exposing the dark side of adoption
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How BBC exposed Bulgarian child trade

An undercover BBC News report has exposed a bid to sell Bulgarian children and smuggle them into the UK. Sangita Myska from the Ten O'Clock News reports from Varna on how the investigation unfolded.

A contact of mine - with whom I had previously worked undercover - told me he had heard of a trafficker operating out of Bulgaria.

It was a country that evidence showed was grappling with a people-smuggling problem.

As a condition of entry to the European Union, it had introduced strict anti-trafficking laws and banned families from selling their children but the problem was persisting.

We dispatched an undercover team to make contact with the man, known as Harry, that we had heard about.

He was part of a criminal gang working out of the costal resort of Varna - a popular destination for foreign holiday-makers.

Our three-man undercover team was taking a huge risk. And their bravery would help clinch the story.

The trafficker

The first step was to find his preferred place of business: it turned out to be a rather unlikely petrol station and neighbouring cafe...

It might look like odd place to do business but actually it was pretty smart.

With lots of cars going in and out, Harry could easily cover his tracks. If he is nervous, he arranges to meet clients here. Picking them up and then driving them out of Varna - switching cars to avoid being tailed.

It was on one such drive that our team got a taste of Harry's lucrative trade in people.

Along a five-km stretch of road, flanked by woodland, he pointed out the prostitutes he had put to work - bragging that he routinely trafficked women across Europe.

He boasted about a previous conviction for people-trafficking in Germany some years earlier.

Then, chillingly, he said that children were now part of his portfolio. During a secret recording, he said he had successfully smuggled them into two countries - Norway and Germany.

The sting

With Harry boasting about trafficking women and selling children, it was time to put him to the test.

Our sting was simple. One of our undercover team told him he wanted to buy a child for his childless wife.

He said his attempt to adopt in the UK had been thwarted because of his criminal record.

Official figures suggest that, worldwide, most of the thousands of children smuggled are destined for the sex trade or domestic slavery.

We wanted to test whether Harry would check our story.

Soon after, our team arranged to meet and secretly record Harry at this upmarket hotel.

The lure of a big-money deal was enough to tempt him.

At 10pm sharp, he arrived.

Harry asked no questions about his new client's criminal record.

Favourite route

Instead, he wanted to fix a price: 50-60,000 euros for the child.

The deal included getting the child out of Bulgaria with false adoption papers.

He then revealed how to smuggle the child into the UK.

He recommended going overland to avoid checks and explained various tried and tested people-trafficking routes.

He said that his own favourite route was via France and the Republic of Ireland.

"I take Cherbourg and Rosslare - there are many ways," he said.

The children

We now had our first insight into how his criminal operation worked. We arranged for the team to meet him the next day, when he would specify which children were for sale.

At 11pm the next night, Harry returned to the hotel.

Again, he did nothing to verify the buyer's identity or what would happen to the child. He wanted to get on with business. He showed photographs of two children. He handed over his camera.

One was a beautiful little girl with dark hair, olive skin and blue eyes.

Harry said she was one and a half years old, from a poor family and from an ethnic Turkish background, like his own.

He then showed a photograph of another child, the daughter of a Bulgarian single mother.

She had blonde hair and pale skin and was pictured with a man.

Our undercover team asked if he was the father but Harry said she had no father though both parents were Bulgarian.

As the night wore on, Harry offered to smuggle the child into the UK himself for a bit more money.

Our team made their excuses and left...

It took Harry about two weeks to get back to us.

We headed back to Varna where he told us that there were up to four toddlers on sale.

He remained vague about their exact locations but we know that they are in and around Varna.

The grandfather's offer

Over the next 36 hours, Harry repeatedly changed venues for planned meetings, ensuring we could not locate the children.

Instead he said he would bring them to our team.

The first viewing, at a cafe, was of a toddler called Fitiya.

She came with her mother and a man who claimed to be the child's father. It looked suspicious.

The man was decked out in gold and seemed to know little about the child.

We suspected he might be another, more senior member of the gang.

Fitiya's mother told us she was too poor to properly care for her.

She said: "I want a guarantee that the child will have a happy life."

Our next meetings, opposite a courthouse, involved a man who wanted to sell his granddaughter.

He showed us a photo of a girl, purportedly just 20 months old. The deal was to be kept secret from the toddler's mother.

Finally we met little Nazar.

Her father said he had seven other children to feed and needed the money.

It was clear Harry had a number of children ready to be sold to the highest bidder.

We had not given Harry any money for the children. Our undercover team left telling him we would be in touch.

The economics of poverty

Since meeting the children, we have handed our evidence over to the police and child welfare agencies in Bulgaria.

Three men were arrested within an hour of the BBC report being published.

In large part, it is enclaves of crushing poverty in Bulgaria that make fertile pickings for the likes of Harry.

Despite economic and social reform since Bulgaria joined the EU, the country is struggling to fight organised crime.

Social welfare organisations are very new and a law enshrining children's rights was only passed seven years ago.

Experts say that, traditionally, state interference in matters within the family was widely frowned upon.

Although things are changing, unless the authorities act with more vigour, children will continue to be sold into domestic slavery, the sex trade or for illegal adoption.

What we have seen is deeply disturbing but this is the economics of poverty in Bulgaria, in which people are the commodities and organised criminals are the profiteers.

2007 Jul 26