Revealed: Bulgaria's baby traders

Date: 2006-10-01

'Little Kalinka is yours for £11,000' – her grandmother

THE tiny baby slept snugly in the crook of her grandmother’s arm, oblivious to the ghetto filth around her and to the squalid manner in which she was being offered for sale.

The old woman may have held the infant gently, but her face was hard. This, after all, was business.

“Her name is Kalinka — it means ladybird,” she said, passing the child to me in a soft pink blanket that enveloped all of her except for a pretty face of perfect serenity.

I cuddled Kalinka for a moment, feeling her warmth while the gleam of avarice in her grandmother’s eyes chilled me.

“How much money do you want for this baby?” I asked. 

“That is for her mother to negotiate. Come back at 5pm and we will wait for you at that corner over there,” she said, pointing across the mud road to a building as run down as any in the slums of Bulgaria’s second city, Plovdiv.

I had come to Plovdiv, an ancient and largely dilapidated city where a hepatitis epidemic is currently raging, to investigate claims that human trafficking is on the rise in Bulgaria, which secured terms last week to join the European Union on January 1.

Foremost among the concerns of human rights activists is the suggestion that scores or perhaps hundreds of Bulgarian babies are being sold for adoption across Europe.

I posed as a childless woman looking for a fast and easy way to adopt a baby. I said my husband was a banker and we were willing to pay.

Accompanied by an interpreter, I walked into the Sheker Mahala ghetto — home to around 4,000 impoverished Roma — last Wednesday afternoon and approached a middle-aged woman, asking whether she knew of anyone who could help. A curious crowd soon surrounded us.

“If you want to adopt children you need to go to the maternity hospital. It’s the tall building over there,” said one man.

But as we turned away, the crowd parted to make way for the old woman, whose large gold earrings and imposing presence marked her out as the matriarch of the group. “There is one baby,” she said.

She introduced herself as Bogdana and, apparently trying to impress on me the robust good health and fecundity of the family line, claimed to have 17 children and 50 grandsons. Her daughter had seven children, she said, but their father was in prison so I could adopt the youngest, who was just a month old. Someone ran off to fetch her for inspection.

When the baby arrived I asked permission to take a photograph to show my husband. Bogdana posed impassively with her granddaughter.

When I returned at 5pm to agree the terms of the deal Bogdana was nowhere to be seen but the baby’s uncle, Rumen, was waiting with his wife.

“Come and sit down inside. The baby’s mother is working. She will be here in three minutes,” he said, smiling with a flash of two prominent gold teeth and ushering me into the one-room brick home the couple share with three children.

Rumen, a streetwise man in his mid-twenties who hopes to work as a labourer in London when Bulgaria joins the EU, said there would be no difficulty in getting hold of adoption papers. He knew a lawyer who could “arrange things” in one to two days if I paid him well.

s the three minutes stretched to 20, Rumen and his wife served hot lemon tea and started negotiating the price of their niece. The figure 20,000 was written on a scrap of paper.

“Leva?” I asked, referring to the local currency. “Ne, dollari,” came the quick response: he was asking for the equivalent of £11,000.

“Come back tomorrow,” he said when I opened my purse to show I did not have much money with me. The lawyer would join us then, he added.

At this point I asked to see the baby again so that I could take some more pictures but in doing so I may have alerted the the family to my true purpose. I was told to wait on the street, where a small group of women approached.

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“The baby’s mother,” said Rumen, pointing to a large woman in a blue dress. She eyed me suspiciously, and shook her right hand as if to say no. They appeared to have guessed that my visit was a ruse. “She says she is not selling,” Rumen said. It was time to leave.

The trafficking of babies from Bulgaria’s deprived Roma communities is a growing problem, according to the police and social services. An increasing number of children are sold before they are even born.

One social worker in the Burgas region in the east of the country said he knew of 60-70 such cases over the past few years.

“Baby-trafficking has existed for the past 10-15 years but in the last few years it has become very intensive. Some of the poorer women are getting pregnant on purpose,” he said.

Some women borrow money from loan sharks who take their babies in lieu of repayment; others fall prey to dealers who seek out vulnerable single mothers with unplanned pregnancies.

Many of the babies end up in Greece, where purchasers pay lawyers to fix the paperwork. According to Svetoslav Tanev, the chief of Bulgaria’s border police, some infants have been smuggled as far away as France.

In the Black Sea town of Burgas, a network has sprung up to transport pregnant women across the Greek border to rich couples willing to adopt illegally “Nikolay”, 25, who is involved in the lower levels of the network, said women were usually driven to the border town of Kulata, where they were collected by traffickers on the Greek side of the operation, then hidden until they gave birth. The market price for a newborn Roma baby is between £11,000 and £16,000, but the mother may receive as little as £1,000 to £1,500.

Some wretched women are said to have been duped by dealers whose sole intention was to steal their babies and pay them nothing.

There can be few more poignant illustrations of Bulgaria’s grinding poverty than the plight of these mothers. When it joins the EU with Romania in three months’ time it will be the poorest member. A 2005 survey suggested that almost half its 7.8m people live on less than £1.50 a day.

Nowhere is the deprivation more evident than in Roma ghettos such as Gorno Ezerovo, a slum on the outskirts of Burgas just 25 miles from Sunny Beach, a resort popular with British holidaymakers.

Entering Gorno Ezerovo is like stepping back a century into a world of hovels made with corrugated iron and scrap wood. They are connected by muddy paths where sewage pours from broken pipes amid fly-blown heaps of rubbish. The older children are often shoeless and shirtless; babies a few months old crawl around unsupervised.

It was here that I met Albena, a worn and weary single mother of six children who told a horrifying story of being conned into accepting a job in Greece while pregnant with her latest daughter.

Albena, 29, who asked for her full name to be withheld, said she had been struggling to feed and clothe her family when she was approached by a man offering “work abroad”.

Desperate for money, she agreed. Last April she was driven across the border at Kulata in a taxi at night and left in a house with three other pregnant women.

Under constant threat of violence they were imprisoned there for 10 days. A man provided cigarettes and sparse supplies of food, but the promised jobs never materialised.

Albena grew more and more suspicious. “One day I heard the man on the phone speaking about selling babies. I heard the word baby many times and I started to cry,” she said.

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When she told her companions they screamed out of the windows for help. A passer-by alerted the police, the house was raided and the women were returned to the Bulgarian border and given tickets home.

Albena’s daughter Maria was born on May 17. Her head is covered with eczema and her mother has little money to treat it. But it was clear that she truly loved her child.

“I didn’t want to sell her, this was not my intention,” she said, clutching the baby close. She is now preparing to appear as a witness in the trial of the alleged traffickers.

Irina Bulanova, the head of the Burgas immigration office, said women were often threatened by criminal gangs if they went ahead with prosecutions.

“The problem of baby trafficking is a brand new thing and it is really a very negative development in our society,” said Bulanova. “But please be aware that our country knows it is a problem and Bulgarian laws are being updated.”

There was no law against selling babies until two years ago and even then it applied only to the traffickers. Later this month it will become a crime for mothers to sell their babies. They could face one to six years in prison and a fine of up to £5,000.

Kumen Kupenov, the public prosecutor in Burgas, claimed the authorities were striving to combat trafficking but were hampered by a lack of co- operation from Greek officials.

Kupenov fears that even the tough new laws may be undermined by the demand for babies to be adopted illicitly in Greece and elsewhere in Western Europe.

“If there is no buyer for certain goods, then they will not be offered for sale. If nobody in the West offered money to adopt a child and if they followed the laws of their own countries, then it would not happen,” he said.

The reality, however, is that in the eyes of the affluent childless, babies like Kalinka look cheap. The haggling over such infants is almost certain to continue, their futures determined by bargains struck for meagre sums when they are barely a few weeks old.

THE COUNTRY

Population 7.3m

Main ethnic groups Bulgarian 84%, Turkish 9%, Roma 5%

Poverty Almost half the population live on less than £1.50 a day. Average income £135 a month

Unemployment 9%

Migration to the UK Estimates range from 3,400 to 170,000 in first two years of EU membership

Challenges Corruption, organised crime. Since 2001, 150 people killed in contract killings. Nobody convicted

Life expectancy 69 years (men), 76 years (women)

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