On Saturday, in the first part of this major series on the expected imminent influx of unskilled workers from Romania and Bulgaria, we revealed how countless would-be immigrants are planning to move to Britain — attracted by generous welfare payments. Here, in the second part, we report from Bulgaria, the EU’s poorest nation and a hotbed of organised crime . . .
For thousands of Bulgarians, the road to the United Kingdom began on the third floor of an anonymous grey building a stone’s throw from the national stadium in central Sofia.
Here, past a graffiti-filled entrance hall and up several flights of stairs, is the office of Daniel Kalinov, a genial businessman with cropped hair, a chunky watch and a desk covered by stern-looking letters from Her Majesty’s Home Office.
Daniel, who is 30, is the executive director of the Annonce agency, a company that each year helps hundreds of citizens from the EU’s poorest nation to find new jobs — and begin new lives — in Britain.
‘I provide a dream,’ he says, over a cup of instant coffee. ‘For some clients, that dream is to live in Britain for ever. For others, it’s to go there, stay a few years and come back wealthy. They do happen, these dreams, and we help start them.’
In a good year, Daniel, who has been plying his trade since 2005, will move around 1,000 Bulgarians to the UK. He takes a finder’s fee from their British employer and makes further cash by sorting out travel, accommodation and immigration documents for clients.
For a successful placement, his company, which has its office in what during communist times was a three-bedroom family apartment, will make between £100 and £300.
‘We find people jobs in Britain doing cleaning, housekeeping, bar work and hotel work,’ he says.
‘They get hired to care for your old people and they pick the vegetables in your fields. In other words, they do things British workers no longer want to do.’
These are hopeful times for Daniel. Since David Cameron came to power in 2010, promising to cut net migration to Britain to below 100,000, the Home Office’s Border Agency has attempted to make it tougher for Bulgarians to work in the UK.
Getting a ‘yellow card’ — the document that allows his clients to join our workforce — has got progressively harder, and can take Daniel up to 18 months.
As a result, his agency expects to send a relatively paltry 300 clients to our country this year. But next January, everything changes.
Under the European Union’s freedom of movement laws, all 29 million citizens of Bulgaria and neighbouring Romania, which joined in 2007, will finally gain unrestricted rights to live and work in Britain. Hundreds of thousands are expected to arrive, in a wave similar to the one that followed Poland’s accession in 2004. And Daniel will be there to cash in on them.
‘I know employers in your country who want to hire only Eastern European workers,’ he says. ‘They won’t employ the English. They say that your young people have grown lazy and that they don’t want to work hard. That is good for my business.’ The way Daniel sees it, go-getting Bulgarians will be a shot in the arm for the British economy — working hard, paying taxes and striving to better themselves in a foreign land whose domestic workforce has become idle after generations of welfare dependency.
That’s why, even without the restrictions being eased, 50,000 have already settled in the UK.
‘British people can get five or six hundred pounds a month just to be on benefits, with their accommodation and all these things paid for,’ he says. ‘So they ask why they should work to earn £1,000 a month.
‘But Bulgarians think differently. Hard work is part of our culture. It’s what gives us self-esteem.’
It’s a view shared in this snow- covered corner of the Balkans. But hard-working strivers aren’t the only sort of Bulgarians eyeing our shores.
The country is, after all, a hotbed of organised crime, where gangs occupy a level of influence described as ‘unique’ by Europol, the EU’s law-enforcement agency. (The lobby group Transparency International says that in a ‘corruption index’, Bulgaria fares even worse than Rwanda.)
Last month, as if to prove the point, Zlatomir Ivanov, a 44-year-old crime boss known as The Beret, was shot by a sniper, in daylight, on the steps of the Supreme Court in Sofia. He is in a critical condition.
‘Today, gangs exercise a considerable influence over economic activities in the country,’ noted Europol in a recent report.
A U.S. diplomatic cable published in 2009 by Wikileaks told how Bulgarians live in fear of a sinister array of mafia bosses with names such as The Skull and Big Margin, who are considered untouchable by their government.
Their empires are built on the profits of extortion, drug smuggling and moving people across Europe to work in the sex industry or provide slave labour.
Lately, many have also begun using Sofia as a base to run sophisticated computer hacking and credit card fraud operations.
But whatever their crime, the EU’s freedom of movement laws are like manna for Bulgaria’s mafia dons. Every time cross-border restrictions are further relaxed, as they will be in January, their day job gets easier.
‘When you create a system where borders are open and you do not need a visa to get into a new country, then traffickers will exploit it,’ says Gabriela Chiroiu, of Caritas, a Catholic aid organisation combating child smuggling. ‘They are cunning people and highly organised.’
Traffickers already have a presence in the UK, where police say a growing number of children from Roma gypsy communities in Bulgaria and Romania are being smuggled in to work as prostitutes, pickpockets and child beggars.
In just one case, police found 103 Roma children crammed into 16 houses in Ilford, East London.
As many as 2,000 such children are thought to be working as pick- pockets on the streets of Britain. Scotland Yard says skilful child thieves can earn £2,000 a week.
Chiriou says there is ‘no question’ that every single child from Eastern Europe begging in the UK has been trafficked. And she believes that, come January, their numbers can only increase.
‘A child on the streets in England is not there because he or she wants to be. There is someone bad behind him or her. People in the UK need to know that when you give money to that child you feed a system that makes traffickers very, very rich.
