Bulgarian traffickers make a killing in EU migrant crisis

dead-migrant-in-austriaThe truck with 71 dead migrants abandoned in August on an Austrian motorway had Hungarian plates and a Slovakian poultry firm’s livery. But five of the six suspects since arrested are Bulgarians.

To detectives probing the dark business of human trafficking, this was no surprise.

Organised criminals in Bulgaria are major players in the lucrative trade in human cargo — and often have scant regard for whether their freight lives or dies.

Bulgaria, a member of the European Union, is the bridge between Turkey and the rest of the EU.

Its gangs came to the 2015 migration crisis with a wealth of smuggling experience, transporting everything from heroin to fake Gucci bags.

The latest Trafficking in Persons report by the US State Department calls Bulgaria “one of the primary source countries” — and also a transit country — of men, women and children sold into sex slavery and forced labour.

With corrupt officials turning a blind eye, women and children are shipped worldwide, disabled people are forced into begging on Europe’s streets and labourers find themselves stuck as far away as Zambia, the report said.

The flow of people fleeing war, persecution and poverty in Syria, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa has offered even bigger pickings.

Armed with their EU passports, know-how, equipment and contacts, the Bulgarian gangs have become the go-to organisations for the desperate.

“It has been easy to transform the paths forged by traffickers into channels for smuggling migrants, who are vulnerable and ready to take risks,” Kamelia Dimitrova, head of a Bulgarian government commission tackling human trafficking, told AFP.

– Big in trucking –

Bulgarians are also second only to Turks when it comes to numbers of lorry drivers in Europe, said Tihomir Bezlov, an expert in crime at the Centre for the Study of Democracy (CSD) in Sofia.

“And as EU citizens, they have an advantage over the Turks because they can move within Europe without a visa,” Bezlov told AFP.

More than 340,000 migrants have arrived in the Balkans this year.

“The migratory pressure towards Europe means that most of the criminal gangs are getting in on the act because profits are quick,” said Rumiana Bachvarova, Bulgaria’s interior minister.

Most of the new arrivals enter Greece and seek to travel through the western Balkans towards northern Europe, helped in many cases by Bulgarian gangs operating well beyond their own borders.

An investigation by Bulgaria’s Nova television station found that migrants travelling from Istanbul have to pay several traffickers along the route a total of 9,000 euros ($10,075) per person.

Crossing a border costs 800-900 euros. Bulgarian border police look the other way if their palms are greased with 250-300 euros per person, Nova said.

The risks, until recently, have been low.

So far this year, only 283 people have been convicted in Bulgaria for smuggling, generally getting away with suspended sentences of a few months and fines of just 1,000 leva (510 euros, $570).

Parliament however recently tightened the law, punishing people transporting migrants across the border with 10 years in prison and fines of 30,000 leva. Crooked officials, in theory, can expect up to 12 years behind bars.

It’s not just gangs that are in on the act.

Bulgaria is the EU’s poorest country, with a national average monthly salary of just 400 euros ($448), so the incentive for ordinary people to earn extra cash is high.

Many locals in the Vidin region near the Serbian border are making money by driving migrants over the frontier.

“Anything that moves is fine — buses, boats, cars — with a preference for buses since they earn more money,” Vladislav Vlachev, a spokesman for public prosecutors in Vidin, told AFP.

“Everyone apart from the grandmothers is getting involved.”

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