IN the shadows of one of Bulgaria's tourist hotspots, exhausted migrants watch crowds of people pass by, searching for the ones who can help them get to the UK.
It doesn't take long – as little as 10 minutes – for them to find brutal smuggling gangs and "fixers" who can get them across the border. But it comes with a huge cost – and the risk of death.
"They call it The Game"
Today, British police are probing Irish smuggling rings with potential links to Bulgarian gangs after 39 migrants including a teen were found dead inside a Bulgaria-registered chiller lorry in Essex.
Three people have been arrested over the tragedy: haulage boss Thomas Maher and wife Joanna are being held on suspicion of conspiracy to traffic people and 39 counts of manslaughter, while lorry driver Maurice 'Mo' Robinson is being quizzed on suspicion of murder.
Now, the Sun Online can reveal that Bulgaria has become a "hotbed" in the world's deadly £5.5 billion people smuggling industry – with kingpins raking in thousands of pounds per migrant.
Alarmingly, the illicit trade, dubbed 'The Game', is on the rise – with more and more desperate families fleeing war, poverty and instability in their home nations for the "affluent" UK.
"If you go, you succeed. If you don’t go, you lose. That’s why they call it a game," says 20-year-old Afghan migrant Ahmad Shakib who got to Serbia from Bulgaria after three ‘games’.
Bulgaria a "hotbed" of people smuggling
For many migrants, Bulgaria is an attractive connecting country. It has been an EU member since 2007 and borders Turkey – where families have often fled from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The reason Bulgaria has become a hotbed of people-smuggling gangs is really down to geography," Alexander Betts, Professor of Forced Migration and International Affairs at Oxford, tells us.
"It's where a large number of desperate people fleeing war and poverty in Africa and the Middle East can get to before they need passports and official documents."
He adds: "There’s a vast number of migrants stranded in Bulgaria and other Balkan countries, desperate to [go further west] but without the paperwork to do so, and the gangs behind the people-smuggling trade prey on these susceptible people to make money."
Conveyor belt of migrants from China
Migrants from East Asian countries like China are also being smuggled through Bulgaria via the Middle East. In the horrific Essex case, the 39 migrants are all Chinese.
"The [smuggling] gangs are ruthless and want payment. If they don’t get it, they might hold your family members back home hostage or kidnap them," says immigration lawyer Harjap Bhangal.
"It happens a lot with Chinese migrants."
It is feared Chinese 'Snakehead' gangs – who make millions ferrying migrant "slaves" and prostitutes from the East to West – could have also played a part in the latest tragedy.
In 2013, it was thought that 600,000 people entered the EU illegally each year and around 80 per cent of them were brought in by the Snakeheads.
They have been linked to other horrors – including the 58 Chinese illegal immigrants found suffocated to death in a truck at Dover port, Kent, in 2000. They had arrived in Eastern Europe by plane before being given stolen passports to be taken over the borders.
"The top Snakeheads control the facilitation process from end to end. They have contacts in China, the UK and at every stop along the route," said Britain's National Criminal Intelligence Service.
A reconstruction of the tragedy where 58 Chinese illegal immigrants were found suffocated to death in a truck
Gangsters cramming migrants into taxis for £520 each
In the Lions' Bridge area of Sofia, Bulgarian gangsters shift hundreds of people towards Western Europe every night – providing they're willing to cram into cars and pay more than 600 euros (£520) each.
Overall, some migrants end up paying £10,000 on their perilous journey west.
"Everyone knows to come to the bridge to get a smuggler,” one Syrian, Amid, 23, told Al Jazeera in 2015. "They work very openly. It’s no problem to find one within 10 minutes."
Firstly, the migrant agrees a price and details with the smuggler. Then they part ways. Days later, the migrant meets a driver at a separate location and is driven towards the border.
Families sleeping in bug-infested sheets in hostels
While waiting for their pick-up, some migrants stay at hostels, where they sleep in "bedbug-infested" sheets and share one, dirty toilet with dozens of others, the Wall Street Journal reports.
Bulgarian security officials said cops regularly raid the hostels and make arrests.
