Bulgarian Traffic Smuggling Workers to the German Promised Land

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.

'Woman. Village. Denmark.'

Hakim doesn't like passengers like Kemal and Yazar. But when he doesn't get enough orders from employers, hopeful travelers like them fill the empty seats in his bus. For Hakim, the optimal passenger is someone who pays the €150 fare, and for whom he receives commissions of up to €200 from the employer and €150 from the landlord. Hakim is a travel agency, job center and room rental agency in one. "Bad Tours," he says, slapping his palm against the steering wheel.

He went to Greece in 1998, when he was 20. Although he was able to survive working in the livestock business at home, Hakim dreamed of striking it rich. He spent two years picking strawberries and saved the equivalent of 1,400 deutsche marks (about $700). Then he bought a Peugeot 405 and paid for his driver's license with a cow. At 22 he started taking people to Greece. Business went well, and after three years Hakim bought his first minibus.

"Greece was a goldmine," he says. In good months he earned up to €10,000 as a trafficker. Then the financial crisis hit, and Germany became the promised land for Bulgarians.

There is a traffic jam on a road near Bucharest. Vendors jostle outside the windows, showing passengers their wares. Hakim bargains with them and buys twelve pairs of stockings for €3, crystal glasses for his mother, and counterfeit Nikes for his son. "Scum," he mumbles under his breath and drives the van onto the shoulder to squeeze past a truck. "They're all gypsies and thieves." The Romanians, he says, are to blame for the bad reputation more capable Eastern Europeans -- like his Bulgarians -- have in Germany.

Before the Hungarian border Hakim reaches into the glove compartment and pulls out a forged military ID card that identifies him as an officer in the Bulgarian army. "This card has made my life easier for the last eight years," says Hakim. He pulls over to the side of the road. The border official says he wants to check every suitcase. "That hungry pig, he just wants money," Hakim whispers as he holds his card out the window. The official stares at the document. Hakim shouts into the bus: "Who's got €5? Give it to me!" Yazar pulls a bill out of his pocket and hands it to the front of the van. Hakim gives the money to the official. "Here," he says, "buy yourself some soup." The official hands him back his ID card, and the journey continues.

Hakim's mobile phone rings in the middle of the night. It's a Turkish rest stop operator from Denmark. "You want a woman? Why? Does she have to be pretty? No? Okay. I still have a pizza baker in the village. I'll bring her to you next Tuesday. €450. Cash. Ciao." While speeding along at 160 kilometers per hour (100 mph) on the Autobahn, he types a reminder into the calendar in his mobile phone: "Tuesday. Woman. Village. Denmark." Then he turns up the music and claps his hands. Hakim is satisfied. He's already booked half the seats on next week's bus, with three construction workers for Hamburg and a woman for Denmark. He'll make €900 each with the men, for the fare and his commission, and €450 with the woman. It's already more than he's making with today's group.

A Family Wedding

Hakim doesn't need much sleep. When his eyes start to burn and the lane markers blur, he pulls over at a rest stop, shuts off the engine, ties a gray scarf around his eyes, takes off his shoes, puts his feet up -- and is snoring within minutes. He says he hasn't been able to sleep well in a normal bed for a long time. "My body can only relax in a cramped position."

Shortly before the German border, Hakim pulls three digital cameras and €1,600 out of the glove compartment. "We're tourists and we're driving to a wedding," he calls out to his passengers. "Got it?" They all nod. Each of the men sticks €200 into his pocket and the digital cameras are handed out. After five minutes, an officer in a silver BMW in front of them waves a red signaling disk and directs Hakim to pull over onto a parking lot. Plainclothes policemen come to the window and ask Hakim why they are in Germany. "Tourist, tourist, 'Germania Tur' -- family wedding in Germania," he says.

The officers take the passports and return them after 10 minutes. The journey continues. "They really can't stop us from traveling through Europe," says Hakim. "We are EU citizens. But the wedding story takes away a lot of stress."

Hakim's first stop is Dortmund in western Germany, where he picks up kebab spices to sell to Bulgarian kebab-shop owners in Ruse. He reaches Frankfurt at shortly after 9 p.m., after being on the road for 28 hours. Rushti Yazar sees the brightly lit Frankfurt skyline for the first time, with its skyscrapers crowded with banks and insurance towers -- the big money, as far as he's concerned. He's thrilled. The tallest building in his village is a mosque with a minaret.

