Sofia, 8 April 2019
Good morning and thank you for coming.
Let me start by thanking the Government of Bulgaria for the invitation extended to me to undertake a visit to the country from 1 to 8 April 2019. This is the first visit of a UN Human Rights Council appointed Special Rapporteur to Bulgaria to monitor, report and advise on issues related to the sale, sexual exploitation and abuse of children in the country. Based on the positive experience of my visit, I hope that it will open the door for other UN independent experts to follow, especially considering the confidence Bulgaria has demonstrated in the UN special procedures system by extending a standing invitation for all thematic mandates to visit the country since 2001. The objective of my visit was to assess the scope of sale and sexual exploitation of children in the country, and the measures adopted by the authorities to prevent and combat the phenomena, and to assist in the care, recovery and reintegration of child victims.
During my eight-day visit, I have met with representatives of the executive, legislature and judiciary at a central and local level, the Ombudsperson, the Commission for Protection against Discrimination, the Police, the Judicial Council, Members of the Parliament, the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office of Cassation, National Institute of Justice, civil society organizations, ITC experts, health mediators and service and care providers in Sofia, Burgas, Sliven, Podem and Pernik.
I also met with child victims of trafficking, sexual exploitation and domestic violence children in family type residential care, children in crises centres, foreign children placed in the reception centre for temporary accommodation, children placed in correctional education school in Sofia, Burgas, Sliven, Podem and Pernik.
I visited two centres for children victims of trafficking, sexual exploitation and domestic violence in Burgas and Sredetz, a centre linked to the Hospital for victims of sexual violence in Burgas, a family type residential care institution for children victims of sexual violence, a family type placement centre for children and young people with disabilities and a crisis centre in Burgas and Sredetz. I also met health mediators and visited the Roma neighbourhood “Nadezhda” in Sliven, the SAR Registration-reception centre (Voenna Rampa) in Sofia for the temporary placement of refugees and migrants, including unaccompanied children, and a correctional school for girls in Podem.
I am grateful to the Government for their excellent collaboration before and during the visit. I would like to thank all State interlocutors for their engagement in constructive dialogue and their willingness to provide additional information, including data and statistics which I will incorporate in my final report to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2020.
To everyone who met with me, and especially the service providers and representatives of civil society organizations, I want to express my gratitude for their readiness to engage in an open dialogue on the issue of sale and sexual exploitation of children in the country, and for their dedication and commitment to provide protection and assistance to child victims and children in vulnerable situations.
I am also grateful to the children who were willing and capable of sharing with me their harrowing experiences of abuse and exploitation and their hope for their future. I also wish to express my gratitude to UNICEF for their excellent support prior to and during the organisation of the mission, and UNHCR for their cooperation and assistance prior to my visit.
Positive steps and developments
Bulgaria has achieved significant progress over the past three decades in terms of introducing a comprehensive legislative, policy and institutional framework of child protection, in order to effectively combat the sale and sexual exploitation of children. It has also set an ambitious goal to close down by 2025 all institutions for children with disabilities and almost half of the homes for residential medical and social care for children up to 3 years old, in line with its National Strategy “Vision of Children Deinstitutionalization in the Republic of Bulgaria”.
The adoption by the Government of the National Programme for Prevention of Violence and Abuse of Children in 2017 is also commendable. The National hotline for children managed by the State Agency for Children Protection and operated by Animus Association Foundation, providing children with 24-hour toll-free access, is another good practice.
In the context of the increased refugee flow since 2014, the authorities have enhanced their capacity to ensure the registration and examination of applications for international protection for unaccompanied migrant and asylum-seeking children arriving at the border by adopting legislative amendments aimed at granting residence permits to unaccompanied children, who do not apply for international protection or whose claims have been rejected until they reach 18. The amendments to the Law on Foreigners of 2016 and 2017, establishing a statelessness determination procedure, prohibiting the short-term detention of unaccompanied children and introducing new alternatives to detention for irregular migrants is another welcome move, as well as the decision of the National Council for Child Protection of March 2017 to create a specialised service for the guidance and accommodation of unaccompanied foreign children in order to provide quality care for this group of children separately of adults.
