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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 February 2005, 13:41 GMT
Bulgaria's disturbing baby market

By Rosie Goldsmith
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

As Bulgaria prepares to join the EU, there are certain issues it has to tackle, not least its murky underworld where even babies are for sale.

Baby's hands
The selling of babies is a growing business across Eastern Europe

"We do not underestimate the problems. We are dealing with them. But it is impossible to change perceptions overnight," Bulgarian Finance Minister Milen Velchev told the BBC.

Bulgaria is due to join the European Union in 2007, if it overcomes "the problems".

There are several sticking points, and high on the list is how Bulgaria deals with organised crime and corruption.

"Commodities" such as cigarettes, meat, counterfeit currency, drugs and people are being smuggled or trafficked across its five borders.

Bulgaria's crossroads position in Europe makes it a perfect but vulnerable transit country.

Customs officials and police are often perceived as corrupt, prosecutions are rare, and mafia-style killings take place on the streets of Sofia.

Bulgaria is tackling some of these problems. Contraband rings are being busted, and a major customs reform is underway.

But there are some crimes which are so secretive and so laden with prejudice or misunderstanding that they are difficult to tackle.

The selling of babies is one of them.

Settling debts

In the Black Sea city of Burgas, 16 year-old Maria told the BBC why she had sold her baby boy.

Sergei was from the local village. When Maria needed money, he gave her a loan, but she was unable to return it.

He threatened to kidnap my first child and take away my home if I did not go
So he said she could go to Greece with him to find work and then pay him back.

"He threatened to kidnap my first child and take away my home if I did not go to Greece," Maria said.

"I was already eight months pregnant when I arrived, and Sergei suggested I sell my baby as a Greek couple wanted to adopt it."

However, Maria's child was born with disabilities and the family did not want him.

The sale did not go ahead and Maria returned to Bulgaria.

Baby rings

Maria's story fits a well-established pattern, confirmed by the Bulgarian, Greek and Italian police after they successfully broke up two baby selling rings last year.

Babies in hospital
A man visits the hospital and claims the baby as his own
It works like this: the heavily pregnant women are taken either by force or free will on tourist visas across the border to Greece, or sometimes to Italy.

The "pimps", or organisers, are usually local and known to the women, who give birth in hospital.

With the collusion of the doctor, pimp, lawyer and new family, the baby is claimed by the new "father" and registered as his.

The whole transaction costs about 18,000 and can take less than a week.

The women get about 2,000 for a girl and 10,000 for a boy.

Unknown quantity

Kupen Kupenov, the regional head of the National Service for Combating Organized Crime in the city of Burgas, told the BBC:

Kupen Kupenov, National Service for Combating Organized Crime
If they get their profit they do not come to us
Kupen Kupenov, National Service for Combating Organized Crime
"We only find out about these cases when the women come back to Bulgaria, and have been cheated out of their promised profit. If they get their profit they do not come to us.

"We are investigating five cases at the moment."

Mr Kupenov said these five cases in no way reflected the scale of the problem.

It seems incredible but up to last year it was not illegal in Bulgaria to sell babies.

In 2004 a new law was introduced, and now, the pimps face imprisonment of one year. The mothers are not charged.

Precious commodities

Along with forced prostitution and human trafficking, the selling of babies is a growing business, not just in Bulgaria but across Eastern Europe.

Kameno, Bulgaria
Gypsy communities like the one in Kameno are often affected
It is hard to investigate and statistics are difficult to get hold of.

But the Bulgarian police have information on about 250 cases, gathered since 2001. Most of those babies are now in Greece.

As adoption procedures in most countries - including Bulgaria - are tightened up, and birth rates generally drop, babies have become precious commodities.

One of the complications is that the women giving up their babies are in nearly all cases gypsies, a large minority in Bulgaria.

They are often misunderstood and held in disdain by other Bulgarians.

In a town like Kameno near the Black Sea, gypsies make up one fifth of the population.

They are statistically poorer and have more children.

Tragic tale

"Rosa" was 21 and petite, with scuffed nails and dyed blonde hair.

She was too afraid of her relatives and the local pimps to be interviewed at her home in Kameno so she came to the police station.

They want the money to raise their children and to have a better life
She told the BBC she was forced by her father-in-law to go to Greece for work.

She said that when she got there, he raped her, she became pregnant, and he forced her to sell her baby.

"I signed some documents in the hospital but they were in Greek and I couldn't read them," she said.

"A Greek lawyer came with some money for me, and my father-in-law threatened to beat me if I didn't take it."

It was the equivalent of 5000, the price of her baby boy who she never saw again.

But she never saw the money again either as her father-in-law stole it from her. So Rosa reported the story to the police.

"It is a business, an organized, growing business," she said.

"No one can stop them. I know the ring-leaders, I know personally 20 women in Kameno who sold their babies.

"They did it voluntarily. And I agree with their behaviour. They want the money to raise their children and to have a better life," she said.

Human rights

"From a psychological point of view it is a way of surviving," said Antoaneta Georgieva who runs a non-governmental organisation called Face To Face in the capital Sofia.

Antoaneta Georgieva, Face to Face
Where there is a demand for illegal babies there will always be a supply
Antoaneta Georgieva, Face to Face
This NGO aims to help stop women and children becoming the victims of forced prostitution and human trafficking.

"Selling babies is also a human rights issue. It is connected with human trafficking, and the poverty and lack of a normal life in Bulgaria," Ms Georgieva said.

Last year, she explained, adoption law in Bulgaria was tightened, which made adoption better-regulated.

"Where there is a demand for illegal babies there will always be a supply, and when the law creates restrictions you look for alternative ways," she told me, and added:

"Bulgaria is the country of alternative ways."

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents was broadcast on Thursday, 24 February, 2005, at 1100 GMT.

The programme was repeated on Monday, 28 February, 2005, at 2030 GMT.

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