Award 2017 Nominee
Babies for sale
In 1997 three girls were transported to Thessaloniki by a Russian woman, the girls were 18-24 months old. The woman was arrested by police; she formed part of an international child trafficking gang. The newspapers of the day reported how the three children were to have their organs harvested and sold to the black market organ trade. Nobody can know for certain what their fate would have been. In Greece, a controversial law had been ratified just a year earlier, in 1996, and it is still in force today, that law permits private adoption arrangements, i.e. direct dealings between biological and adoptive parents, without the need for any agency intervention. Since then, hundreds – maybe thousands, we just can’t know with any degree of certainty, of children like Dimitra travel from countries like Bulgaria to Greece. Some are given up for private adoption. Others are victims of sexual exploitation, or the black market organ trade.
Dimitra had never seen the newspaper report or images of the woman arrested for bringing her to Greece, we showed it to her for the first time, her reaction was almost emotionally passive “there is such evil in the world”. Yes, it was a long time ago. She had had a good childhood at the Greek Children’s Village a nonprofit organization based in Thessaloniki, and now she was trying to get on with her life. However, in terms of the Greek State, she is still considered to be invisible. “I don’t have a birth certificate, so I can’t get an Identity Card. I feel like I’m nobody. That’s what you are if you don’t have an Identity Card, you’re a nobody”, she tells us. One of the reasons that Dimitra is enmeshed in the bureaucratic procedure of obtaining an Identity Card is because she needs to change her surname. When the three girls were rescued by the Authorities, attempts were made to find their biological parents in Russia. Dimitra’s parents weren’t ever found, this resulted in the Police registering Dimitra with the care organization under the surname of the woman who attempted to sell her. From left to right, in the dock, the woman who transported the tree girls to Thessaloniki. Source: Newspaper Angelioforos, 9 October 1997.
“I don’t have a birth certificate, so I can’t get an Identity Card. I feel like I’m nobody.”
The 1996 Adoption Law includes provisions for private adoptions; it fills in the gaps of its predecessor the 1970 Adoption Law. For example, it provides for the adoption of children born out of wedlock, and also enacts the right of the child to find out who its biological parents are after the age of eighteen. Private adoptions were intended to deal with the unbelievable amount of bureaucracy which resulted in many many years of delay in the adoption procedure (an adoption arranged by a public agency 3 may take up to three or four years to complete); this is what childless couples were faced with when going through the state sponsored adoption procedure. However, there were many objections to the law at the time that it was travelling through parliament; there were concerns that child trafficking networks could easily take advantage of its provisions.
The committee charged with drafting the law had justified its position to permit private adoptions as follows: “Prohibiting private adoptions would increase the incidence of falsified birth registrations”. However, reliable sources inform us that the phenomenon of falsely registering the birth of a child in a clinic under the adoptive mother’s name is still rife today. In accordance with a Report by the Children’s Commissioner, private adoptions often conceal financial transactions and are a factor in the proliferation of child trafficking.
Since the law came into force, Authorities have, from time-to-time, dismantled complex networks involved in child trafficking in Greece, via Albania and the Former Soviet Union. These crimes increased after neighbouring Bulgaria became a full member of the European Union in 2007. Since then, the incidence of pregnant Roma women living in squalid conditions in camps in Bulgaria falling victim to child trafficking networks is on the rise. These women are transported to Greece to give birth in public hospitals, they then sell their newborn babies for a small amount of money. In some cases, these women may also form part of a baby factory, generating unspeakable profits for the traffickers. In the Balkans there is a price list for babies: A child can cost between 15.000 and 30.000 Euros, according to gender (boys are usually more expensive), eye or skin colour. The biological mother is paid just 1500 Euros, and in some cases, only the return fare to Bulgaria. The fair-haired child nicknamed “Maria” front page New York Times, 22 October 2013.
In October 2013 police raided a Roma camp in Farsala, a town in Central Greece where they discovered a young fair-haired girl with blue eyes, she looked very different to everybody else. The child was nicknamed “Maria” and it soon became 4 clear through local and international media that the girl’s biological mother was a woman living in a Bulgarian slum. This case uncovered the failings in the system in Greece that permits the unobstructed trafficking of pregnant women and children. Since 2013 two identical cases have been discovered in Larissa. We decided to research the story at source.
