The government marginally increased prevention efforts. The NCCTHB continued to implement the 2017-2021 national anti-trafficking strategy and drafted the accompanying annual national program for combating trafficking and victim protection with a budget of 461,600 lev ($267,750), an increase from 440,400 lev ($255,450) in 2020. Political instability negatively impacted the work of the NCCTHB, which did not convene for more than a year under the two caretaker governments and did not execute critical functions, such as extending and renewing contracts for victim shelters. Furthermore, the NCCTHB struggled with limited financial and human resources and multiple rotations at the deputy minister level for most of 2021. NGOs expressed concerns about the lack of high-level government support and public commitment to combating trafficking and the negative impact it had on the NCCTHB staff. Despite the setbacks, in 2021, the NCCTHB funded an academic institute to assess the implementation of the 2017-2021 national strategy. Experts interviewed government officials, NGOs, and independent observers and prepared a report with recommendations for the 2022-2026 national strategy. Additionally, the NCCTHB published an annual report of the government’s anti-trafficking efforts, monitored the activities of the 10 local anti-trafficking commissions, and assessed the quality of services provided at the specialized government-run shelters and crisis centers. In 2021, the NCCTHB conducted multiple national awareness campaigns, including a campaign on sex trafficking targeting students and children. The government also participated in an international campaign led by EUROPOL and Slovakia, raising awareness of sex trafficking. The NCCTHB maintained a phone line, email, and website for the public to inquire about or report trafficking-related crimes through which it identified 129 potential trafficking victims. The Ministry of Justice continued to support an NGO-run hotline for victims of violence, including trafficking, allocating 64,980 lev ($37,690), compared with 65,000 lev ($37,700) in 2020. Separately, the government supported a dedicated NGO-run hotline through burden sharing, such as transportation costs, and consultative services, including advice on assistance and identification, and promoted the hotline through social media. The hotline referred 21 trafficking-related cases to authorities who identified 29 potential victims. The government made efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts by conducting an awareness campaign aimed at buyers of commercial sex. In 2021, UNHCR reported cases of violent pushbacks of asylum-seekers and migrants along the borders with Greece and Turkey—an illegal practice under international and EU human rights laws as well as a practice that potentially increased a persons’ vulnerability to trafficking, exacerbated distrust of foreign officials, and disallowed for the reporting of any exploitation experienced.
Experts noted systemic issues, such as the lack of resources, limited legal authority to identify and pursue labor trafficking cases, and insufficient training that impeded labor officials’ ability to enforce laws effectively. Bulgarian labor laws prohibited employers and labor agents from charging recruitment fees, withholding identity documents, unilaterality changing employment contracts, and delaying payment of workers’ wages. NGOs criticized the government for failing to identify and prosecute cases of severe labor exploitation, alleging the government focused instead on labor law violations that carried administrative sanctions. In 2021, the General Labor Inspectorate (GLI) conducted 1,035 inspections of labor recruitment firms, temporary employment agencies, overseas companies, employers sending “posted workers” to EU countries, and cases involving foreign workers in Bulgaria; it identified 3,657 violations and imposed 266 fines. In addition, GDBOP participated in international operations to combat labor trafficking, including joint days for action targeting exploitation in the agricultural industry. During the reporting period, the government continued outreach work on labor trafficking, including information sessions and workshops with vulnerable groups and the development and distribution of information brochures to foreign seasonal workers hired at Bulgarian resorts. The Ministry of Labor and Social Policy maintained labor offices in EU countries with large Bulgarian communities and considered high-risk trafficking destinations; the offices provided information and advice to job seekers on trafficking and reported cases to the NCCTHB for repatriation.
Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, more than 200,000 Ukrainian refugees arrived in Bulgaria and nearly 100,000 remained in country. The government set up a taskforce to process Ukrainian refugees and launched a website with information on legal status, employment, medical assistance, human trafficking, and temporary protection, among others. As of April 2022, the government granted temporary protection to 51,291 refugees who, in turn, received access to free emergency medical services and access to the labor market. The Ministry of Health directed the regional health administrations and the emergency centers to organize and coordinate access to healthcare for all Ukrainian refugees arriving in Bulgaria. The Ministry of Justice extended free legal aid service to Ukrainian asylum-seekers available in all regional counseling centers and presented an accelerated naturalization procedure for Ukrainians of Bulgarian heritage. With the assistance of an international organization, the government created anti-trafficking information and prevention materials targeted at Ukrainian refugees and distributed these through local anti-trafficking coordinators, partner institutions and organizations, and the NCCTHB. In coordination with an international organization, the government trained state and non-state frontline responders on victim identification. While experts commended the government for its efforts to register and accommodate refugees, they noted the need to focus on long-term contingency planning and to include comprehensive budgeting that matches resources to needs.