Over the past 15 years, the sale of babies in Bulgaria’s poor Roma communities has become almost commonplace. With help from traffickers, destitute parents are selling their newborns in neighbouring Greece, where adoption laws are lax.
Grinding poverty among this often oppressed minority fuels the trend, and the “explanations” given by the bereft mothers fool few.
“Iliyana left for Greece pregnant. She came back a week ago, without the belly and without the baby, saying that it died at birth in Greece,” whispered a woman in the run-down southeastern village of Ekzarh Antimovo.
“It is the third baby that she has sold,” she added, with a knowing glance.
The village is not far from the city of Burgas in the province of the same name, where the trade started in Roma ghettos at the turn of the century. It has spread to other regions, including the eastern cities of Varna, Aytos and Karnobat, Sliven to the southeast, and Kazanlak in central Bulgaria.
In 2015 alone, Burgas prosecutors probed 27 cases of trafficking of 31 pregnant women to Greece and the sale of 33 babies.
Another mother from the same village as Iliyana is currently facing charges for selling a baby boy in Greece.
“I am not who you are looking for,” the plump young woman snapped after AFP knocked on her door.
With its new window panes, her whitewashed house looks decent compared to the neighbouring wooden shacks, where large families are often forced to sleep on the ground.
“Ninety-seven percent of the locals are illiterate,” sighed the Roma mayor of Ekzarh Antimovo, Sashko Ivanov.
The sale of babies remains “an isolated phenomenon that occurs among the most marginalised,” he said. “Babies were and will be sold because the misery is profound”.
– Cost of a life –
Authorities acknowledge they are fighting an uphill battle.
“The cases are very hard to prove. The mothers, whom we consider to be victims, do not cooperate to testify against their traffickers. Often they are the ones who seek help to sell a baby,” Burgas prosecutor Ivan Kirkov told AFP.
The women are paid between 3,500 and 7,000 leva (1,700-3,500 euros, $2,000-4,000) per baby — a tiny fraction of the smugglers’ cut but huge compared to the average Bulgarian monthly salary of 400 euros.
Greece’s legal system exacerbates the problem: for an adoption to take place, a mother simply needs to declare in the presence of a notary that she is willing to give her baby to a certain family. Taking money is, however, illegal.
Many investigations end in suspended sentences for the traffickers as most have a clean criminal record, according to Kirkov.
Under Bulgarian law, the mothers can only be charged if they acted alone, which is rare, he added.
In total, 16 people were sentenced for baby trafficking in Burgas province over the past five years.
A recent TV interview with a Roma man from Burgas involved in a trafficking ring shed new light on the illegal practice.
“Three or four traffickers hold the whole Greek market, selling five to six babies per month,” Plamen Dimitrov told Nova television.
One trafficker’s wife, “Elena from Kazanlak, holds the record by giving away eight babies, a real factory,” he added.
– ‘I’m not for sale’ –
Large flashy homes line a street in the Roma neighbourhood of Kameno town, a short drive from Burgas city. They belong to smugglers who “supply women to Crete”, according to a local policeman.
“Their money also comes from other illegal activities such as trafficking in migrants,” he told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Official figures confirm that human smuggling is big business in Bulgaria, frequently criticised by the EU for its weak judiciary and widespread corruption.
“Bulgaria remains one of the primary source countries of human trafficking in the EU,” the US State Department said in its 2015 Trafficking in Persons report.
In the face of the failing justice system, Kameno kindergarten headmistress Maria Ivanova has launched a grassroots initiative with the Ravnovesie NGO against the baby trade.
Ivanova teaches kids in local nurseries and schools that “the sale of a brother or sister is not normal”.
Her initial attempt to discuss the issue with the mothers was met by “outright hostility”, she explained.
So instead, Ivanova focuses directly on young Roma pupils, many of whom now carry bracelets, purses and stickers with five simple words: “I am not for sale”.