We went to Bulgaria, we met with women who told us that they had sold their babies in Greece and we tried to figure out how the child trafficking networks are exploiting the Adoption law in Greece. We started out in the city of Burgas, a commercial port on the Black Sea. With a population of 200.000, it is the country’s fourth largest. Burgas has repeatedly been voted by the Bulgarians as the city with best quality of life, despite high rates of criminality. This is particular noticeable in Pobeda, a Roma ghetto near the port. A large part of the ghetto is cut off from the city by means of a perimeter wall. Naked children play in muddy waters, and as we approach the centre of the slum, which is home to 12.000 people, we see why this is classified as one of the EU’s poorest regions. Pobeda, the Roma camp in the town of Burgas.
In Pobeda we are undesirable aliens and all eyes are fixed on us. There are two tiers of leadership here, lawful religious leaders and shady leaders, with a rich criminal record in illegal trafficking, theft and the trafficking of pregnant women.
We headed for the centre of Pobeda. The first woman whom we met gesticulated to us that hunger prevailed and that women got pregnant here in order to make a living. 5 In full view of the police who accompanied us, and with disarming candour, Galena Raicheva, an emaciated figure with lively eyes, told us that she had sold one of her children in Greece.
“I paid off my debts and repaired my roof with the money that I was paid”. We follow her into her humble shack, the only place we are able to speak in private. “I was taken to Greece to a hospital to give birth by these men from Kameno (a small town on the outskirts of Burgas). I gave birth to a baby girl and I gave her up. I only nursed her for three days. A Greek man took the child. I was given three 500 Euro notes. “The intermediaries are the ones who make lots of money”, says Raicheva. “I feel very bad about it, but what can I do? It hurts to think about what I have done, look at how the worry and regrets have affected me”. “I gave birth to a baby girl that I gave away. I only nursed her for three days”, Raicheva (centre) tells us that she had sold one of her children in Greece for 1500 Euros.
“How could a mother sell her child?”
Our instinctive reaction was to judge her, albeit silently. “How could a mother sell her child?” Even those of us who had declared that we were atheists at the beginning of this trip seemed affected by a genetic Christian moral code as we grappled with the rights and wrongs on opposing sides of the arguments. And the longer we spent in the camp, the more we realized that these women weren’t the offenders, they were the victims of child selling networks.
In the Maternity Clinic of the State Burgas Hospital, the obstetrician Antonio Dushepeev tells us that he comes across pregnant Roma women as young as twelve. “They don’t go to hospital during their pregnancy and they have many problems during childbirth. As a father of two daughters, I feel very sorry for these women. And I also regret the fact that having a baby at such a young age means that they are likely to miss out on gaining an education or getting a job. They will suffer and so will their children”.
Back in Pobeda, Chief of Police, Stamat Hristov, knows only too well which women have sold their children on, and who the child traffickers are. He maintains, however, that Greece is the source of the problem. “The problem is that it is facilitated. We are talking about legislation in neighbouring countries. The transactions are all done overseas. The sellers are here. They are women from the lowest levels of society, living in squalid conditions. They are plagued by regrets and often testify against the traffickers”, Hristov informs us. “Women come here because they want to, we don’t force them”, says Bogdan, accused of trafficking pregnant women.
As we walk through the ghetto with the Chief of Police, a man approaches him. He is wearing blue shorts and his naked body is heavily tattooed. Bogdan Shterionov is the brother of the infamous Pandurito, one of the unofficial leaders of Pobeda, who exercises great influence. Both had served time for trafficking pregnant women. Bogdan is proud of the tattoos that he had done whilst in prison and when we ask him what he was in for, he hesitates for a moment and then pipes up “for child trafficking” and smiling he opens his arms over his belly as if he were pregnant. “I was innocent, I was sent down for ten years for nothing. I didn’t sell any children”, he says. But, when we ask him for his opinion on women who sell their babies, he replies: “They approach us voluntarily, they are homeless. We don’t force them to do it. There is a God up above. They usually have about four children and they want to buy a house. I tried to sell one and didn’t manage (…) I would have earned 8-10.000 Lev (4-5.000 Euros), I would have sold the child in Greece”.
