22 Dec 15

Lives for Sale: Bulgaria’s Booming Black Market in Babies for Greeks

Pregnant Bulgarians travel to Greece to sell their babies to couples desperate to adopt, a trade that is flourishing while efforts to counter it flounder

Juliana Koleva & Kostas Kallergis Sofia, Burgas, Athens, Thessaloniki, Lamia
 This single-storey shabby house was bought with money (3500 euros) from the sale of a newborn baby boy, left by his parents to be adopted by a Greek family. Village of Ekzarh Antimovo, Southeast Bulgaria. May, 2015. PHOTO Juliana Koleva

"Ah, don't even ask, in our village almost everybody has left a baby in Greece. I at least managed to buy myself this little house with the bloody money, so we’d have somewhere to live with the kids. I haven’t squandered a single lev."

“But many people here give away babies for the easy money - they drink, they eat, they party. When the money runs out, they just sell the next baby."

This is Stanka, a woman in her thirties from Bulgaria’s marginalised Roma minority who admits she sold a new-born boy in Greece a few years ago for 3,500 ($3,700) euros, a crime for which she is currently on trial.

“I regret it all the time and can’t stop thinking of that boy, but I was young and stupid. I couldn’t imagine any other way to earn some money to feed my other two children, I had no hope,” she says, her voice trembling.

"You should have seen where we lived, with my mother and the rest of the family, more than 10 in a room with no glass in the windows, no doors, a dirt floor, no electricity or water. You wouldn’t even want to house an animal there.”

She starts crying as she recalls how people came to her home from the nearest big town and offered to sell her third baby that was on the way. Everyone else was doing it. She concluded this was the answer to her problems.

Now she lives with her husband and two boys, 10 and 12, in a single-storey house in the same small Roma town of Ekzarh Antimovo, about 40 km inland from the Black Sea port of Burgas. The home is run-down and basic, but for her a huge step up.

Hundreds of women

Stanka is one of dozens of Bulgarian women each year who are known to have sold new babies to couples in Greece desperate for a child of their own, officials say. They suspect the real number is in the hundreds.

Mothers can earn up to 5,000 euros, but sometimes less than 1,000, according to court documents seen by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN. Middlemen take the biggest cut of what the adopters actually pay.

As Stanka points out, the practice appears to attract little social stigma among Romas, who make up the vast majority of known cases.

A distinct regional ethnic minority with their own culture and language, Romani, they are often poor, jobless and ill-educated. Many live apart in run-down “ghettoes”, and face pervasive discrimination.

Anti-trafficking police and prosecutors say it is rare for the mothers, who usually have other children already, to regret their actions, or for them to invest the money in something lasting like a house.

Usually the women, often only 18-19 years old and rarely over 25, decide to sell during an unwanted pregnancy, but more recently police have noticed some who conceive with the sole purpose of selling.


Velichka, a mother of three from the Roma ghetto in the eastern provincial city of Sliven, is perhaps more typical than Stanka. She has no home of her own and no money left from the 1,500 euros she received for her child – only half what she had been promised.

She earned a two-year suspended sentence in Bulgaria in 2009 for selling her baby in Thessaloniki, Greece, after police were tipped off. She has no qualms in telling her story, though the details she relates paint her as more of a victim than did the account she admitted to in court.

Velichka, who says her only employment has been as a prostitute, now blames her father for forcing her to sell her baby and says he spent the money on gold jewellery and a television. She still lives with her parents.

In Greece she sold a kidney, and in that way, according to police, made the contacts that led her to sell her child a year later.

She reveals her deepest secrets, then asks for money to help her buy medicines for herself and daughter, but finally gives up.

Bulgarian police say they suspect the baby trade with Greece may go back as far as the 1990s, when the collapse of communism in eastern Europe suddenly opened up the borders, but has been growing steadily in recent years, especially since Bulgaria joined theEuropean Union in 2007, making those borders all but vanish.