Another positive development is that according to the 2016 amendment to the Support and Financial Compensation to Victims of Crime Act, all victims of trafficking in human beings, regardless of nationality or residential status, are entitled to minimum standards for the rights, support and protection of victims of crime. In 2016, following a revision, the Council of Ministers adopted a decision to establish a National Mechanism for Targeting and Assistance to Victims of Trafficking (NRM), coordinated by the National Commission for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings (NCCTHB) to regulate the coordination and the various stages of work in approaching the cases of victims of trafficking which is also encouraging. The opening of two new facilities in Sofia for trafficking victims, including a crisis centre for child victims, as well as the approval of a five-year national anti-trafficking strategy for 2017-2021, is another positive development.
Despite these various institutional and legislative measures, their enforcement and implementation needs to be further improved.
While I was pleased to learn about the efforts undertaken to implement several EU directives and the Council of Europe Lanzarote Convention in order to improve the process of interviewing of child victims and witnesses of sexual violence, including the establishment of child-friendly “blue rooms”, further efforts need to be invested to ensure that interviews are conducted in a child-friendly manner — without the child victim being confronted with the accused and by reducing as far as possible the number of interviews— by adequately trained investigating officers and the judiciary so as to prevent revictimization and retraumatization of children. This practice is not fully applied by all actors of the administration of juvenile justice in Bulgaria. This could be achieved on the basis of further training and facilitated by instructions of SOP for the attention of investigative legal officers.
Considerable shortfalls and challenges remain including in the area of legislative reforms, such as the long overdue juvenile justice reform and in particular the draft amendments to the 1950s legislation on children with anti-social behaviour currently allowing the placement of child victims in juvenile delinquency educational institutions: the socio-pedagogical boarding schools and the correctional educational boarding schools with no medical and psycho/social care adapted to their short and long term specific needs and with due regard to their personal history at the origin of what is qualified as “anti-social behaviour”.
My overall concern in this respect is that the juvenile justice system for both underage offenders and minors tends to operate in isolation and often disregards the history of children in conflict with the law, whose life trajectory includes victimisation of acts of violence. The primary purpose of the response to this anti-social behaviour needs to target rehabilitation and reintegration, and not sanctioning the child.
Other challenges pertain to the lack of systematically collected reliable, centralised and disaggregated data on the phenomenon of child sexual abuse and sexual exploitation and the relatively low number of prosecutions and convictions related to the instances of child sexual abuse and exploitation.
Other issues of concern which affect children victims of violence relate, to the lengthy judicial proceedings, inadequate interviewing and forensic evidence collection techniques of minors and underage children leading to re-victimization of the child; insufficient cooperation and coordination between different child protection agents to support victims of sexual abuse and exploitation; insufficient capacity and lack of child protection specialists; insufficient staffing, training and lack of monitoring, assessment and follow-up of cases and an overall focus on intervention rather than prevention.
In the context of discussions around a draft strategy on protecting children against violence, I was concerned about the negative impact of the Constitutional Court’s decision No. 13/2018 of 27 July 2018, by which it declared the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combatting Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention) incompatible with the Constitution. The latter is being excessively relied on by those who are reluctant to advance children’s rights as rights-holders and not as “objects of intervention”, including rights of children belonging to ethnic minorities and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons.
Opinions expressed by some politicians and representatives of the Orthodox Church underlining the importance of traditional family values as opposed to children’s rights and expressing public sentiments against minority groups of the population might have dire consequences on various ongoing legislative and policy reforms and should be dealt with cautiously. The latter attitude might further exacerbate the existing segregation, neglect and isolation of the Roma community and halt the State-supported desegregation efforts to build trust, confidence and understanding on the part of all communities in Bulgaria.
For example, I am concerned about proposals and decisions of the legislature to link the benefit of Family Allowances for Children to school attendance, the impact of which primarily affects parents within the Roma community and does not achieve what should be its ultimate objective - ensuring access to education for all.
Recent efforts of non-governmental organisations to advocate for comprehensive sexual and reproductive health education in primary and secondary schools and among vulnerable communities has also been circumvented and criticised by far-right movements denouncing them as attempts to strip parents of their parental rights over children and fears for the early sexual liberation of children.
