicking purses in the old town.”

People only see the theft itself. The people who ordered it remain invisible.

People see perpetrators who are actually victims.

And hardly anyone sees all those people who do not turn to theft, but instead choose to work for very low salaries.

Freedom in return for votes

Not only used items are traded on the black market. Workers, too, can be bought.

With their cheap labour forces, the networks that reach France from Bulgaria or Romania in the end also increase the profit margins that big corporations and construction companies make all over Europe.

Every morning representatives of big construction firms make their way to the black market. According to the trade union Force Ouvriere, French construction companies have cut their numbers of fixed staff in half over the course of the last 15 years. Now Roma and north African labourers are sold daily, at seven in the morning, like a cattle market.

Today, there is a need for three tilers, tomorrow for some “tough guys” to break up pavements.

Like obedient school children, the men present themselves, are examined and picked out. The presence of a reporter does not disturb them; the existence of the market has been ignored for as long as it has been known.

Daniel, Luludja’s husband, was bought as a bricklayer on his first day, even though he had never built a wall in his life before. With his €25 salary, he was apparently the cheapest worker of the day. “Be that as it may, I was happy to work,” he says.

In Bulgaria the Roma, bosses are tightly intertwined with the political system. A reports by the Bulgarian ministry of internal Affairs states that 70 percent of the inmates in Bulgarian prisons are Roma, but according to criminologist Bezlov Kiril, Rashkov is the first clan leader behind bars.

The others are probably protected by politicians.

“The Roma bosses buy their freedom with the political parties by providing them with votes from the Roma community,” says Bezlov. “The Roma are then urged to vote for the party in question,” he adds. Either they have to take pictures of their voting ballot or the votes in their district are counted to see if everyone really voted for the right candidate.

“This form of political interdependence is omnipresent in Bulgaria – and so institutionalised that none of the people in charge does anything about it,” notes Bezlov.

The criminologist has, as one of the few Bulgarian researchers looking into it, published several studies on the topic. He says he is risking his life doing it.

“King Kiro will soon be a free man again,” Bezlov predicts.

Two years ago labour unions showed that 80 percent of the noble grapes in the Champagne region were picked by unskilled Roma. In southern Europe, it is cherries. In Germany, asparagus. The system works.

This article was produced with support from by Annika Joeres, a freelance journalist based in southern France, David Schraven, working as head of investigations at the WAZ media group, and Stanimir Vaglenov, head of the online department of the Media Group Bulgaria. Translation by Rafael Njotea


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