The traffickers here are mostly Roma men and women who lived for many years among ethnic kin in Greece and have good contacts.

They focus on the Roma ghettoes around the Black Sea ports of Burgas and Varna and in the relatively poor east – the towns of Sliven, Yambol and Stara Zagora between the coast and the more affluent capital Sofia.

A ready market awaits them across the southern border in Greece where often childless couples are willing to pay to bypass a state adoption system which can leave them waiting seven or eight years.

Greece, unlike Bulgaria, permits private adoptions and thus makes this kind of deal easier.
The Mitera Infant Centre in Athens, Greece’s biggest state institution for adoptions, says only one in five of some 500 annual adoptions involve the state. Each year the centre arranges around 35 adoptions but receives 150-200 applications.

Bulgarian authorities say Greeks have been paying up to 30,000 euros for a girl and 40,000 for a boy. Greek police say adopters pay anywhere from 3,000 to 30,000, with prices down slightly in recent years because of the economic crisis. Four out of five babies up for sale were boys.

“It’s not just that the parents want to have a boy, boys are more expensive and therefore the criminal rings prefer them too,” said an officer from the Greek police anti-trafficking unit who declined to be named as he takes part in undercover operations.

The young mothers, however, get only a meagre share of this money, Bulgarian police say. The rest goes to traffickers and other intermediaries.

“It is not uncommon afterwards for the traffickers to cheat the women out of their promised money, throwing them €500 or so or even just a ticket home to Bulgaria”, says one investigator.

The road routes south to Greece are easy and well-worn. Traffickers drive the pregnant women across the inner-EU border without passport checks, and if guards do ask the purpose of their trip, they usually cite seasonal agricultural work.

The women, mostly treated as suppliers of goods, are then put up in lodgings they are not allowed to leave until it is time to give birth. After that they return to the lodgings while the deal is finalised.

Cases and convictions in Bulgaria for baby trafficking

Source: Bulgarian state prosecution statistics. Data were not available prior to 2010

Under Bulgaria’s penal code the punishment for trafficking (incitement, recruitment, transport) of a pregnant woman with the purpose of selling the newborn is imprisonment of three to 15 years. If the act is committed on behalf of an organised criminal group, the minimum term is five years and the perpetrator’s property can be confiscated. A woman who consents to the sale of her child can be jailed for one to six years. If the defendant admits guilt the sentence can be reduced by one third if there is an agreement with the prosecution. Sentences can also be suspendedif thepenalty imposed is under three years.

Doctors, lawyers involved

Stanka relates her experience.

"I was in an apartment with two other pregnant women. I don’t even know where they took me, it was a city that began with R I think. I was told not to leave the house as it would awaken suspicions. But during my stay they didn’t treat me badly, perhaps they didn’t want me to give up and betray them,” she says in faltering Bulgarian.

“When the time came they took me at the hospital, it looked as if they were familiar with the medical team. After the birth they became rougher - they made me sign some documents that were incomprehensible to me, almost threw the money at me – just half of what we had agreed -, took the child and sent me back to Bulgaria.”

She and other mothers told BIRN that teams in the hospitals seemed to have been specially organised by Greek members of the trafficker group, and knew what they were involved in.

Bulgarian police and prosecutors say this tallies with their findings.

"The network cannot be organised without doctors, local lawyers and prosecutors sometimes," one officer told BIRN.

The dozen Bulgarian prosecutors and police from the organised crime division who helped with this article all declined to be named because rules forbade them to talk to the media and because exposure might harm future operations.

Once the pregnant woman is in Greece, it seems very easy for her to leave the baby behind without anyone knowing.

One method that Bulgarian investigators have encountered for legalising the adoption is for a Greek man to claim he is the father of the child. A few months later the mother relinquishes her parental rights in his favour.

But the most common path is private adoption. A lawyer or an obstetrician helps a couple find a woman who wants to give up her newborn. All they must do is sign a private agreement. That was that – although since 2013 the adoption must also be ratified by a court.