The meaningful participation of children in the decision-making on all issues affecting them and the right of the child to be heard remains one of the most disputed and neglected rights in Bulgaria due to patriarchal social norms and age-related stereotypes. The implementation of this right remains at the discretion of the professionals involved in each case. Traditional practices and cultural attitudes in the family, schools and certain social and judicial settings further impede the full realization of the right of children to express their views freely. I learned during my interviews with child survivors of sexual violence as well as those in administrative care that they are often not consulted in matters concerning them.
My visit to Bulgaria hence came at an opportune time and I hope it will help start a dialogue about these existing societal attitudes towards the sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children which is largely considered to be a taboo subject in Bulgarian society and in many instances victims are silently judged if not punished by the society for becoming an “easy prey” of their perpetrators.
For the purpose of my preliminary observations, I have identified the following areas of concern relating to the sale and sexual exploitation of children that require the urgent attention of authorities, namely:
the nature and scope of sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children; the root causes and challenges confronting the fight against sale and sexual exploitation of children, including investigation and child-friendly judicial proceedings, and care, recovery and rehabilitation.
The nature and scope of sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children
Sale and trafficking of children for sexual exploitation
Bulgaria remains one of the primary source countries in Europe and, to a lesser extent, transit and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to trafficking and sale for sexual exploitation and forced labour, including through using new techniques and tactics, such as "lover boy" practices.
The accumulated number of victims provided by the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office shows that trafficking in human beings for the purpose of sexual exploitation continues to be the most wide-spread form of human trafficking. However, a sustained growth in number and identification of victims of human trafficking for the purpose of labour exploitation is also observed; the large majority of victims is female (90%). The number of under age female victims (aged between 14-18) who were trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation has increased from 32 cases in 2017 to 48 in 2018, while no male minors or underage were reported during the same period.
Yet, sexual abuse and exploitation of boys does occur but is largely latent and difficult to identify because victims hesitate to come forward out of fear of being stigmatised, or out of fear of reprisals especially when they are committed within the circle of trust.
Anecdotal evidence indicates that victims of international trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation are mainly of minority background, predominantly of Roma origin from the regions of Pleven, Sliven, Plovdiv and Pazardzhik who remain at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. They experience discrimination and exclusion in all walks of life which makes them easy preys to traffickers for the purpose of forced begging, sexual exploitation, slavery, forced labour or marriage.
According to the data from the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office, the number of convictions for human trafficking in 2018, was 68 and there were 58 acquittals. In 2018, a total of 97 so-called signals were received by the National Commission for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings (NCCTHB) concerning 155 persons, and 130 persons of the total number have been formally and informally identified as victims of trafficking and received support.
I was also told about a culture of silence or tolerance for sexual abuse and exploitation involving children in the community. Child victim survivors remain highly vulnerable to re-victimisation. They are often disbelieved, not trusted or blamed for having fallen victim of sexual violence. Targeted social, psychological, and counselling work with victims, combined with timely primary identification and reporting of potential risks are key to preventing secondary victimisation. There is a lack of data about the support those victims have received after they leave the institutions where they are provided with primary care and psychological assistance.
There is also insufficient data on internal trafficking of children in the travel, entertainment and tourism industry for the purpose of sexual exploitation, including by the circle of trust. Internal trafficking remains a significant reality, where children are moved to the popular Bulgarian resorts for sexual exploitation. According to anecdotal evidence, children are both from Bulgarians and Turkish ethnicity as well as from Roma communities, including women and girls as young as 13 years old, who are primarily forced to prostitute in the street and motorways near big cities in Bulgaria.
Sale of babies
According to the NCCTHB data, the number of trafficked pregnant women for selling their babies abroad has decreased from 97 cases of pregnant women identified in 2017 to 64 women selling their newborns in neighbouring Greece in 2018, (of which 51 in Burgas compared to 31 in 2015). Over the past five years, a total of 16 people were sentenced for baby trafficking in Burgas province. The sale of babies has become almost commonplace amongst Roma communities and has spread to other regions, including the eastern cities of Varna, Aytos and Karnobat, Sliven to the southeast, and Kazanlak in central Bulgaria. This phenomenon is highly underreported and hard to detect due to the difficulty to gather evidence and victim testimony. The low risk of detection, the difficulty of prosecution and often lenient sentences in Bulgaria make it an easy business for traffickers. Follow-up on these cases in Greece which frequently end up as illegal adoptions are difficult due to the lack of systematic cooperation with the Greek authorities in this area.
The practice of bride sales is widespread among Roma populations despite being legally forbidden (art 177 and 178, Penal Code). According to the Penal Code, the child marriages or illegal matrimonial cohabitation with persons aged under 16, continue to be among the most frequent crimes against children in Bulgaria but rarely lead to the opening of criminal proceedings. According to the statistics provided by the National Statistical Institute, there were only 14 sentences for crimes against the marriage and family in 2017, but this figure also includes other crimes like the sale of babies and bigamy. The number of these sentences is falling for the past few years (16 in 2016; 25 in 2015; 27 in 2014; 31 in 2013), which is likely to be a result of an ineffective prosecution rather than of an actual reduction of the crime. It is, in any case, an extremely low number of sentences for what, in reality, appears to be reported as a fairly widespread practice.
Online child sexual abuse and sexual exploitation
The proliferation of Internet access creates additional challenges to countering trafficking in children. Bulgaria has one of the highest and cheapest internet and household broadband penetration rate in Europe with one of the highest proportion of active internet users among the youth. The most common risks children face online relate to bullying, clips with violence, indecent invitations, photos and messages, as well as access to pornographic websites. The incidence of child sexual abuse material offences is unknown given that there is no disaggregated crime statistics related to investigations and convictions on child sexual abuse material. Operations targeting people distributing child sexual abuse material are made weekly. More recently, in 2018 five men were detained in Bulgaria for spreading child sexual abuse material. In this regard, the work of the Cyber Crimes unit at the Ministry of Interior should be commended, as they have a dedicated website for signalling, cooperate effectively with national and international agencies and stakeholders, and are also very pro-active and competent in dealing with online child sexual exploitation and abuse. The unit has recently been strengthened by recruiting more experts. They have also embarked on an awareness campaign and internet safety modules on topics such as cyberbullying, online grooming which are promising examples of the efforts to better address the emerging forms of online sexual abuse and exploitation of children. Issues pertaining to the harmful content, such as child sexual abuse material are also monitored by non-governmental bodies such as the National Center for Safe Internet, while reported criminal activities concerning child sexual abuse material are investigated by the Cybersecurity Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
The root causes, major challenges confronting the fight against the sale and sexual exploitation of children
Vulnerable groups: Roma children, children in institutions and children of migrant and refugee families. Unaccompanied children
Socioeconomic disparities, poverty, segregation, social exclusion, and even residential segregation within the community create unequal opportunities and access to social services for children in the most marginalised communities including Roma children, children in institutions and children of migrant and refugee families, including unaccompanied and separated children. These groups are particularly exposed to the worst forms of sexual abuse and commercial sexual exploitation, including by their caregivers.
The NCCTHB envisages mapping of vulnerable Roma communities and targeted prevention campaigns across the country as part of its 2017 National Programme. As to the National Roma Integration Strategy 2016-2018, there have been no significant advances in its implementation.
The overwhelming majority of children I met in crisis centres and institutions I visited, were of Roman origin. They remain one of the most vulnerable groups to crimes of sexual abuse and exploitation.
Deplorable housing, lack of sanitation and infrastructure in the Roma neighbourhood I visited in Sliven, renders children in the most precarious situation exposed to the worst forms of sexual abuse and sexual exploitation. The newly built kindergarten in the neighbourhood remains inaccessible to most children of slums who live in illegal settlements and do not have a permanent address for registration in order to access basic social services, including primary education.
While the closing of residential care institutions for children with disabilities as part of a plan to close all institutions by 2025 and replace them with community-based care is ongoing, the process has been criticized pointing to the new centres recreating the atmosphere of the larger institutions, serving as "final destinations" for children rather than developing their self-reliance and social inclusion skills.
Young children placed in institutions are also at risk of being subject to physical and psychological violence, including sexual violence, among peers and staff members.
Other concerns raised are related to the lack of specialised social workers, the quality of the alternative care services, inadequate staffing and training, and lack of regular monitoring, supervision and support. According to anecdotal evidence, children with mental health problems are at higher risk of becoming victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation. According to the annual reports of the NCCTHB, many victims of trafficking suffer from persistent health problems and/or chronic diseases, persistent and/or prolonged physical disturbances or injuries and mental/psychiatric disorders. The lack of regular monitoring of these institutions renders it hard to know the scale of the abuse of power and instances of sexual abuse by the administrations of these closed institutions.
Children of migrant and refugee families. Unaccompanied children
A highly vulnerable group with regard to human trafficking are unaccompanied refugee and migrant children passing through Bulgaria. Bulgaria faced an increase in the number of unaccompanied migrant and asylum-seeking children arriving on its territory in 2014-2016. This placed a significant strain on the country’s reception system, exacerbating existing gaps in the reception and care of such children. While the number of unaccompanied children arriving in Bulgaria decreased in 2017 and 2018, and progress has been made in addressing some of the gaps, challenges still remain to provide safe and appropriate care arrangements and ensuring the best interest of the child is a primary consideration in all actions affecting children.
Unaccompanied foreign minors, including those seeking or granted asylum in Bulgaria, fall into the category “children at risk” under the Child Protection Act. Although detention of children is banned under Bulgarian law since December 2017, I was told by many interlocutors that this provision is circumvented by “attaching » them to unrelated adults or alternatively that they are recorded as adults, which is illegal and in breach of the best interest of the child principle.
According to UNHCR, in 2017, a total of 3,700 applications for international protection were registered by the State Agency for Refugees (SAR), of which 440 UASC. In 2018, 2,536 applications were registered, of which 481 were UASC. In total, in 2018, 16 unaccompanied children received international protection, while 49 had their applications rejected. It should be noted that the lack of adequate reception conditions and integration prospects force many applicants, including children, to leave the country before their asylum claims have been processed or shortly after they have been granted asylum. In 2018, the procedures of 333 UASC were suspended, while 199 were terminated.
Main challenges in this area are the lack of adequate identification and referral procedure upon apprehension following irregular entry or stay. This is due to, among others, lack of adequate interpretation and presence of social workers which may result in unaccompanied children being incorrectly registered as accompanied or as adults and placed in detention, instead of being accommodated within the national child protection system.
Furthermore, there is no mechanism to consistently identify and refer children with specific needs to the appropriate services. Psychological assistance, although envisaged under the LAR is provided in practice by NGOs, working on a project basis. The standard operating procedures on identification, response and prevention of SGBV were updated and adopted by SAR in 2018, but their practical implementation needs to be monitored and assessed.
Another challenge is the lack of capacity and reluctance of residential-type social services to accommodate unaccompanied children, and the absence of a specialized interim care facility, further impede timely and adequate identification of their protection needs.
The Government has agreed to set up an interim care facility for the initial identification and temporary care of unaccompanied migrant and asylum-seeking children. While external funds have been obtained, the project’s implementation is severely delayed due to, in particular, resistance from local municipalities to hosting such a facility on their territory. The recent legislative amendments aimed at granting continuous residence permits to unaccompanied children, who do not apply for international protection or whose claims are refused, until they reach 18, is a welcome move. However, according to the absence of alternative care arrangements within the national child protection system will limit the effectiveness of these amendments in ensuring that unaccompanied children have access to adequate reception and care arrangements.
Identification and referral is further impeded due to the absence of an age assessment procedure with adequate safeguards. Age is not being established in a multi-disciplinary nor in a child or gender-sensitive manner, taking into consideration the physical and psychological development of the child. It is currently limited to a medical assessment (x-ray). The Government is currently in the process of establishing an age assessment procedure.
There are also gaps in the representation of unaccompanied children: while UASC seeking international protection are assigned representatives from the municipality, the function of the assigned representatives is still unclear. They often lack necessary training and skills and municipalities often do not have the administrative and financial capacity to properly discharge this responsibility.
Challenges confronting the fight against sale and sexual exploitation of children
Data collection and coordination is largely inconsistent and incomplete and continues to be a challenge due to the lack of a unified centralised database and uniform methods of collecting and analysing information. A large part of the information in the child protection sector is dispersed among the different institutions responsible for different child-related policies. There are some discrepancies between the data on working with child victims of violence collected by nongovernmental organisations and the official data of the child protection system. There are discrepancies also between the data of different governmental structures both in terms of number and types of violence and in terms of working with such cases. It is of utmost importance for a proper system for comprehensive data gathering to be established so that analyses can be carried out to inform policy development and preventive strategies.
Coordination and cooperation
The existence of numerous players in the field of coordination makes it difficult to sustain effective coordination and the issue of interinstitutional cooperation and coordination was mentioned as one of the challenges. Coordination is further hampered by the lack of synchronization between various child protection actors involved in the identification, referral of the case. It was brought to my attention that SACP doesn’t have the means and tools to coordinate and have direct supervision over services provided and placement decisions taken, by the staff of ASA.
Moreover, despite the introduction of the National Strategy for Children (2008-2018) as a means of improving coordination, the lack of efficient coordination among and data sharing between child protection services, the police and the judiciary remains an issue. This has a direct impact on ensuring holistic interventions, provision of long-term care and rehabilitation and accessible and sustainable counselling and follow-up of children victims of sexual abuse. I also heard about numerous instances of the lack of coordination among relevant agencies for identification and protection of child victims of sexual abuse, including timely information sharing leading to poor placement decisions of children in need of care and protection. In this regard, the capacity of police officers, border guards, social workers should be further strengthened. In respect of unaccompanied foreign trafficked children, the National mechanism for referral and protection of victims of human trafficking (NRM) applies. A coordination mechanism, outlining the roles and responsibilities of various institutions on the care of UASC, was agreed upon in July 2017 and is a positive development. However, is the mechanism has yet to be formally adopted by the Council of Ministers. There are no procedures in place to ensure the best interests of the UASC as a primary consideration in all actions affecting them, from the moment of arrival until an adequate solution has been found.
Investigation and child-friendly judicial proceedings
The establishment of child-friendly hearings rooms also known as “blue rooms” in many Bulgarian cities is a positive and commendable step and more efforts should be made to ensure its unified standard for their usage both in civil and criminal proceedings. The mere use of these rooms are often applied as the only way of ensuring child-friendly justice. Further efforts need to be taken to ensure child-sensitive procedures, including reducing the number of interviews which needed to be conducted in a child-friendly manner by adequately trained judicial staff and in the present of other professionals such as trained child psychologists and social workers so as to prevent revictimization and traumatization of children. Compliance with the Guidelines on Justice in Matters involving Child Victims and Witnesses of Crime is not fully applied by all actors of the administration of juvenile justice in Bulgaria.
It is of concern that due to the lack of standard operating procedures and the lack of training, the conduct of the proceedings is left to the discretion of the case manager. The lack of capacity and child-friendly skills among professionals, including judges and prosecutors on working with trafficking victims and cases, which had negative effects on witness protection, victim compensation, and sentencing for perpetrators. Of concern is also the delay in the proceedings. Other shortcomings are related to the lack of regulations ensuring meaningful participation of children in the decision-making on all issues affecting them which is particularly important in decisions regarding parental care and adoption. As mentioned above, although the Child Protection Act states that all children over the age of 10 have to be heard in all administrative and judicial procedures concerning their life and wellbeing, the exercise of this right remains at the discretion of the professionals involved in each case. There is no customary practice and the legislation does not provide sufficient safeguards for the right of children to be heard and there is lack of general understanding of the concept of participation and of children's evolving capacities.
Training and capacity building
The National Anti-Trafficking Commission has undertaken commendable steps to conduct specialised training and workshops on identification and referral of trafficking in human beings including among investigators, magistrates, social workers, labour mediators, the local anti-trafficking administrations. Several awareness-raising and communicational campaigns were carried out at the national and local level.
However, instances of sexual abuse and exploitation are not only related to domestic and international trafficking. Despite these efforts, there is, however discrepancy in the capacity building efforts as well as common understanding on the needs and protection requirements of child victims of sexual abuse and sexual exploitation among different agencies and professionals working with child survivors of violence and sexual abuse which often renders to poorly informed decisions and the lack of provision of long-term support and rehabilitation of the child.
I have repeatedly heard about the challenges faced by social workers, social educators, social pedagogical officers and others in terms of their overall understanding of the rights, needs and protection risks for children victims. There is a need for on-going training and capacity building among professionals from all relevant sectors working on prevention and rehabilitation as well as oversight in delivering uniform high standards and quality services.
Another important issue is related to the status of social workers in the child protection system and worryingly low levels of pay within the system, which is leading to very high turnover rates, high workloads and a lack of quality standards. Regular supervision of staff is not carried out, and neither are training on the specifics of working with child victims.
Care, recovery and rehabilitation
As far as victims of trafficking are concerned, care and recovery services are funded by the National Commission on THB. Services for all victims of sexual violence, whether trafficked or not, are run by NGOs. There are 23 crisis centres in the country, of which 18 are for children, with a total capacity of 246 places.
As of 31 December 2017, the number of victims accommodated was 147. The staff in the centres are overburdened often as they have to tackle a lot of issues, including enrolment in the educational system, health care, psychological support and social recovery. These centres, however, do not provide long term trauma therapy or legal counselling. At the expiry of the maximum time for a stay in these centres children risk being returned to an extended family environment conducive to exploitation by their relatives.
My preliminary observation is that a lot has been done in providing the victim with first-hand support and care, however, the integration, long-term care, specialised rehabilitation and recovery of child victims of sexual abuse and sexual exploitation is largely lacking.
The quality of services provided and the alternative care services suffer from insufficient funding, inadequate staffing and training and lack of monitoring, supervision and support, including when it comes to conducting proper assessment and follow-up of cases. Specialised capacity building training are necessary to build a pool of pedagogical trainers to work with severe cases of abuse in a holistic manner ensuring integration of children in the community and in the education. Special care units should be made available to accommodate and support victims of sexual abuse and exploitation.
On the basis of the above findings, and in the spirit of cooperation and dialogue, I would like to offer the following preliminary recommendations:
Concerning the legislative, institutional and policy framework
- Expedite efforts to accelerate the process of reforming the juvenile justice legislation and practice, aimed at ensuring the reintegration of children into society.
Investigation and prosecution
- Strengthen efforts to detect, investigate, prosecute and sanction the crimes of sale and sexual exploitation of children, including by ensuring systematic training of police officers nationwide, and increasing the capacity of the police to monitor the encrypted paedophile networks and regulate their access to retained IP addresses for obtaining evidence;
- Continue efforts to curb the sale of babies through illegal adoption by putting in place comprehensive measures to tackle prevention by addressing the root causes, including poverty and segregation of communities where the practice occurs;
- Investigate and expeditiously prosecute the offenders of child sexual abuse and exploitation and ensure child-friendly criminal proceedings, with a minimum of additional trauma for the victim, including where possible, avoiding interrogating the victim multiple times;
- Ensure the best interests of the child victim during criminal investigations and proceedings, including protecting the disclosure or the publication of personal information by the media, and ensuring that the child is not confronted with the defendant during the proceedings, will not be exposed to further contact with the perpetrator especially if the latter is from his or her circle of trust, and where possible, obviate the need for child victims to be physical present during the proceedings, by ensuring appropriate communication technologies to enable them to be heard in the courtroom without being present;
- Ensure the training of investigative officers in child-friendly techniques and that all investigative officers dealing with children have undergone mandatory qualifying training.
Administration of child-sensitive justice
- Ensure easy access to child-sensitive justice complaints, reporting and referral mechanisms allowing victims to report abuses without fear of intimidation, stigma or re-victimization;
- Ensure that children who are required to participate in criminal justice proceedings are heard in a child-sensitive manner, with a minimum number of interrogations and given appropriate support and counselling to assist them at all stages of proceedings;
- Ensure the availability of so-called blue rooms or another child-friendly settings for child-friendly interrogation throughout its entire territory; encourage the coordination and full collaboration between child protection departments, investigators, judges and prosecutors in order to expedite the child-friendly handling of proceedings and ensuring the provision of immediate and emergency support to the victim.
Care, recovery and rehabilitation
- Evaluate the availability, accessibility and quality of existing services and their impact on care, recovery and reintegration;
- Establish long-term comprehensive, rights-based and child-centred care, recovery and reintegration programmes;
- Continue developing specialized medical and psychological care services for child victims, including their social reintegration and physical and psychological recovery, including by ensuring access and availability of professionals working with child victims throughout the country;
- Take measures to ensure appropriate specialised training, particularly legal and psychological, for persons working with child-victims.
Prevention, awareness raising and capacity building
- Establish centralized data collection and analysis of disaggregated data on the scope and trends of the sale and sexual exploitation of children with a special focus of children in need of special protection, including the forms of exploitation and data on investigations, prosecutions and convictions; improve the data collection system on the number of reported cases, prosecutions and judgments and on the redress provided to victims, disaggregated by the nature of the offence, the category of perpetrator and the above-mentioned characteristics of victims;
- Develop campaigns to counter hate speech against asylum seekers and refugees; stigma and discrimination against Roma people, including children;
- Continue efforts in awareness raising on the risks of sexual abuse and sexual exploitation including by the circle of trust among children at risk, including during primary and secondary education
- Raise awareness among children, including in marginalised communities about reporting a counselling mechanisms available and known to children at risk, including children affected by the refugee’s crisis;
- Conduct specific training on detecting, reporting and referral of signs of sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children in the circle of trust and children affected by refugee crisis, for professionals working within the police, prosecution, child protection and health services;
- Ensure mandatory screening of anyone dealing with children for acts of sexual exploitation or abuse of children;
- Increase awareness raising activities targeting vulnerable communities, tourism industry and employment agencies to effectively tackle the impunity and reach out to victims;
- Ensure awareness raising and comprehensive, age-appropriate sexual and reproductive health education, including on the adverse effects of early marriage on children among marginalised communities.
Groups at risk
- Ensure that unaccompanied and separated asylum-seeking and refugee children (UASC) receive effective and full access to safe, age and gender-appropriate care arrangements, particularly within the national child protection system, and to services such as healthcare, psychological assistance, adapted to their needs;
- Establishing a procedure to assess the best interests of these children within the national child protection system (e.g. with regard to determining their accommodation) and other relevant safeguards, such as appointing them qualified and sufficiently trained representatives;
- Improve the initial identification and referral procedures to ensure unaccompanied children are not placed in detention, including by ensuring interpretation and the presence of social workers; and;
- Gather data to better understanding the situation with the cross-border missing children in order to address it effectively.
Cooperation and partnership
- Coordinate efforts with NGOs that work to detect, receive and refer cases of sexual abuse and exploitation of children;
- Enhance corporate social responsibility involving Internet service providers, telecommunications, financial services companies, the travel and tourism industries and the media in order to strengthen child safety online and to prevent child sexual exploitation in travel and tourism;
- Intensify efforts to regularly monitor the activities of employment agencies, private individuals and the entertainment industry to detect cases of sexual exploitation of children; raise awareness among chain hotels and the entertainment industry and encourage them to report suspected cases of sale and sexual exploitation of children;
- Continues to expand bilateral and multilateral agreements and partnership with other countries of origin, transit and destination to prevent trafficking in children; establish an effective screening process to identify child victims of trafficking and ensure they are provided with adequate recovery and social reintegration services and programmes, and that cases are investigated and perpetrators are charged and convicted.
- Ensure sufficient State funding for civil society and other service providers to maintain sustainable and quality services and develop innovative social services in care, recovery and rehabilitation.
In conclusion, I encourage the authorities of Bulgaria to continue along the road already undertaken. I am encouraged by the significant work already done and the importance that authorities place on eradicating sexual abuse and violence and providing victims with initial care, recovery and rehabilitation. The remaining task, however, is just as significant when it comes to ensuring the long-term care and rehabilitation of children.
Thank you for your attention.