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In a struggling Balkan economy, smuggling is good business

Poverty has driven hundreds of frustrated and unemployed Bulgarians to assist in illegal border crossings

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series on traffickers hired to take refugees and migrants from the Middle East, Africa and Asia to Western and Northern Europe. Part one can be read here.

SOFIA, Bulgaria — On any given evening, just as the sun descends on this Balkan nation’s capital, the area around the historic Lions’ Bridge becomes a meeting point for refugees from the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

On a typical warm night, young men from Syria crowd around the pizza-by-the-slice shop on a corner of Maria Luiza Boulevard. Across the pedestrian bridge in a grassy park, Afghans gather in circles, smoking cigarettes and passing around smartphones connecting via Skype with Kabul or Jalalabad.

Foreigners — some with legal status to be in the country, some without — go there to exchange news about home and to share the latest information from friends and family caught up in the massive migration toward Western and Northern Europe.

It is also a place where, without much effort, migrants and refugees can find a smuggler who, for upward of 600 euros, will make arrangements to take them across the border to Serbia and onto the next leg of their quest for Germany, Sweden and other more prosperous countries of the European Union.

“Everyone knows to come to the bridge to get a smuggler,” said Amid, 23, a Syrian who declined to give his last name because he feared for his family’s safety in Damascus. “They work very openly. It’s no problem to find one within 10 minutes.”

In Bulgaria, refugee smuggling is an easy source of income for petty criminals as refugees from around the world have arrived there in the tens of thousands in the past two years. Bulgaria, like the rest of the Balkan countries, is part of a transit corridor in what is now Europe’s largest migration crisis since World War II.

Bulgaria’s struggling economy has few opportunities for those seeking a better life in Europe, and most leave as quickly as they arrive. Bulgaria’s southern flank shares a 160-mile border with Turkey, and despite government efforts to increase border police and build a fence to stop illegal crossing, persistent smugglers have found ways to get refugees across both the border with Turkey and the northern border with Serbia.

Last month, Bulgarian smugglers came into the spotlight when four were arrested and charged with involvement in what was called the truck of shame, which was found abandoned on Aug. 27 on a highway about 30 miles outside Vienna with 71 refugees’ decomposing bodies inside. The men will face trial in an Austrian court.

Three of the accused came from Bulgaria’s desolate northern region of Loms, where poverty has driven many frustrated and unemployed locals to take up cross-border contraband or simply go abroad for work, neighbors of the men told Bulgarian media.

“My son didn’t have work here. He was starving. He had no means to support his family, so that’s why he went abroad,” the mother of one of the accused, Metodi Ivanov, told Bulgaria’s Trud newspaper on Sept. 1. She said he was working as a taxi driver in Germany. His wife said that if that meant “he was driving different kinds of people, he doesn’t have responsibility for them.”

‘We aren’t a rich country, and we’re spending most of our time and resources investigating and prosecuting the smaller, individual smugglers. The new challenge is the infusion of the Afghans, Syrian and Turkish organized crime rings into the system.’

Philip Gounev

Bulgaria’s deputy interior minister

Nearly all the estimated 440,000 refugees who have crossed into Europe this year from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea and other countries have paid a smuggler for part or all of their arduous journeys.

Globally, refugee smuggling is big business. According to the Migrants’ Files, a collective research project, people have paid smugglers a cumulative 16 billion euros, or $18 billion, to get to Europe over the last 15 years.

Human rights groups have warned that governments should do more to root out smuggling operations, as stories of refugees drowning after paying smugglers thousands of dollars to get their families across the Mediterranean Sea in rubber dinghies have drawn international attention. So far this year, an estimated 3,000 people have died while being smuggled from Greece to Turkey.

Bulgarian security services frequently arrest and prosecute smugglers and recently imposed harsher penalties —10 years in prison and fines of about $10,000 — for those convicted of transporting refugees or assisting in illegal border crossings. Police or border security officers caught assisting smugglers face up to 12 years in prison.

But Bulgaria’s biggest challenge is not in the individual smugglers dropping off refugees on the border for several hundred euros, said Philip Gounev, the deputy interior minister. The larger issue is how to track down and arrest the leaders of the smuggling rings that are operating on a global scale with contacts in Turkey, Afghanistan and the Middle East.

“We aren’t a rich country, and we’re spending most of our time and resources investigating and prosecuting the smaller, individual smugglers,” he said. “The new challenge is the infusion of the Afghans, Syrian and Turkish organized crime rings into the system. These are the rings that we must cooperate with the rest of Europe to go after.”

Refugee smuggling through Bulgaria to Serbia works in two ways: Take the refugees to the border, drop them off with a GPS coordinate to find on the other side and tell them to walk until they meet the next handler. Or, for a higher price, they can cross hiding in the back of a commercial truck.

Regardless, almost all smugglers in Sofia start at the Lions’ Bridge, a metro station and transit hub just a few blocks from the city’s central train station.

“First, they will agree on the price and details,” said Pavel, a taxi driver from Sofia, who declined to give his last name out of fear of speaking to a journalist about smuggling. “In two to three days, a driver will meet them somewhere else, and then they will go to the border.”

Pavel insisted he’s not a smuggler. But as a taxi driver with years of experience on the road, he has watched how they work from a distance, he said. His detailed knowledge about how smugglers operate was backed up by refugees’ stories of their experiences finding and using smugglers.

“They won’t talk to you, but we can watch how they work from here,” Pavel said as he slowed his yellow taxi to a crawl and passed the pizza-by-the-slice shop. There, a dozen young men and a few women hung around chatting. Taxi drivers milled about in the area, waiting for fares.

“Most of the smugglers are just common criminals who have already been in jail at some point. They aren’t afraid of the law,” he said.

The Syrian Amid, who is living in one of Sofia’s government refugee centers, got as far as Bulgaria only to find that his smuggler had gone silent, despite having spent $3,000 in Turkey to secure his passage to Germany.

“The problem is getting a good one, because many tell only lies,” he said.

He said he hopes to make his next move as soon as he finds some other refugees to split the cost of going to Serbia. He had a number for a smuggler whom a friend used just a few months ago, but the man’s phone was turned off.

“These guys, they aren’t serious mafia,” Amid said. “They use people like us to make a few hundred euros, then they quit smuggling and go back to just being taxi drivers. Why risk more trouble?”

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