Life is tough in Pobeda. People fish for a living, they sell scrap metal, they open small convenience stores. The only state benefit they receive is 35 Lev (17 Euros) per child a month. As if their predicament wasn’t hard enough, recently they are all being threatened with homelessness as the Bulgarian government wants to demolish their shacks, and they are enraged by the situation. The same evening we accompany a police night patrol in the heart of the ghetto. The situation is explosive. 7 The cameras aren’t welcome in the neighbourhood, and especially not by the shady leaders who declined invitations to meet with us. Children standing on car bonnets are laughing and making fun of our mesmerized faces. Some of them throw a bottle of water at us, others throw stones. We are truly undesirable.
PEOPLE IN BULGARIA ARE STARVING
Bulgaria has been a member of the EU since 2007; however it has the worse performing Member State economy. The minimum salary is about 200 Euros, and more than two out of every ten citizens live below the poverty line. The Roma community fares worse still because it is on the margins of society.
We travelled to Gorno Ezerovo a small village 15 kilometres from Burgas. We found dirt roads and people living in huts by the lake. Rumyana Hristova is a woman with scars on her face and hands, she was waiting for us outside her shack, with its wooden roof and gaping holes letting in the cold. All of the camp had gathered to catch a good look at the foreigners. They all knew Hristova’s story.
“I was living in a shack when I sold the baby. I didn’t want it to have the same fate as me, I wanted it to have a better life.”
“I have four children, one of my sons is in prison. I am unemployed, I don’t have any means of earning a living. My husband collects rubbish at the dump. He is unemployed. We are starving in Bulgaria”, she tells us. “In 2010 I discovered that I was pregnant. I was living in a shack when I sold the baby. I didn’t want it to have the same fate as me, I wanted it to have a better life. I didn’t have a house. Those people came and saw that I was pregnant. They asked me if I wanted to go to Greece, and I agreed. I went to Greece, gave birth and sold the baby. What else could I do?”. What she went on to say was just as poignant. “They gave me 2.000 Euros. I built this house, but I didn’t have enough money left over to pay off my debts. The following year I gave birth to another baby. I had to replace the boy that I gave away. What else could I do?”, she lamented. At that moment a boy entered the shack. The women embraced him: “I am no longer able to give a child away. It’s a sin”.
I AM NOT FOR SALE
We left the city of Burgas and travelled to Kameno, a town approximately 25 kilometres away. This is ground zero. It seems that this is where the golden trail of trafficking pregnant women to Greece commences. Zumbulka Shterionova is a pretty 20 year old woman, she is heavily pregnant with her fifth child. She gave birth to her first child when she was fifteen. She gave birth to her third child in Cyprus and sold it to a childless Greek couple. The traffickers deceived her and she never received the agreed payment. “I was duped into giving my baby away, to build a house so that the other children could have a home. They told me that I would get 3.500 Lev (1.700 Euros). But that’s not what happened. They took the child, they sold it, I signed, but I didn’t get any money at all. Luckily they put me on a plane, they didn’t leave me stranded. I reported it to the Police and they said that it’s going to court. The police know everything”, the young woman tells us. 8 Child trafficking is such a problem in Kameno, that children in a state nursery wear wristbands with the words “I am not for sale”.
Everyone in Kameno knows where the traffickers live. They live in two-storey “palaces”. In comparison to the other houses, theirs have balconies and courtyards, the difference is obvious to us as we walk through the roads of the small town. We put what we considered a reasonable question to the Authorities: Given that the traffickers are known, why aren’t they arrested? A Kameno police officer who asked for his identity to be kept anonymous, gave us this answer: “They have been arrested for the crime in Greece and they have been imprisoned there. This doesn’t mean that they committed the same crime in Bulgaria”. Then we asked why the women who sell their children are not prosecuted, and we received this reply. “Because they testify against the traffickers”.
The problem of child trafficking in Kameno is so great that at the State Nursery children wear a wristband that says “I am not for sale”. We enter a classroom very quietly during a lesson. The young students receive us enthusiastically raising their arms and then they start drawing and singing. The nursery practitioner Maria Ivanova is the soul of the program, which at its core aims to raise awareness amongst children and parents. “We are overwhelmed by events in our area. We are trying to teach children and their parents about family values, love and unity”, Ivanova tells us. She is personally informed of many instances of child trafficking to Greece, the nursery children tell stories of how “my uncle does it”, and mothers confide in her. 9 Maria Ivanova the nursery practitioner at Kameno. The children finish drawing and the teacher proudly shows us a drawing done by a little boy. “Raicho, well done, I see that you have drawn your parents and your twelve siblings. Your drawing is wonderful and it shows how much you love them”, she says and gives the boy a hug.
The highest profile case of child trafficking in Bulgaria was uncovered in the city of Varna, on the northeastern side, in the Roma camp at Maksuda. In 2011 a thirty year old woman changed her mind about selling her baby and wanted it back, so she went to authorities with details of the child trafficking network. As a result, seven people were arrested in Greece and five in Bulgaria. In Lamia, a city in central Greece, a newborn baby was discovered in the house of the boss of the network. We were given access to the “Lamia” casefile, and saw that Interpol had marked several items as “confidential”, and that these related to at least eight Bulgarian women whom had registered their babies in various registry offices in Greece, three in Volos and five in Lamia. The police investigation revealed that from 2007 to 2012, two hundred and forty-seven Bulgarian women had given birth in the County hospital of this Greek region. As a result, one hundred and seven Bulgarian babies were put up for private adoption.
The Roma camp in Maksuda, on the outskirts of the city of Varna, people live next to thousands of tons of waste, rats and syringes. If ever there was a living hell, it must be Maksuda on the outskirts of Varna where people are literally living next to thousands of tons of rubbish, with seagulls circling overhead. They put their lives at risk, rummaging for metal and plastic, competing with rats and trying to avoid syringes. We managed to meet up with the brother of the woman who was accused of acting as cashier of the child trafficking network in Lamia. He was in a wheelchair and told us that his sister had moved to Belgium. “This is all in the past. If you want a child, go to the institutions”, he advises us.
Against this desperate backdrop, volunteers from the NGO “Partnership” in Varna are trying to bring positive changes to the lives of the Roma. “Many boys here dream of becoming traffickers. It’s often a family enterprise handed down from father to son to grandson” Iliyan Rizov, head of the organization informs us. “The mothers are the victims of circumstance and they don’t come to the decisions alone. The responsibility lies mostly with their environment. When a mother considers selling her baby, she is actually thinking about the rest of her children. So, on the one hand, she is influenced by her environment, and on the other she faces the bleak prospect of raising another child in poverty”, explains Rizov.
And the message of the volunteers is this “Don’t sell your children. 500 Euros will cause you more grief than you could ever imagine“.
DEMAND IN GREECE
It was becoming clear that Greece was the source of demand feeding the baby trade. Illegal adoption is far from being a new phenomenon in Greece. Maksuda camp in Varna.
In the mid-90s the newspaper ΤΑ ΝΕΑ in Thessaloniki published a significant investigation into the baby trade which had existed in the shadows of this town for decades. The article was about the Russian Women’s Clinic (aka the State Hospital of Thessaloniki) in the sixties and the State Orphanage “Agios Stylianos”. It seems that an entire network consisting of doctors, midwives and various intermediaries had told poor women, many from small villages who already had large families, that their baby had died after delivery. The babies were subsequently left on the steps of the State Orphanage with notes supposedly signed by the mothers saying that they weren’t able to raise them. Over the years, network members made a fortune from these illegal adoptions.
These cases surfaced many years later when some of those adopted children tried to search for their biological parents, and set up a society. It was revealed that midwives and nurses had kept notes and personal effects left by the biological parents who believed that their baby had died. One of the journalists involved in the investigation, Georgios Chatsios recollects “people who had been adopted forty years ago started coming forward, they wanted the truth”. It is impossible to know with any degree of certainty how many children were adopted illegally in Thessaloniki in the sixties. “There were hundreds of cases. Some days we had as many as forty people in the YOUTH office, all wanting to tell their story, clutching on to photos and handwritten notes”. The first case brought to court was in the matter of the adoption of Supreme Court Judge Daniel Daniel’s son, the judge wanted to get to the truth and the Public Prosecutor’s case was based on the judge’s evidence.
The court accepted that an illegal adoption had taken place, however the crime could not be prosecuted due to the statute of limitations. In fact the statute of limitations meant that none of the other cases brought to court could be heard, and over the years, many of those involved (doctors, midwives, etc.) had passed away. A Roma family in the town of Kameno, on the outskirts of Burgas. A few years ago a trafficker had approached the father offering him enough money to build a house in exchange for a child. The family refused his offer.
Two decades on and state adoption procedures can still take up to five years. Greek couples want to adopt babies, and not five year old children. This has given rise to many childless couples going down the illegal route.