No money is supposed to change hands. But the absence of regular checks has created a fertile black market, authorities acknowledge.

Bulgarian supply, Greek demand

One Greek couple told BIRN of their daughter’s experience a decade ago.
Unable to have her own child, Elena (not her real name) had tried for years to adopt through from a state-run children’s home but in vain. Eventually she and her husband gave up and decided to pay.

They found out about an Athens lawyer who could find babies from Bulgarian mothers.
The couple paid 25,000 euros and soon the lawyer arranged a meeting outside one of

Athens’ main hospitals. Elena waited in the car with her father. One of the traffickers who had arranged the adoption opened the door and placed the baby in her lap. “Elena was glowing with happiness,” her father remembers. She was a mother, at last.

The couple later completed all the legal paperwork for the private adoption of their daughter. Theoretically, social services should make scheduled and spot visits to check up on the child. But no one ever did.

A few years later the little girl saw a pregnant woman and asked her mother, “Were you like that too before I was born?” And Elena replied, “You are not a baby from my belly, but you are a baby from my heart,” her mother recounted.

Away from the Balkans few people know of this contemporary trade in the region.
But one story that did make global headlines in 2013 was when Greek authorities seized Maria, a blonde five-year-old living with a Roma family near the town of Larissa, on suspicion she had been abducted.

It turned out she had been unofficially “adopted” and was a Bulgarian Roma from Nikolaevo, near Stara Zagora. She is now in care pending an official adoption elsewhere.

In 2013 the world was shocked by the news of the 5-year old blonde girl Maria abandoned by his Bulgarian family in Greece. Now – almost three years later, the situation and misery in the Roma quarter of Nikolaevo where Bulgarian biological parents of Maria lived, is the same. Only the family that lives in the same house is different, Maria`s parents have moved in a neighbor village leaving the shack to their relatives. Maria`s family house, village of Nikolaevo, Central Bulgaria. June, 2015. PHOTO Juliana Koleva

Bulgarian authorities and Roma leaders agree that dire poverty and lack of opportunity drive women to sell their babies, and that within their community, there seems to be little objection to the practice on moral grounds.

“For them the child is not a big value, they don’t feel the sale of a baby as a problem, just a livelihood,” says Michael Stefanov from A21, a foundation that fights human trafficking.
Gancho Iliev, a Roma who heads a foundation to help his community in the Stara Zagora region, says conditions in the ghettoes are dire.

"There is no 21st century, no water, no power. People sleep on the floor in the dirt with the chickens and other domestic animals. They are isolated from other Bulgarians.”

“There is no proper education, medical health care, or religion,” he says. “Nearly everyone is unemployed, just a few make a living in agriculture or clean the streets for petty cash.

There is nothing to give them values, morality.”

He says the authorities do little to help and that there is no real political will to improve their lot.

No emotion

A policeman from Sofia’s anti-trafficking unit recalls his first cases.

“I met a girl – she came into this very office with her mother and they both cried so much and regretted selling the baby. They couldn't stop crying,” he says.

“That is why I'll always remember the woman who was next. There was nothing, no emotion of any kind. She talked about the sale as if it was of no importance, as if she had sold a watch or a TV set."

The attitude of the second woman, he says, is the more typical one.

Police from both countries said most trafficking probably goes undetected. Even when they uncover a case, making a prosecution stick can be a nightmare, particularly since cross-border coordination of investigations does not prove easy.

A Greek anti-trafficking policeman said that apart from tracking the criminal rings down, the biggest challenge was to prove a financial transaction. “That’s what makes a private adoption illegal,” he said.

 The Lamia ring – caught after 10 years of trafficking

The Lamia ring is the highest-profile baby-trafficking case in Bulgaria and Greece in recent years and shows what can be done in the rare instances of successful cross-border police cooperation.