‘They are already well organised, these gangs, and freedom of movement just makes their job easier.’
Roma children aren’t the only ones in the firing line. In poor neighbourhoods of Bulgaria, young, working-class women are sold into sexual slavery overseas by an insidious brand of crook known as a ‘loverboy.’
These young, flashy men meet their victims in bars or coffee shops and attempt to strike up a relationship, showering them with flowers and gifts.
A few weeks later, once he’s firmly installed as the woman’s boyfriend, the loverboy invites his victim to take a trip overseas.
‘This happens when the girl is absolutely in love and trusts this guy,’ says Nadia Kozhouharova of the non-profit Animus, which runs a safehouse in Sofia for trafficked women. ‘Usually, this is happening in a very romantic way. But the man is a criminal who knows how to manipulate. And the moment they are abroad, the picture changes.’
The loverboy, who has possession of his victim’s passport, will then announce she owes him money for the travel. Far from home and usually unable to speak the local language, she is forced into prostitution to pay off her debt.
One recently rescued woman, who had been enslaved for eight years, made £4 million for her traffickers, according to Kozhouharova.
She had been held in Holland, but when Britain’s borders are thrown open, who is to say how many more trafficked women will be tricked or forced into coming here? Kozhouharova says sex-trafficking is a by-product of poverty, since its victims are nearly all from deprived backgrounds.
Lacking formal education and often coming from broken homes, they are easy prey for conmen offering the illusion of happiness.
And Bulgaria certainly isn’t short of poverty. Two decades after the fall of communism, the country remains an economic backwater. Its GDP per head of population is a mere £4,800 (Britain’s is £25,000) and average salaries are just £350 a month.
Much of the country’s debt is held by crisis-stricken Greece. Official figures put unemployment at 12.4 per cent, though most people believe the real figure is far higher.
Even without new EU rules to make it easy for them, many Bulgarians are already heading overseas.
The population has fallen from nine million in the early Nineties to 7.3 million today.
With migration expected to increase from January, criminal gangs are also starting to get their tentacles into the lucrative business of providing would-be migrants with jobs abroad.
There are hundreds of ‘employment agencies’ advertising thousands of jobs — mostly in Britain, France and Germany — in news-paper classified adverts and on internet forums. But almost all of them are illegal.
The Ministry of Labour in Sofia lists just 14 licensed overseas employment agencies on its official website, of which only two are allowed to deal with the UK. One is inactive. The other is Annonce, the company run by Daniel Kalinov.
In the murky but booming world of Bulgaria’s unlicensed agencies, unwitting would-be migrants are often exploited. ‘There are many disreputable people out there,’ says Daniel. ‘I’m not going to lie to you.’
Some illegal agents are fly-by-night conmen, but others are front-men for sinister human trafficking.
In a typical scam, victims will be persuaded to apply for a lucrative job in Britain’s hospitality, farming or construction industry. Days later, they are told they will be hired after payment of an upfront fee of several hundred pounds.
If they are lucky, they hand over the cash and then never hear from the agent again. If they are unlucky, they spend hundreds more travelling to their country of destination, only to find no job exists.
In the very worst cases, the agent will be a front-man for a gang that will transport a group of victims to the foreign country and confiscate their passports for ‘processing’.
After toiling for several months — on the basis they will be paid on a job’s completion — the migrant workers are then told all they have earned is a bus ride home.
Tales of such nightmares abound. ‘I know of 20 people it has happened to,’ says Beynan Halmia, a 32-year-old member of the country’s large Turkish community, whom I meet at Sofia’s central bus station.
‘In one very bad case, they were taken to Italy to work on a farm. They soon realised the people who had met them were mafia. But by then, what can you do?’
At the University of Sofia’s English Studies department, 19-year-old student Mihaela Ivanova says her father, Emil, had his fingers burned.
‘He was told of a job in Germany where he could earn lots of money. He handed over his personal documents along with a lot of money to the agent — about £400 — for what they called legalisation.
But he never saw the cash, or the agent, again. He didn’t bother reporting it to the police.
It’s not worth it with these gangs. When I go to the UK, I will be careful about the agent I use. You must check everything out.’
But as more and more Bulgarians talk of untold riches overseas, it gets harder to avoid falling for the conmen’s convincing patter.
This week, the Mail asked a Bulgarian citizen to pose as a would-be migrant and phone a recruitment firm calling itself SBSC, which had placed 40 adverts on an online jobs forum offering work for nurses, sous chefs and barmen in ‘outer London’.
A woman called Vassilia answered its advertised Sofia-area mobile number. She told our representative a £10-an-hour position in a nursing home would be ‘perfect’ for her.
‘You will soon be earning £1,500 to £2,000 a month,’ she said. ‘Email me a CV and then I will come round to your home so we can do an interview with the employer over Skype [the internet telephone service]. If he agrees to hire you, and you can pay me a 300-euro commission, the job is yours.’
Vassilia said our representative could be set up in the UK ‘within weeks’, though that would involve arriving in Britain as a tourist, working illegally and taking payment in cash until January’s EU law change.
‘Things will be difficult to start with, but will improve. Next year, Britain will become a much more attractive destination for the Bulgarian worker.’
And also, it seems, for the Bulgarian crook.
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