The Government of Bulgaria does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so. The government demonstrated significant efforts compared to the previous reporting period; therefore Bulgaria was upgraded to Tier 2. The government demonstrated increasing efforts by allocating more funding for victim services and opening two new facilities in Sofia for trafficking victims, including a crisis center for child victims. Authorities identified more victims—more than doubling the number of labor trafficking victims it identified in 2016—and convicted more traffickers. The government also approved a five-year national anti-trafficking strategy for 2017-2021. However, the government did not meet the minimum standards in several key areas. Judges and prosecutors continued to lack training on working with trafficking victims and cases, which had negative effects on witness protection, victim compensation, and sentencing for perpetrators. Courts continued to issue suspended sentences for most convicted traffickers. Officials’ lack of knowledge of trafficking indicators hindered effective victim identification, especially among foreign nations and women exploited in prostitution. Corruption in law enforcement and the judiciary continued to hinder progress and investigations into complicit officials rarely led to criminal punishment.

Hold convicted traffickers accountable with prison terms; enhance efforts to investigate and prosecute sex and labor trafficking cases; vigorously investigate, prosecute, and convict government officials complicit in trafficking, and hold convicted officials accountable with prison terms; proactively identify potential trafficking victims, especially among women exploited in prostitution; enhance efforts to train law enforcement officials, prosecutors, and judges to understand the severity of sex and labor trafficking crimes and its impact on victims; increase financial support for anti-trafficking activities, including for implementing objectives in the national strategy and national program, and training officials on victim identification; provide knowledgeable legal counsel and courtroom protections for victims assisting prosecutions; provide specialized services to child victims, including unaccompanied minors; and streamline the victim compensation process and increase the number of victims receiving compensation.

The government increased law enforcement efforts. Articles 159a-159d of the criminal code criminalized sex and labor trafficking and prescribed penalties of two to eight years imprisonment, which were sufficiently stringent and, with respect to sex trafficking, commensurate with penalties prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. In 2017, police initiated 81 investigations, prosecutors indicted 80 defendants, and courts convicted 59 traffickers; this is compared with 85 investigations, 73 prosecutions, and 35 convictions in 2016. Of the 59 convicted traffickers, only 18 (31 percent)received a prison sentence that was not suspended, a similarly low rate as in the previous four years. As in 2016, the government did not report the range of prison sentences imposed on convicted traffickers. Courts issued fines to 29 convicted traffickers in 2017, compared with eight in 2016 and 23 in 2015. Judges reportedly prescribed lesser penalties to sex traffickers if their victims had initially entered prostitution willingly, despite Bulgarian and international law deeming past experience in prostitution irrelevant when there was subsequent exploitation. In 2017, the government participated in six joint investigations with other foreign governments. Among the investigations, police from Bulgaria and Sweden targeted an organized crime group recruiting Bulgarians for forced begging in Sweden; the investigation resulted in 12 suspected traffickers arrested and charged. In addition, Bulgarian and Spanish authorities investigated an organized crime syndicate recruiting women for sexual exploitation; 31 suspected traffickers were arrested.

Corruption in law enforcement and the judiciary, selective prosecution, and long trials continued to hinder progress. Authorities initiated two investigations involving police officers who allegedly assisted pimps and traffickers. Separately, prosecutors of the anti-corruption unit initiated an investigation of several police supervisors who allegedly received bribes from a resident of Dobrich engaging in forced prostitution. Additionally, courts prosecuted two complicit officials for extortion of criminals involved in prostitution and pimping; the trials were ongoing at the close of the reporting period. Observers noted the government lacked resources to investigate cases and local anti-trafficking commissions lacked information materials and training. Observers also reported judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement officials needed training on working with and sensitivity toward trafficking victims. The national anti-trafficking commission provided specialized training for 60 local-level investigators, police, lawyers, prosecutors, and judges on applying the national referral mechanism, new trends and challenges, and future steps in combating trafficking. The commission also collaborated with a research foundation to provide training on improving interaction between lawyers and judges for better protection of trafficking victims; more than 40 lawyers, prosecutors, judges, investigators, and legal advocates participated.

The government increased efforts to protect victims. Based on open pre-trial investigations in 2017, the prosecution service identified 407 victims (323 of sex trafficking, 67 of labor trafficking, and 17 of forced servitude), compared with 365 victims (329 victims of sex trafficking, 31 of labor trafficking, and five of both sex and labor trafficking) in 2016. Forty-two of the identified victims were children (21 in 2016). Authorities identified five potential foreign victims from Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Thailand during the year, compared with one foreign victim in 2016. However, observers alleged law enforcement could not effectively identify victims, particularly labor trafficking victims and victims among third country nationals. Additionally, reports indicated police did not proactively search for signs of trafficking among women detained for prostitution, and prosecutors and judges lacked sensitivity when interacting with sex trafficking victims. Law enforcement officials, prosecutors, investigators, and labor inspectors received training on trafficking, including on identification; those trainings were mostly funded by international grants and NGOs. Pre-trial authorities formally identified all trafficking victims, and the commission referred victims to services. The government co-funded projects with international donors, allocating 15 percent of the total costs. In 2017, the government spent 376,000 lev ($230,530) for services and implementation of the annual national anti-trafficking and victim protection program with an additional 254,000 lev ($155,730) from international donors. The government also co-funded 15 percent of the 390,000 lev ($239,120) allocated for shelters and crisis centers in Sofia and Varna, including the crisis center for children in Sofia. The government opened two new NGO-operated facilities in Sofia for trafficking victims: a shelter and a center (in one facility) for temporary accommodation of adult victims and a crisis center for child victims. The government also contracted NGOs to operate two centers offering consultative services for trafficking victims and three shelters offering residential services. Furthermore, 23 publicly-run crisis centers offered social services to children and women victims of violence, including trafficking. The centers provided support, counseling, and accommodations to 144 trafficking victims. Child victims could stay in centers for up to six months at which point child protection services could place them with relatives, a foster family, or another residential care institution. In March, the council on child protection began to institute a specialized service for referral and accommodation of unaccompanied minors with a view to providing them with care separately from adults. There were no specialized accommodation options or services for male victims.

The law allowed foreign victims who cooperated with law enforcement to stay and work in Bulgaria for the duration of criminal proceedings before deportation, although no foreign victims had applied for this status. For foreign victims who chose not to assist in trafficking investigations, the government provided a 40-day recovery period (70 days for foreign child victims) before repatriation. The law accorded victims anonymity during the pre-trial and trial phases, but authorities rarely implemented this provision, resulting in victims changing their statements out of fear, intimidation, and bribery. Observers noted many victims did not cooperate with law enforcement because they did not believe the judicial system would protect them from re-traumatization, effectively administer justice, and convict perpetrators with meaningful sentences. Observers reported victims lacked support during criminal cases, as the state reportedly did not provide knowledgeable legal counsel during trials. Victims were often required to give testimony in the presence of the alleged trafficker, and it was common practice for alleged traffickers to confront their victims in court and question them through their lawyers. Observers reported the process for seeking compensation continued to be overly bureaucratic and discouraged victims from making claims; as a result, no victims received compensation.

The government increased prevention efforts. The government adopted and approved a five-year national anti-trafficking strategy for 2017-2021. The government also adopted a national program for combating human trafficking and victim protection, focusing on prevention among at-risk populations, more effective victim identification, and better support for survivors. NGOs assessed the goals in the strategy and program as relevant and realistic; however, they expressed concern about sustainability since international donors and projects funded most of the activities. The national commission held a conference on labor exploitation, aimed at improving the multidisciplinary cooperation through best practices and information sharing. The commission also conducted a national campaign dedicated to internet and social networks as recruitment tools. The campaign included web banners on popular job and dating websites that clicked through to a special information page. The government conducted 152 inspections of labor recruitment firms and identified 464 violations. The government also conducted 175 inspections of temporary employment agencies and identified 731 violations, and conducted 530 inspections of employers sending posted workers in EU countries and identified 2,781 violations. The commission conducted a study mapping areas of the country considered high risk for trafficking and published the findings on its website. The government demonstrated efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex and forced labor.

As reported over the past five years, Bulgaria is a source and, to a lesser extent, transit and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor. Bulgaria remains one of the primary source countries of human trafficking in the EU. The government and NGOs report a significant increase in the number of Bulgarian and Roma victims subjected to forced servitude, particularly in Poland, Spain, and the United Kingdom. Bulgarians of Turkish ethnicity and Romani women and girls, some as young as 13 years old, account for most of the sex trafficking victims identified in Bulgaria, particularly in the capital, resort areas, and border towns. Bulgarian women and children are subjected to sex trafficking throughout Europe. Victims are increasingly exploited through a combination of sexual and labor exploitation, including domestic servitude. Traffickers subject Bulgarian men and boys to forced labor across Europe, predominantly in agriculture, construction, and the service sector. Bulgarian children and adults with disabilities are forced into street begging and petty theft within Bulgaria and abroad. Romani children are also vulnerable to forced labor, particularly begging and pickpocketing. Bulgaria is a destination country for a limited number of foreign trafficking victims, including trafficking victims from Africa and Southeast Asia. Government corruption in law enforcement and the judiciary continues to enable some trafficking crimes, and officials have been investigated for suspected involvement in trafficking.

U.S. Department of State

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