In the early hours of 25 January 2011, after an arduous eight-month joint investigation, Greek and Bulgarian police launched a coordinated crackdown on the well-organised group of traffickers, arresting at least 12 people -- seven in the Greek city of Lamia, 214 km (133 miles) northwest of Athens, and five in the Varna Black Sea port region of northeast Bulgaria.

The police investigation showed that the criminal gang was approaching Bulgarian women, mainly poor members of the Roma community, when they were in the last term of their pregnancy to persuade them to give birth at Lamia hospital and sell their baby for money. Bulgarian prosecutors said the ring had been operating for about 10 years.

The arrests came after Zvezda Snejinova, a 29-year-old Bulgarian from near Varna, told police on the Greek-Bulgarian border that she had changed her mind in Lamia and wanted to keep her new daughter but the traffickers had taken the child from her by force and sent her home.

Police said the traffickers had promised the mothers up to 2,500 euros for the babies – which they had then sold to adoptive parents for 20,000 to 25,000 euros.

In very rare cases like Snejinova’s, if mothers got cold feet, ring members would violently take their babies and, with the help of forged documents and birth certificates, carry out illegal private adoptions for money.

One or two other girls complained that the traffickers had threatened to harm their relatives back home so they felt compelled to sign the necessary papers giving up their children, Bulgarian authorities said.

Three ring leaders were given 16-year jail terms in Greece, cut to 10 years on appeal, with lesser sentences for the others.

Two were Bulgarian Romas who had lived in Greece for a decade and a half, and the third a Bulgarian lawyer married to a Greek man.

Most of those arrested in Bulgaria and convicted of grooming the women and helping transport them, ended up with suspended sentences of up to three years or a fine.

Dimitris Konstantopoulos, a journalist of the Lamia Report local news portal, uncovered telling statistics when he examined the registry of Lamia hospital’s maternity clinic.

Between 2007 and 2012, there were 274 births by Bulgarian mothers at the clinic, in a town more than 400 km from the border. Of these at least 107 were then adopted. In 2010, just before the gang was busted, one in 11 women giving birth at this hospital was a Bulgarian citizen. The arrest of the Lamia ring coincided with a sharp fall in such births and adoptions, as the clinic’s figures below show:


Months of investigation and surveillance might be inadequate unless the gang is caught red-handed. Without that, cases ran a risk of being very weak when brought to court.

One human trafficking expert from Bulgaria’s General Directorate for Combating Organised Crime estimated that only about one in 10 such crimes in Bulgaria was ever solved.

The low risk of detection, difficulty of prosecution and often mild sentences in Bulgaria make it a profitable easy business for all involved.

Bulgaria tightened up its trafficking laws a decade ago and has some of the toughest penalties in Europe.

Anyone who convinces a woman to sell her baby or transports or houses her during the process can face up to 15 years in jail, and the mother can also be prosecuted.

However, evidence is hard to collect, since all involved have an interest in remaining silent.

The biggest success in cross-border efforts to combat the trade, the Lamia case, came after one mother changed her mind and sought police help to recover the child she had just parted with. But such cases are few.

More usually traffickers, aware of dangers as in that case, just let the women go, as one mother, Fana, told BIRN.

Suspended sentences

As a result prosecutors often cut deals with traffickers who agree to plead guilty and in return often receive suspended sentences of less than three years.

This is why only three people are serving sentences in Bulgarian prisons for the baby trade, according to justice ministry figures.

Although there have been cases involving mothers from nearby Albania and Romania, it seems Bulgaria is the centre of the trade.

A tally of Greek police statements show that from 2010 to 2015, more than half of the people, mainly traffickers, arrested for illegal adoptions were Bulgarian citizens. Greek police sources told BIRN most were Romas.

“We think Bulgaria is leading this type of traffic. It is much closer to Greece and transporting a pregnant woman there is quite easy. Albanian women face tighter border controls,” says the NGO worker Stefanov.

 “Another reason could be religion … especially among the Albanians, who are highly religious.”

Prosecutors and police say widescale impunity is simply persuading more women to follow suit.