But where is he supposed to meet his relatives? He spots a boy riding a bicycle near a street corner and shouts, "Stop, stop!" The boy is his cousin. Hakim stops and collects his €150. "Call me if you want to go back. You won't stay long, sonny," says Hakim.

The trip ends for Kemal after another 200 kilometers. A few weeks ago he moved to Ludwigsburg near Stuttgart, where his relatives live. Now he lives with seven of them in a 60-square-meter (645-square-foot) apartment, but it's still a step up from Wilhelmsburg in Hamburg. Kemal will also work in construction in Ludwigsburg. "The Germans pay better, and there aren't so many Turks living here," he says.

The next stop is the Berlin neighborhood of Neukölln, followed by Schwerin in northern Germany and, finally, Hamburg, where the last passengers get out. Hakim parks on a dead-end street and disappears into an older building where he lives with nine relatives in a three-room apartment. The actual tenant, a welfare recipient, moved to his mother's house. Now he sublets the apartment to the Bulgarians, collecting €100 apiece -- earning €1,000 a month for an apartment paid for by the government.

Hakim says the apartment isn't convenient, but at least it's practical. He wants to have as little to do with Germany as possible. He doesn't want to learn the language or even officially exist in this country.

'Pay Your Debts'

Over the years, Hakim has developed a structure to supply the German market. It considers employers, who would rather pay €3 than the more usual base wage of €8, as well as homeowners who want to make some extra cash by renting out rooms. The going rate for a basement sleeping spot in Wilhelmsburg is €150-200. Police and tax investigators rarely notice when a crafty landlord uses his six-room basement to earn up to €4,000 a month in tax-free supplementary income.

Hamburg has a law stipulating that a person must have at least 10 square meters of living space. Ten square meters per person? Seyit Erfan laughs. Eleven weeks ago, Hakim brought him to Wilhelmsburg and found him a job and a place to sleep. Now he lives in a basement room in a weather-beaten brick building, furnished with a sectional and two worn-out mattresses. The ceiling is less than two meters (6.5 feet) high, and the air smells of sweat and cigarette smoke.

Four Bulgarian day laborers share the space -- all eight square meters of it. There is a gas cooker on the floor, next to cans of tuna fish and groceries in bags from the Lidl supermarket chain. Rats gnaw at bits of garbage outside the door. The basement is a row of six of these rooms, some of which house entire families with children. The stench of wet clothing, diapers and sewage hangs in the air.

Erfan pays €150 a month for his share of the room, and he's charged €10 a day for late payment. The job at a logistics company Hakim found for him lasted only three weeks. The warehouse manager felt that Erfan, 46, was too old and not quick and strong enough for the job. Since then, he has left the basement room every morning to stand on the market square and wait for jobs.

If he's lucky, he'll be paid €10 to spend three hours cleaning garbage out of an apartment. "We treat the dogs in our village better than the people here treat the Bulgarians," he says, walking across the square to a café on Veringstrasse. His wife sits in front of the computer at home in Slivo Pole. "Shouldn't I come home?" Erfan keeps asking in a low voice. "Absolutely not," his wife replies. "You'll be unemployed here." And then she asks him the same question she asks every day: "When are you finally bringing us to Germany?"

Erfan could tell her that the police came to the basement rooms this morning, and that soon he'll be sleeping in an attic room with no toilet, no shower and no kitchen. He could tell her that when he moves, he'll have to walk three blocks to wash his face or use the toilet in his relatives' apartment. He could tell her that the rats gnaw at his food reserves when someone inadvertently leaves the window open at night. He could also say that he hasn't even paid his rent yet, that he still owes Hakim €150 for the fare. Instead he says nothing.

He sees his newborn nephew for the first time on the computer screen. Tears run down his high cheekbones. He's full of longing -- for his village, for the smell of fresh tomatoes in his garden and for his wife. Erfan says goodbye, pays €2 for the brief family reunion and goes back to his basement.

Erfan sits motionless on his mattress and lights a cigarette. Hakim comes down to the basement, and Erfan asks him to take him home again, home to Slivo Pole. "Pay your debts first," Hakim says. Erfan nods. "I'm not some Bulgarian guardian angel," says Hakim. Then he leaves the basement, walks across the courtyard and closes the metal gate.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan