The government maintained overall insufficient protection efforts. The prosecution service reported formally identifying 413 potential trafficking victims (336 sex trafficking, 77 labor trafficking), a significant increase from 340 in 2019 and 376 in 2018. Of the 413 identified victims, 30 were child victims (24 sex trafficking, six labor trafficking), compared with 33 in 2019 and 53 in 2018. Authorities identified three foreign victims—one Ukrainian sex trafficking victim and two Kyrgyz labor trafficking victims—compared with one in 2019 and none in 2018. Statistics included victims from investigations and prosecutions initiated in previous years, raising concerns that the data reported did not provide an accurate picture of the trafficking situation. The Commission maintained separate statistics on the number of victims identified and, in 2020, identified 60 potential victims, a striking difference compared with the prosecution service’s statistic of 413. Furthermore, the Commission’s statistic (60) reflected a multi-year decline from 94 in 2019 and 130 in 2018 and contradicted the multi-year increase indicated by the prosecution service’s statistics. While stakeholders held discussions on establishing a single and unified register of victim statistics and as part of a regional project, an international organization developed an electronic register, the government made no progress on implementing a system. As a result, the number of reported victims identified remained unreliable. Moreover, the number of victims assisted remained unclear. In 2020, the Commission reported accommodating 26 adult and child victims, compared with 30 in 2019. The State Agency for Child Protection (SACP), which coordinated different protection measures than the Commission, reported assisting 31 children but did not differentiate how many were victims of sex and labor trafficking or abandoned by their parents, compared with 17 child trafficking victims in 2019.
According to the Commission, authorities did not identify as many victims because of pandemic-related movement restrictions as well as possible reluctance of victims to report exploitation if they anticipated doing so would result in no prospect of income. NGOs alleged some authorities could not effectively identify victims, especially among vulnerable groups such as asylum-seekers, migrants, individuals exploited in commercial sex, and members of the Roma community. NGOs and international organizations reported cultural issues created extreme difficulties for all practitioners in identifying trafficking crimes among the Roma community. Some law enforcement officials viewed Roma as people who chose a lifestyle that included sexual exploitation and either did not need support or could not be identified as trafficking victims.
Authorities, NGOs, and the Commission referred victims to services. The government provided counseling, shelter, and reintegration assistance to domestic and foreign victims. In 2020, the government paid 117,560 lev ($73,750) to NGO service providers for victim health care and psychological and social assistance, compared with 117,400 lev ($73,650) in 2019 and 234,000 lev ($146,800) in 2018. Experts noted the victim protection program was chronically underfunded and hampered implementation of a fully-fledged victim-centered approach. The government continued contracting NGOs to operate crisis centers and shelters. The government provided 25 crisis centers for victims of violence and trafficking, but observers noted limited dedicated shelters for trafficking victims remained problematic with only three throughout the country (two in Burgas and one in Varna). In 2020, the Commission received an EU grant for 450,000 lev ($282,310), 25 percent of which the government co-funded, to reopen an adult shelter that closed in 2019 due to lack of funding. However, concerns remained about the sustainability of the shelter beyond the duration of the EU-funded project. Observers noted an increased challenge finding accommodation for victims in Sofia that the pandemic exacerbated.
During the reporting period, the government temporarily closed the crisis center for child trafficking victims in Sofia after several incidents at the center, including attempted arson by a victim compelled by their trafficker. Child victims could stay in centers for up to six months at which point SACP could place them with relatives, a foster family, or another residential care institution. An underdeveloped foster care system often resulted in SACP placing children in shelters for victims of trafficking or domestic violence. SACP assisted child victims for 12 months with the option to extend. A 2020 UN Special Rapporteur report found child sex exploitation prevalent among children in residential care, particularly children from marginalized communities. The report acknowledged there was a lack of systematic and reliable data on the scope of the problem citing evidence from child protection stakeholders. The report also identified insufficient cooperation among the various authorities engaged in child protection inhibited provision of assistance to child victims. NGOs also reported challenges in the coordination and referral of child victims due to an overly bureaucratic approach of child protection officials who sometimes prioritized paperwork over children’s needs. The government allocated 11,570 lev ($7,260) annually per child accommodated in a crisis center and increased funding to 12,730 lev ($7,980) during the middle of the reporting period, compared with 9,870 lev ($6,190) in 2019. The increase in funding was due to new legislation on social services updating the minimum wage in the country; the law also allowed municipalities to co-fund services and seek co-funding from private entities. SACP operated the 24-hour hotline for children and, in 2020, added more operators and online services. The National Council on Child Protection maintained referral services and accommodation for unaccompanied children.
During the reporting period, a 2020 amendment to the law reduced the length of stay in registration centers for asylum-seekers from six months to two weeks. NGOs noted the new law decreased asylum-seekers’ prospects for successful integration and increased their risk of exploitation. Bulgarian 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 investigations, the government provided a 40-day recovery period (70 days for foreign child victims) before repatriation. Observers noted many victims did not cooperate with law enforcement because they did not believe the judicial system would protect them, effectively administer justice, or convict perpetrators with meaningful sentences. The law exempted trafficking victims from punishment for unlawful acts traffickers compelled them to commit; however, practitioners noted this law did not provide full exemption as force was not always applied. Some experts said police generally did not understand that people in commercial sex were vulnerable to trafficking or that the non-punishment provision for crime victims could apply to them. The government provided repatriation assistance to Bulgarian citizens but had no designated funds, relying on an international organization or institutions in the destination countries to cover costs. While the law provided free legal assistance to victims, qualified legal aid was difficult to access, especially when victims were outside of the jurisdiction of the court reviewing the case. The process for seeking reparation from the government’s victim fund remained overly bureaucratic and discouraged victims from making claims; as a result, no victims received restitution or compensation in 2020.