Legalizing prostitution to spur human trafficking, Bulgaria

Bulgarian officials have warned that legalizing prostitution could increase the number of women and children who fall victim to human traffickers and turn the country into a haven for sex tourism.

Last year, legislators of the governing coalition called for prostitution to be legalized, arguing that regulating and taxing the profession would bring it out of the gray economy and ensure additional budget revenues. It would also prevent those under the age of 18 from becoming prostitutes, they said.

But the country’s top prosecutor, Boris Velchev, told a recent conference on combating human trafficking that any gains for the state through higher tax income would be outweighed by damage to an ongoing anti-trafficking campaign.

“The issue is whether there should be a law on prostitution to regulate or even legalize the profession. If we adopt such a law, the state could gain income from this through taxes, but it definitely would harm the fight against trafficking of women,” Velchev said, adding that prostitution is “a form of exploitation of people.”

Prostitution inhabits a legal gray area in Bulgaria, which has been a European Union member since January.

Current no specific legislation regulates or outlaws it, so no one can be prosecuted for being a prostitute. Although pimping is illegal, convictions are rare.

President Georgi Parvanov said the trafficking of women for the sex industry was a region-wide scourge that has “acquired alarming dimensions.”

Former foreign minister Nadezhda Mihailova, whose Institute for Democracy and Stability in Southeast Europe organized the conference last week, estimated that some 10,000 Bulgarian women are trafficked each year, mostly to Germany and the Netherlands, where prostitution is legal.

“I believe the legalization of prostitution would make Bulgaria a destination for sex tourism,” said Mihailova, a vocal opponent of legalizing the industry. “This is not the future that I see for my country.”

In the capital, Sofia, tourists are frequently directed to city sex hotspots such as Hristo Botev boulevard or the Lion’s Bridge quarter, while on major highways prostitutes ply their trade.

Human rights activists argued in an open letter to state institutions that legalized prostitution would make Bulgaria “a doorway to the sex industry … for the women and children of poorer countries.”

Interior Minister Rumen Petkov, distancing himself from his predecessor, Georgi Petkanov, who favored legalization, said “prostitution should be punishable as a crime.”

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