Baby trafficking is thriving in Greece - Europe - International Herald Tribune
By Niki Kitsantonis and Matthew Brunwasser
ATHENS — An increasing number of people unable to adopt children through official channels are resorting to other methods in Greece, where private adoptions are unregulated and a traffic in babies is thriving, according to legal experts and the police.
Most of the babies for sale in Greece are brought here by impoverished women from Bulgaria and other Balkan countries, these experts say.
In the most recent case to come to light, a 16-year-old Roma girl from Romania is under arrest after complaining to the police that she had been cheated out of €14,000, or $18,000, promised to her by a British woman who allegedly abducted the infant in Athens during negotiations over the price last week.
But most prospective baby buyers are Greek. With birth rates in Greece the lowest among the original 15 European Union member states — 1.29 children per woman, according to EU statistics — adoptions here are steadily increasing. But, faced with six-year waiting lists at state adoption institutions, 9 out of 10 prospective adoptive parents prefer to sign a private agreement with a natural mother willing to hand over her infant, Greek statistics show.
This is perfectly legal in principle, the police and legal experts say. But the absence of state control over private adoptions is helping profit-seeking mediators, including doctors and lawyers, to hijack some of these transactions, the experts say.
"There are no illegal adoptions under Greek law, so illicit networks have plenty of room for maneuver," said Eleni Glegle, legal adviser to the Pendeli Children's Hospital in Athens, one of just four state adoption institutions in Greece.
The police say that babies are being sold — mainly in Athens, northern and central Greece and the island of Crete — for up to $33,000, with male blue- eyed infants fetching the highest prices. According to Bulgarian officials, most of the mothers are from Roma, or Gypsy, settlements in Bulgaria and are paid about $4,000 for relinquishing their infants.
"This is an escalating problem, the scale of which is impossible to grasp," said Lieutenant Colonel Antonia Andreakou, director of the Greek police's public security division, which handles cross-border crimes.
The main obstacle faced by the police is that the sales are concealed behind the facade of legitimate adoptions, and few are exposed.
"We need to prove that money has exchanged hands — as this is what makes the transaction illegal — but this is very difficult to do," Andreakou said.
The case of the Romanian teen mother, who is being held on the island of Cephalonia, is exceptional because she actually went to the authorities. The name of the 41-year-old alleged British buyer could not immediately be confirmed.
Anti-trafficking activists maintain that the infants' mothers are victims of traffickers. But other human rights activists counter that the women willingly give up their babies because of their desperate need for money.
Andreakou said her department had traced nine sales of Bulgarian infants in the first six months of this year and arrested 33 suspected mediators — 24 Bulgarians, 7 Greeks and 2 Albanians. The Greeks included doctors and lawyers, she said, adding: "This is definitely just a fraction of the real number of cases."
Greece has intensified cooperation with the Bulgarian authorities to tackle the problem, but concerns are not limited to Bulgaria. The arrest in November of five Albanians near the Greek-Albanian border for the alleged sale of eight Roma infants has fueled speculation about an Albanian baby-trading racket.
A prosecutor from the northern Greek town of Yiannitsa who is investigating the Albanian connection said he had been probing not just the sale of babies, but also a more grisly trade. "We were looking at the possibility that this ring was removing organs for sale," said the prosecutor, Constantinos Samaras.
Bulgaria outlawed baby trafficking in 2004, targeting middlemen by criminalizing "facilitation" of the trade. Amendments to the law, which took effect two months ago, criminalize mothers who sell their babies. Critics say this will be counterproductive.
"The new law works in the interest of the traffickers because the women will no longer go to the police," said Tihomir Bezlov, a sociologist who analyzes organized crime at the Center for the Study of Democracy in Sofia.
"It's a new type of crime that we didn't experience a few years ago," said Dobromir Dochev, who heads the fight against human trafficking with the Bulgarian police. He linked the trade to "the market for babies that has arisen, most likely as a result of strict adoption procedures" in Greece.
In some cases, he said, middlemen offered loans of 500 to 1,000 Bulgarian levs, about $335 to $670, to pregnant Roma women, who were then pressured to sell their babies in Greece if they could not make the payments.
Stoyanka Stoyanova of Sliven, Bulgaria, interviewed in a documentary aired by Bulgaria's Nova television in August, said she had given birth in a hospital in Greece and had spent 40 days with her infant before it was sold. The buyers, she said, gave the middleman his fee for the baby "in an envelope, so I couldn't see how much money it was. They promised me €1,000 and didn't pay me anything. Then they put me on a bus and sent me back home."
Another woman in the documentary, Velichka Vicheva, 17, said that when she went to Greece she had been instructed to tell her father that she was going to pick grapes. "They gave me injections, and I didn't feel anything," she said of the birth, which was induced in a hospital in Larisa. The trafficker and the Greek couple argued about the price, she said, and the deal was suddenly off. The middleman then took her to Athens, where she waited only an hour before her baby was sold.
Krassimir Kanev, chairman of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights organization, said poverty was at the root of the problem, along with the failure of Bulgarian society to integrate the Roma.
According to the United Nations Development Program, 70 percent of the Roma in Bulgaria live on the equivalent of less than €1.70 a day.
"The Bulgarian state can do very little," Kanev said, "except for prosecuting the traffickers, which it doesn't do well."
But Greece can do a lot more, according to Spyridon Kloudas, an Athens- based defense lawyer for victims of trafficking. Kloudas called for stricter penalties to discourage baby traders— the maximum jail sentence is currently five years — and for a reference to illegal adoption to be added to the criminal code.
"Even if the woman consents," he said, "it is still trafficking, as she is being exploited by a third party for profit."
Kloudas added that some foreign infants sold in Greece were being registered not as adopted babies but, falsely, as the birth children of Greek women in a scam facilitated by doctors in maternity clinics.
Andreakou said that the anti-trafficking efforts of the police would be helped by improvements in Greece's state adoption process. "If the state system was less time-consuming," she said, "we would not have such a problem with Bulgarian babies."
Glegle, the legal adviser in state adoptions, proposed the establishment of family courts, which do not exist in Greece. "This would speed up the state adoption process and encourage more prospective parents to use it," she said.
Official figures confirm that the vast majority of adoptions in Greece are being conducted beyond the reaches of state control.
A total of 603 adoptions were recorded by Greece's courts in 2005, an increase of 20 percent over the previous year, according to government statistics. But fewer than 60 of these adoptions were carried out through state channels.
"There are simply not enough babies at the state institutions to satisfy demand," said Evangelia Velentza, director of the Mitera Infants' Home in Athens.
Matthew Brunwasser reported from Sofia.