One young Roma girl from Kameno, a poor village near Burgas with a big Roma quarter, tells how her friend and other close relatives were tempted into a sale.

"When you are on the brink of survival and can’t provide for your children, and you see more and more families travel to Greece with a pregnant woman and return without the baby...

After which they start celebrating and partying the same night because they have come by some money... That is when you begin to consider it,” she says.

She once asked an acquaintance if she missed the twins she had sold.
The young woman had just shrugged her shoulders, motioned to her other children, and said:

"It was their turn, how otherwise would I be able to feed these here."

Locals in Kameno and police officers claims that at least 5 or even 10 of the rich houses in the Roma quarter of the village, the luxurious way of living of the owners and their families are mainly due to trafficking and mediation in the sale of babies. Village of Kameno, Southeast Bulgaria. May, 2015. PHOTO Juliana Koleva

In her village the traffickers live well, she says.

“I'll tell you where to go and look for them, but I won’t come with you, I am afraid even to be seen speaking with you,” she says.

We visit the street she indicated. On one side are run-down shacks, where the locals and police say the pregnant women are recruited from. On the other are a dozen or so flashy new multi-storey houses, freshly painted, surrounded by high walls with wrought-iron grilles, and smart cars in the yards where men with gold chains, rings and chunky bracelets hang out.

Locals and police say about half of these houses were built from the proceeds of baby trafficking. Many residents of Kameno, Roma and Bulgarian, say they are surprised the authorities seem to turn a blind eye to it.

Burgas police told BIRN they were very aware of the source of this wealth but had little hope of compiling evidence that would stick in court. In May this year, for example, members of two of the families owning lavish houses in Kameno appeared before the district court in Burgas.

The three traffickers - Stanka Raycheva and spouses Racho and Silvia Dinkovi - confessed to taking a pregnant woman to Lamia in Greece in 2010 and getting her to sell her baby.

The mother, who faces a separate trial, testified against them. Despite this, and comprehensive evidence from Bulgarian and Greek police, two of them got a suspended sentence of just under three years, and the other a fine.

 Silvia Dinkova (in the middle), her husband Racho Dinkov and their neighbor Stanka Raycheva (her parents at the picture) were charged this year for baby trafficking. In the District Court of the city of Bourgas, Southeast Bulgaria. May, 2015. PHOTO Juliana Koleva

 A police officer from Burgas who worked on the case told BIRN such light sentences would never serve as a deterrent.

"The traffickers lack any respect for the system and it becomes virtually impossible to prevent the spread of this crime,” he said, banging a fist on the table in frustration.

He said the investigation took over 18 months and he and his colleagues had become demotivated by such an outcome of all their hard work.

Bulgarian officials say they can find out nothing from Greece about what happens to the babies after they are born.

Experts from Bulgaria’s Commission for Combating Human Trafficking say Greece’s National Adoption Registry is even more secret than the records of the Bulgarian anti-terrorist services. Every time they try to locate a baby, they get the same response:

We have no Bulgarian babies here, and we do not give information on Greek citizens.

What should be done?

Ersi Fotopoulou, a lawyer from the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki who has dealt with numerous adoptions, said Greece should reconsider the ban on money changing hands – a rule that ensures that when money is involved, the lion’s share goes to the traffickers.

“In the United States, the law is more honest and allows for a financial transaction as long as it’s visible,” she says. “In Greece, we cover up the issue. There will always be money involved.”

Many Bulgarians, among them the families involved, argue that adoption in Greece will give the children a much better life than their siblings have amid the dust and poverty of the ghettoes. But aid workers say with no follow-up controls, no one really knows what kind of lives these children live.

A senior anti-trafficking aid worker in Sliven, who declined to be named, said Bulgaria and Greece could not stop the trade.

“If the rewards remain as high and the risks as low as they are now, it's just too tempting and it's likely to carry on and maybe grow,” she said.

She suggested a partial solution that seems likely to fall on deaf ears.

“Perhaps both countries should consider some kind of legalisation – to impose clear rules for payment to the mother, for her support during pregnancy, for payment of medical examinations, accommodation. At least this would stop the black market, which mainly benefits traffickers and middlemen.”


Mitko - a baby sale that fell through

"Here he is, the little one. He was supposed to be sold in Greece, but we gave up.”
With these words, a middle-aged Roma man puts his hand on the head of Mitko, his fair-haired son who is soon turning five.
Neither Mitko, nor his father nor his brothers listening in were at all embarrassed or disturbed by the story of how the family had planned to earn 2,500 euros – a huge sum by their standards - by leaving him in Greece to be adopted.
Most people know the story here in the very poor village of Cherna Gora, near Stara Zagora [see map]. When the mother, Fana, was called over to join the conversation in front of the house, she left alone inside her latest baby, her eighth, and had no problem sharing these personal facts.
Fana’s family lives in a one-room shack at the end of the village. Her first four children live with her previous partner. But she and the new baby still share this room with about a dozen other relatives.
Just a quick glimpse reveals how much they need: a proper door instead of the blanket. A solid roof. Even the walls look about to fall down. Fana has no running water and no electricity since it was cut off for non-payment. She has never had a steady job.
Mitko and his two brothers are running around in the dirt in front of the house, each with a slice of bread for lunch in his hand. Bread is the children’s main food, for breakfast, lunch and supper.
Short of money, then-pregnant Fana and her partner Kolio contacted well-known local traffickers to sell the unborn boy. The traffickers organised their trip to Greece. Fana remembers they stayed near Lamia, a central town with a big Bulgarian Roma community nearby.
Their gang was run by Michael Shterionov, one of only three people currently in jail in Bulgaria for trafficking of newborns, serving a six-year sentence.  Shterionov – or Pandurito as he is better known around here – was caught by police in 2012.
Fana says she was treated well and waited out the birth in a big flat, owned by one of the traffickers, which she shared with one other pregnant woman.
So why did they pull out?
Fana and Kolio explain at the same time with almost same words: “We preferred to keep the baby... that he stays with us… we’d give everything for our children, even if we have just a crust of bread it will be for them.”
But later more details emerge to explain the sudden U-turn.
“At first everything was fine, they gave us food, took us to a medical examination etc.,” Kolio says. “But a few weeks later things started to trouble us. We had been promised €7,000, but then they began to haggle, reducing the amount and saying we should pay for the medical checks, accommodation and food.”
Fearing they might be cheated out of their money, the couple decided to leave Greece and keep the child.
”We had no problems and we weren’t kept there forcibly,” Fana explains. “Maybe for the smugglers it would be dangerous to force us to stay and abandon the child against our will - we could make a scene or alert the authorities.”
Police working on trafficking cases say now it is rare for traffickers to force mothers to stay if they get cold feet. Finding a replacement expectant mother is easy and it is not worth the risk of their going to the police. But it does happen - read the Lamia case.
Rows over the money happen from time to time but both supply and demand keep the trade buoyant, said a Bulgarian police anti-trafficking agent.
“No deal has failed due to lack of demand in Greece,” he said.
Fana went home penniless. But there is little to stop people like her thinking of this way to raise money.
Fana testified against Shterionov and faced charges herself for planning to sell her baby – though she was acquitted - but Bulgaria in general has turned a blind eye to the whole issue. Partly, NGO activists say, this is because it mainly involves the marginalised and disadvantaged Romas, who make up 5-10 percent of the population of some 7 million.
Fana is just a statistic for state institutions. Her impoverished life is just accepted in Bulgaria as the way things are for Romas.  
The local mayor said he did not think there was any way to help the family.
Social services occasionally try to take away her children temporarily because of the poverty and squalid living conditions. And this is all the help that Fana and other families like hers receive.

This article was produced as part of the Alumni Initiative of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by the ERSTE Foundation and Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.