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Crime gangs make billions from Bulgaria sex slaves

SOFIA (Reuters) - The trafficking of Bulgarian women as sex slaves brings in about 1.8 billion euros ($2.6 billion) a year for the gangs behind it, making it the country’s most profitable criminal activity, a report said on Wednesday.

A prostitute waits for clients in the centre of Moscow early December 1, 2000. REUTERS/Sergei Teterin

The European Union newcomer has become one of the main exporters of sex workers to Western Europe along with Russia, Ukraine and Romania, the independent non-government Centre for the Study of Democracy (CSD) said in a report.

Bulgaria ranked first according to the number of victims who sought help in the Netherlands in 2000-2003 and was number three in Germany in 2001-2005, the report said, citing European data.

Analysts from the group blamed poverty, corruption, family problems, a failing justice system and Bulgaria’s geographic location -- along numerous illegal trade routes in the Black Sea region -- for fuelling the sex industry.

The Bulgarian government recently abandoned a plan to legalize prostitution, a step taken by other EU countries such as the Netherlands, saying it would only make the problem worse.

“It would be a grave mistake,” Interior Minister Roumen Petkov said during a presentation of the CSD report.

“It would mean that abusing human flesh is lawful and would create conditions to legalize huge amounts of money to be re-invested in criminal activities.”

He said Bulgaria should take a tougher stance against human trafficking and step up measures to fight the problem.

There are no official estimates of the number of Bulgarian women working as sex slaves abroad but some groups believe about 10,000 to 12,000 fall victim to trafficking every year.

The CSD report said profits from prostitution at home stood at between 110 and 170 million levs ($83-129 million).

Reporting by Maya Filadska; Editing by Matthew Tostevin