Eleni Gegle, an Athenian Lawyer and former associate of the Public Prosecutor of the Juvenile Court tells us “The Law is clear. It doesn’t allow for the exchange of money in the adoption procedure. Nevertheless this isn’t observed. In 95% of private adoption cases the adoptive parents pay money”, and she goes on “the basis for private adoptions is sound. The Law gives a childless couple the possibility of coming into direct contact with the biological parents wishing to give their child up for adoption, without receiving any financial gain (…). Often however, the legal paperwork drafted between the two parties, which is verified by the court, simply states that the two parties agree to the adoption proceeding, it doesn’t verify how the two parties were initially introduced”, notes Mrs Gegle.
Illegal adoptions are in effect legalized in the courts. This vicious circle could be broken if the Judge had the right to put further questions to the biological mother, notably “how did you meet the adoptive parents?”
Mrs Gegle goes on: “The courts in Athens hear private adoption cases on a Monday in building no. 6. It is notable how on that day that there is a prominent presence of women of a particular nationality, all being represented by the same lawyer.
Yes, a single lawyer may respresent nineteen out of the twenty-five cases appearing on the daily court list. It’s strange.” And she goes on: “Cases are also heard whereby the court is presented with evidence of women putting up nine children for adoption”.
It becomes even simpler if members of the medical profession are involved in the Greco-Bulgarian network. Instead of the biologicial mother’s details being registered at the hospital or maternity clinic, the adoptive mother’s details are registered. This does away with the need for the adoption to pass through court. The adoptive father then just needs to make a declaration at the Registry Office. From the cases examined in court over the past few years it has emerged that doctors, lawyers and other intermediaries formed part of these networks. Bulgarian Roma live in the EU’s poorest region. They are marginalized and suffer prejudice from the local community. Screenshot from the documentary “Babies for Sale”.
Even so, arrests are rare. Policewoman Sofia Kousidou, Head of Thessaloniki Police Child Protection Unit, explains that the last network was dismantled in 2013. “Greek legislation doesn’t incorporate illegal adoption as part of organized crime. This deprives the police from certain weapons in our questioning arsenal and limits the action that we would otherwise be able to take”, the Head of the CPU goes on “of course in the absence of an actual complaint its nigh on impossible for us to prove that the adoption involved a financial transaction”.
Given that it doesn’t seem to be in anybody’s interest to speak to the police, another solution would be to inspect Registry Office procedures systematically. That would be the first port of call to find out whether the same mother had previously given up any other children for adoption. That could provide grounds for informing the Juvenile Court immediately. We did contact the Thessaloniki Registry Office, however they declined our request for an interview. Another solution would be for social services to conduct rigorous checks at Maternity Clinics. The Ippokrateio 14 General Hospital of Thessaloniki, where many women from Bulgaria give birth, declined our request for an interview. The Greek government has announced that changes are to be made to the Adoption law; however the Deputy Minister for Labour holds the cards on private adoption very close to her chest. Photograph: Maksuda Camp in Varna, Bulgaria. During the course of our investigation, we were often confronted with the opinion that these children are better off in Greece.
This “charitable” opinion may be one of the reasons leading to the perpetuation of criminal negligence on behalf of the Greek state. Registry office officials aren’t doing their jobs. The Authorities have their hands tied. The judges have their hands tied. Lawmakers in their attempt to resolve the important issue of delays in the Adoption procedure may have created an even bigger problem. And at the end of the day, adoptive parents, desperate to have a child, finance child trafficking networks with huge sums of money. Their reasoning? “Why shouldn’t I help a child born into such poverty?” The answer seems simple: “Because you are sponsoring crimes against minors and their mothers”.
In late November 2016 the Deputy Minister for Labour, Theano Fotiou, proposed a bill to accelerate the adoption procedure in Greece. “The draft law is intended to expedite the adoption process, it will create irrefutable criteria, it will set out time constrained procedures. Adoption documentation will be completed in three months. Couples wishing to adopt should not be left in a never ending queue for years”, she declared to the media. Our sources reveal that discussions on reviewing the law on private adoptions are also taking place. The Deputy Minister of Labour declined our repeated requests for an interview on whether the law on private adoptions would be abolished.
The documentary “Children for Sale” was broadcasted on the VICE SPECIALS program on ΑΝΤ1, which airs every Saturday after midnight.