Prosecution of human trafficking in Bulgaria (TIP 2023)

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The caretaker government maintained law enforcement efforts. Articles 159a-159d of the criminal code criminalized sex trafficking and labor trafficking and prescribed penalties of two to eight years’ imprisonment and a fine for crimes involving adult victims, and three to 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine for those involving child victims. These penalties were sufficiently stringent and, with respect to sex trafficking, commensurate with penalties prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape.

In 2022, authorities investigated 57 cases (35 sex trafficking, 20 labor trafficking, two unspecified forms of trafficking), compared with 53 in 2021. During the reporting period, the Prosecution Service changed its methodology for reporting prosecution data and only provided statistics on new prosecutions, whereas, in previous years, statistics included ongoing prosecutions. In 2022, the Prosecution Service reported prosecuting 19 traffickers (17 sex trafficking, two labor trafficking); it reported prosecuting 77 traffickers in 2021. Courts convicted 37 traffickers (31 sex trafficking, six labor trafficking), an increase from 27 in 2021. As in previous years, the caretaker government did not report the range of prison sentences imposed on all convicted traffickers; however, judges issued suspended sentences for 25 convicted traffickers (68 percent) and acquitted two, which weakened deterrence, did not adequately reflect the nature of the crime, and undercut broader efforts to fight trafficking. Bulgarian law allowed those convicted of a crime to be eligible for suspended sentences if the sentence received was for three years or less, which frequently happened in trafficking cases. Anti-trafficking advocates recommended amending the minimum sentence for trafficking from two to longer than three years to attempt to reduce the instances when convicted traffickers would receive suspended sentences. However, political instability prevented the passage of any trafficking-related legislation as the country had a caretaker government for two-thirds of the reporting period and lacked a working parliament for more than one-third of the reporting period. Some government and law enforcement officials criticized judges for not considering victims or the broader effects of lenient sentences for convicted traffickers. In 2022, Bulgarian authorities cooperated with European counterparts on one new joint investigation team with the United Kingdom, several international investigations, and multiple judicial requests. In one investigation, Bulgarian and German authorities cooperated on a sex trafficking case involving five women forced into commercial sex in Germany; authorities arrested 10 suspected traffickers. In 2022, the Ministry of Interior (MOI) and its international partners established joint contact centers on the borders with Romania, Serbia, North Macedonia, Greece, and Türkiye, and exchanged information about criminal activities, including trafficking cases.

Corruption in law enforcement and the judiciary, impunity or lack of meaningful sentences for complicit officials, and selective prosecution remained pervasive. Reports indicated law enforcement and prosecution service officials purposely failed to follow up on potential labor trafficking cases or sometimes investigated such cases as lesser violations of domestic labor rules. NGOs reported alleged complicity in smaller towns by law enforcement officials reluctant to investigate trafficking cases because they either knew the traffickers or feared retaliation. Additionally, media outlets reported some police officers took payments to turn a blind eye toward women exploited in commercial sex. Nevertheless, in 2022, the caretaker government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government officials complicit in trafficking crimes.

MOI’s General Directorate for Combating Organized Crime (GDBOP) was the primary law enforcement department responsible for combating trafficking. GDBOP maintained a specialized police unit for investigating trafficking cases involving organized crime. Other departments within MOI, including the National Police and the Border Police handled cases that did not involve organized crime. NIS maintained a specialized criminal department that investigated cases related to serious crimes, including trafficking, with specialized investigators, but had limited jurisdiction over trafficking cases. Observers reported investigators and prosecutors continued to lack sensitivity toward trafficking victims, referring disparagingly to minority groups and making broad generalizations about victims, especially those subjected to sex trafficking. Observers also noted uneven levels of knowledge about trafficking laws and referral procedures among investigators and prosecutors, particularly at the local level, and suggested it was easier for prosecutors to successfully prosecute immigration violations rather than trafficking crimes. Furthermore, authorities at all levels of the government continued to conflate human trafficking with irregular migration and human smuggling. According to an NGO, a major challenge to investigating and prosecuting labor trafficking cases was the lack of a common understanding among law enforcement and judges about what constituted forced labor. In July 2022, the government dissolved the specialized courts and prosecutors’ offices, whose mandate included trafficking cases involving organized crime. Experts were split on the merits of the closure, but at least one expert prosecutor criticized the reform and lack of political will to address ways to support prosecuting trafficking cases and assisting victims, such as amending legislation to lower the burden of proof required to prosecute trafficking crimes and allow seized assets from traffickers to fund victim services. In October 2022, to address knowledge gaps and improve specialization, the prosecutor general issued an order mandating specialized trafficking training for some prosecutors and investigative magistrates and requiring the random assignment of trafficking cases to those individuals. According to observers, authorities regularly seized financial assets from convicted traffickers. In 2022, while there was no formal mechanism in place to allow seized assets to supplement victim services or victim compensation, government agencies, by way of an NGO, provided confiscated goods to shelters and specialized service centers directly assisting trafficking victims.

In 2022, NIS established a cyber unit focused on internet-based crimes, including trafficking, and financial investigations to assist regional police in investigating crimes with online components. Previously, regional police only received assistance from national agencies for online exploitation cases with an organized crime nexus. According to an NGO, traffickers’ use of the internet for online sexual exploitation, including trafficking, had increased more than 100 percent in the last 18 months. NGOs expressed concern authorities were not proactive in investigating online cases and the government lacked active policies for online child protection. Moreover, the increasing use of encrypted communications hindered authorities’ efforts to gather evidence for successful prosecutions, particularly involving online trafficking cases. Government officials expressed hope the new cyber unit would help address some of these shortcomings. In 2022, the NCCTHB, the agency that coordinated the government’s anti-trafficking efforts, conducted several trainings for investigators, prosecutors, judges, and social workers on various topics, including approaches to investigations and prosecutions, trafficking legislation, coordinating on labor trafficking cases, financial investigations, and victim identification among vulnerable communities, such as Roma.

from 2023 Trafficking in Persons Report – U.S. Department of State

2023 Trafficking in Persons Report – United States Department of State

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