Bulgarian Traffic: Smuggling Workers to the German Promised Land

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Modern human traffickers are supplying the German market with workers from Bulgaria, who can expect to earn three euros an hour and sleep in a basement. A journey with day laborers who see Germany as a land of milk and honey.

Bojan Hakim* is standing on the market square, accepting orders. "Three men between 20 and 35," says one customer, "but this time I want some stronger ones!" Hakim nods. He gives the builder his business card. It features the image of a VW Transporter, with the words "Germania Turs" written below it in red letters.

Fruit and vegetable vendors hawk their produce on one side while junk dealers sell radios and ashtrays on the other. The scene is the weekly market in Wilhelmsburg, a blue-collar and immigrant neighborhood of Hamburg. There is great demand for inexpensive but high-quality items.

There's also demand for Hakim's stock-in-trade: His Bulgarian laborers are wanted on construction sites, on the docks, in bars and on cleaning crews. His mobile phone rings constantly. He fields calls from pizza bakers in Denmark and warehouse managers in Frankfurt. Everyone places orders for workers at a flat daily rate of €25, tax-free and without insurance.

Hakim, 33, knows his way around the business. He once worked as a livestock trader in Bulgaria, trading sheep, goats and cattle. His animals had to be healthy, strong and willing. It was a good business. Today he trades in people. They have to be just as healthy, strong and willing -- but for Hakim the profits are better.

A tattered notebook serves as his mobile record-keeping system. He jots down names of his Bulgarian workers along with their height, age and profession, if they have one. When workers match a customer's profile, Hakim brings them to Germany, puts them in contact with the employers and finds them a place to sleep.

Hakim brings eight workers to Germany in his minibus every week, for a total of about 400 a year. Thousands reach Germany by other means to pursue their dreams of prosperity and social advancement.

The Other EU

Since Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007, the number of Bulgarians in Germany has risen by 36,000. The population grew by more than 20 percent last year, but no one knows how many Bulgarian workers live in Germany under the radar, working as day laborers for €3 ($4.35) an hour. Most do not speak German, and many, instead of sending their children to school, shoo them out to the nearest intersection to clean car windshields. Some children live hidden away, in basement rooms.

Bulgarians are one of the largest immigrant groups in Germany. The steep wealth gap ensures a constant supply of new workers, even though Bulgaria -- unlike Poland or Hungary -- won't be entitled to free movement of labor until 2014.

As EU citizens, they can enter Germany as often as they wish. They don't need visas or residence permits. But anyone seeking to remain in Germany and work for more than three months must obtain a permit from authorities. Some register a trade and feign self-employment; others look for jobs as day laborers, without papers. But it hardly makes any difference on the black market. The chances of being caught are too low.

Some 2200 kilometers (1,366 miles) from Hamburg's Wilhelmsburg neighborhood, four men sit at a table, arguing. "I don't want to drive through Frankfurt today," one says. "I had to drive all the way to Stuttgart last week; this week it's your turn," says another. Bojan Hakim says nothing. The coffee cups in front of him are empty and the ashtrays are full. He sips beer from a can and takes a drag from his Davidoff Gold Slim cigarette. "Women's cigarettes," one of the men says. "We cribbed them from the hookers we take back and forth," Hakim replies with a laugh.

The men are sitting in a café at a gas station in Ruse, a city in northern Bulgaria near the Romanian border. The human traffickers call it their "Bulgarian office." They've divided up the surrounding area into territories. Each man drives through the villages in his territory, hands out business cards and addresses muscular-looking young men. Once a week, the traffickers meet in their "office" and decide who will supply which cities in Germany. Then they distribute the workers among their buses and collect their fees. The trip to Germany costs €150 a person.

Sheep's-Milk Cheese and Songs of Longing

Hakim climbs into his 2004 VW T5. There are eight passengers inside, loaded with sheep's-milk cheese, their bags and hope for a better life.

Hakim slowly drives past abandoned slaughterhouses and shuttered tanneries, through a country that counts as one of Europe's poorest. The sun shines over Slivo Pole, the last village before the border. Almost every family in the region has a husband, a brother or a son working in the West.

Old people sit in front of their houses and drink coffee. "If the children weren't in Germany we would starve," one old woman says as her son leaves. He's the last passenger Hakim will pick up on this Saturday afternoon. The young Bulgarian is returning to work in Hamburg; he sends his family €200 a month. The Western Union office in the village is their only connection. His mother picks up the money there and uses it to pay her debts at the grocery store.

Hakim starts the engine and turns up the volume on the car stereo: Hungarian folk music. The music -- more than 3,000 songs stored on his USB flash drive -- will continue nonstop for the next 40 hours. "I can't stand all that talk," says Hakim. He's all too familiar with the dreams of his passengers, and with what they can expect to find in Germany.

Some in his bus, like 20-year-old Rushti Yazar, are leaving their villages for the first time today. Freshly shaven, with gel in his hair and wearing a purple shirt, he looks ready for his first date. Yazar is traveling into the unknown. No employer has ordered him, but relatives in Frankfurt told him that something would turn up and that he should come to Germany. "There is money lying in the streets in Germany; we just have to pick it up," he says.

The bus crosses the "Friendship Bridge" to Romania. Melancholy Turkish music, songs about longing and farewells, resonate from the stereo. Yazar takes out a cardboard box of sweet melon pieces from his mother, offers them to Sinan, the man sitting next to him, and asks what it's really like in Germany.

'A Slave Camp'

Sinan Kemal, 27, has lived in Germany for four years and is now on his way back after a brief visit with his family. Wearing a T-shirt and sweatpants, he isn't as dressed up for the trip as Yazar. He can only smile when he hears Yazar talk about his dreams. "I was also imported by Hakim," he says. "They eat people like you alive. You're too shy. Germany is a slave camp."

Kemal remembers his arrival in Hamburg clearly. Like Yazar, he did not wait for a request from a potential employer. With a carton of cigarettes and 10 kilograms (22 lbs.) of luggage, he found himself standing in a strange city and waiting for his life to begin. He'd pawned his old life in Bulgaria, including his wife's wedding gold, which waited in a pawnshop in Ruse. In Bulgaria, wedding gold represents the wife's honor, but for Kemal it was a source of funds for his new beginning in Germany.

"Day laborers are collected on the market square," a waitress in a tearoom in Wilhelmsburg had told him. He waited every morning for the next three weeks. Finally a Turkish man took him to the central market, where he spent five hours packing fruit and vegetables for a total wage of €10. Other jobs followed. Kemal packaged telephone spare parts, sorted clothes hangers, sorted garbage, bundled newspapers and worked construction sites. A normal day lasted 15 hours but yielded no more than €30.

"I was hungry, frustrated and disappointed," he says.

He paid €150 a month for a place to sleep: a filthy mattress at a friend's house. Some months he spent in the basement of a Kurdish family's house instead. Kemal drags from his cigarette. He describes Turkish warehouse managers in Wilhelmsburg who slap their workers in the face when they don't pack boxes quickly enough. He says he felt like the Turks' slave. "You're an EU citizen, but you just happen to be born in the wrong country." Yazar listens and reflects. Then he says: "But €3 an hour is good, compared with going hungry in Bulgaria."

*Names have been changed.

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