The government demonstrated uneven efforts to protect victims; while it maintained services for trafficking victims and provided more residence permits for foreign victims, it identified significantly fewer victims and decreased funding for services. In 2020, the government formally identified and assisted 91 victims (including 49 victims of labor exploitation, 35 victims of sexual exploitation, and seven victims of other forms of exploitation), compared with 159 victims assisted in 2019. The three government-funded shelters received 820 referrals of victims and potential victims in 2020, compared with 859 referrals in 2019. The government reported pandemic-related restrictions hampered front-line responders’ ability to identify victims; labor inspectors were limited in their ability to work because of a significant number of COVID-19 infections among inspectors. Due to the broad definition of labor exploitation under Belgium’s anti-trafficking law, data on the identification of labor trafficking victims may have included cases that do not constitute trafficking crimes under international law. Law enforcement identified the majority of victims, followed by NGOs and social services. There were also many cases of victims who self-identified. First responders followed a national victim referral protocol to identify victims and refer them to care, and the government organized outreach activities and awareness-raising campaigns targeting front-line professionals, including hospital and social workers. Social security inspectors received training on detecting, processing, and providing support for trafficking victims. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) reported the accurate identification of victims remained a challenge, and experts have previously reported particular challenges in identifying child victims. Many authorities who did not specialize in trafficking cases reportedly could not recognize trafficking indicators and confused child trafficking with other crimes, such as smuggling and child abuse. Authorities sometimes failed to follow the victim referral protocol and did not properly notify child protective services when they identified an unaccompanied child victim. The government did not report providing training to law enforcement on victim identification.
The government funded three specialized NGO-run shelters and allocated approximately €419,000 ($514,110) for each shelter in 2020, compared with €427,000 ($523,930) in 2019; the shelters also received funding from regional and local governments. The government centralized all funding for these shelters in 2020, a change that experts believed would make funding more stable year to year. NGO-run shelters provided psycho-social, medical, and legal care, and were open to all adult victims regardless of gender, immigration status, or nationality. The independent Federal Migration Centre (Myria), in its capacity as the national rapporteur, provided oversight and coordination for the shelters. Authorities placed child trafficking victims in government-funded shelters for foreign unaccompanied children; children in these centers were assigned a mentor to protect their interests. The government did not report on the progress of a December 2019 government-approved NGO proposal to open a shelter specifically for female child sex trafficking victims. GRETA reported the government’s child safety services lacked sufficient capacity to accommodate unaccompanied child victims. Shelters for unaccompanied children reported many children went missing from the shelters each year, some of whom may have been victims of trafficking; the agency responsible for these shelters reported 2,642 children went missing between 2018 and 2020, with 583 going missing in 2020 alone.
The government conditioned its victim assistance services on three criteria: victims had to break off all contact with the trafficker, agree to counseling at a specialized shelter, and assist in the prosecution of the trafficker. Identified victims were eligible for a 45-day reflection period during which they could decide whether to assist law enforcement; foreign victims who did not agree to these conditions were repatriated to their country of origin. Potential victims had access to social services during this reflection period. The government granted foreign victims who participated in investigations and prosecutions three-month residence and work permits and protective services. If a public prosecutor confirmed the individuals were trafficking victims, they could receive a six-month residence and work permit, renewable until the end of the criminal case. Victims who were not citizens of EU member states could obtain permanent residency only upon the successful conviction and sentencing of traffickers; in the absence of a conviction, authorities could grant residence permits for indefinite lengths of time to non-EU victims if authorities were able to bring formal charges against the trafficker. Observers noted the conditions the government attached to victim assistance were difficult for many victims to meet, especially in the case of child victims. Few child victims received residence permits, and GRETA expressed concern that residency for non-EU child victims was contingent upon cooperation with law enforcement instead of factors relating to the best interest of the child. The government issued 174 residence permits for trafficking victims in 2020, compared with 154 in 2019, 248 in 2018, and 235 in 2017.
During criminal proceedings, witness protection laws provided only those victims under physical threat of violence or living abroad options to testify via video. The law had a specific provision for child victims that allowed courts to permit video testimony. Prosecutors could seize assets of suspected traffickers during an investigation and could request restitution for victims in court through the confiscation of these assets; the government did not report if courts granted restitution in 2020, nor in 2019. Victims could claim compensation in local courts but often had to prove their case involved the intentional act of physical violence in order to receive compensation. Victims could also seek compensation through the Commission for Financial Assistance to Victims of Intentional Acts of Violence; in 2020, the commission awarded €12,500 ($15,340) to trafficking victims in each of two cases. The high costs of legal representation discouraged victim cooperation in criminal and civil proceedings. There were no reports the government penalized victims for unlawful acts traffickers compelled them to commit; however, gaps in identification efforts, such as with child victims, made these victims vulnerable to such penalization. Additionally, foreign victims were only granted relief from deportation or other penalties if they assisted in the prosecution of their trafficker. While the Netherlands held the presidency of the Benelux Union in 2020, the Belgian government worked with it and Luxembourg to improve cooperation on victim protection, including by publishing an updated brochure to raise awareness amongst the public and potential victims about anti-trafficking laws and referral and assistance programs in each of the three countries. The government, along with Hungary, also contributed to a Dutch project to provide resources for social workers, legal experts, and law enforcement authorities, among others, to increase knowledge of victim referral and assistance mechanisms, particularly for Hungarian victims in Belgium and the Netherlands.