But the threat of criminal charges doesn't deter money-focused smuggling gangs, who will callously ditch migrants – who have often paid them in advance – as soon as there's trouble.
"The gangs seem to work without fear," Harjap Bhangal tells us.
From Sofia, many migrants are driven northwest to the port town of Vidin – dubbed Bulgaria's smuggling capital – where they are sneaked across the Timok river into Serbia.
Smuggling lords living in luxury with flashy cars
But while many in Vidin live in poverty, wealthy smuggling lords cruise around in flashy cars and kit out their homes with the latest renovations – allegedly paid for with their illegal fortunes.
"The people smuggling gangs are often part of a larger criminal network…" Alexander says.
"The kingpins pulling the strings are usually safely in the shadows, far away."
Both Bulgaria and Serbia are along the so-called 'Balkan Route', which experts say has been used by more than one million people in the past four years to enter Europe and apply for asylum.
From Serbia, migrants might try to cross Bosnia and Croatia, hoping to reach Slovenia, which borders Austria and Italy. Others attempt to go from Bulgaria to Greece.
Gangs seeking out laxer routes
Last year, 689 people were arrested trying to enter Bulgaria illegally. The country has previously said "only 50" migrants a day are smuggled through it – but this number has been disputed.
Yet while Bulgarian officials have tried to tackle smuggling – including by building a razor-wire fence along its border with Turkey and bolstering border controls – there's no end in sight.
"It’s very difficult for police to manage," says Alexander.
"The extent of road haulage is huge: it's hard to inspect every single lorry. And anyway, as controls tighten, the gangs become more clandestine and seek out routes with lax security."
12 Bulgarians caged over 71 dead migrants
Last year, 12 Bulgarians were caged over the deaths of 71 migrants, who suffocated in a sealed, tightly packed lorry in Austria in scenes reminiscent of the latest tragedy.
Then, four months ago, a Bulgarian-based people smuggling ring was smashed after cops raided homes in Sofia and other towns with traffickers from Afghanistan and Iraq.
Only last month, the European Commission said it was aware of a recent increase of migrants coming illegally from Turkey into Bulgaria, as well as EU member Greece.
And last week, three Bulgarian members of an organised crime gang who trafficked women into the UK for sexual exploitation were jailed for a combined total of 24 years at a British court.
Convicted smugglers usually small fry
In Bulgaria, people smugglers can be locked up for 10 years and fined thousands if they're caught (although reports have claimed that many convicted smugglers escape with just a fine).
But these convicts are usually small fry, acting on smuggling lords' orders.
One smuggler, Asif, was headhunted by bosses in Milan, Italy.
He was recruited to shift people between Bulgaria and Serbia because he can speak Dari – one of Afghanistan's official languages – and many migrants in Bulgaria are Afghan.
"I once made 2,400 euros (£2,080) in a day," he told DW.com.
"The price usually varies from 600 to 900 euros."
He added: "I work here for five months. Then I have to go back to Italy, as I can't leave the country for any longer as my own asylum request is being processed there."
In 2015, Bulgaria's deputy interior minister Philip Gounev said the country was spending most of its time and limited resources "investigating and prosecuting the smaller, individual smugglers".
A 'game' of life and death
All the while, the smugglers' victims are playing a risky game of life and death.
Syrian migrant Aras Mahmoud paid a smuggler 58,000 euros – 16 times the annual average salary in his home country – in a desperate bid to get himself and his family of eight to safety.
During the journey, he and his children slept on damp grass in the Bulgarian mountains in the darkness, listening to the howling of wild animals and praying they'd live another night.
The family eventually made it to Serbia. But they were left stranded there, penniless and living in a state-run migrant centre, after their smuggler took their life savings and disappeared.
"Everything my father and I made over 38 years, we spent it in six months,” Aras added.
For some, 'The Game' ends in death. In 2016, a record 7,495 migrants died worldwide in their bid for a new life, while thousands of others were left stranded en route.
This year, the 39 migrants in Grays, Essex, will be just the tip of the global iceberg.
And as smuggling gangs in Bulgaria and elsewhere employ increasingly "sophisticated" methods to shift migrants – including using jet skis and yachts – the devastating toll will only rise.
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