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The Government of Belgium fully meets the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. The government continued to demonstrate serious and sustained efforts during the reporting period, considering the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on its anti-trafficking capacity; therefore Belgium remained on Tier 1. These efforts included updating the national action plan, centralizing funding for shelters to ensure funding remains stable from year to year, and cooperating with international law enforcement authorities on trafficking cases. Although the government meets the minimum standards, authorities prosecuted fewer traffickers, courts suspended or partially suspended the majority of convicted traffickers’ sentences, and authorities identified fewer victims. Identifying child victims and providing appropriate child-specific protection services remained persistent weaknesses, and funding for services decreased. The government continued to report inconsistent law enforcement data.

Train first responders on the child victim identification and referral protocol and ensure it is used effectively in practice. • Secure adequate funding for the provision of services for child trafficking victims and increase training for front-line personnel on identifying child trafficking victims. • Increase resources to assist unaccompanied child victims. • Vigorously prosecute and convict traffickers, sentence convicted traffickers to significant prison terms, and ensure convicted traffickers serve those terms in practice. • Implement trauma-informed and victim-centered procedures during trial proceedings to minimize the risk of re-traumatization and ensure all victims, not just those under threat of physical violence, have access to witness protection services. • Ensure victims have access to the full range of services regardless of whether they choose to participate in judicial processes. • Coordinate and centralize the collection of timely trafficking data across the government to effectively analyze efforts. • Increase legal representation for victims and ensure victims exploited by means other than physical violence have full access to victim compensation. • Revise the definition of human trafficking under Belgian law to more closely align with the definition in the 2000 UN TIP Protocol.

The government demonstrated uneven law enforcement efforts; while it continued to investigate cases and convict traffickers in similar proportion to the previous year, prosecutions decreased and the majority of convicted traffickers received fully or partially suspended sentences, which weakened deterrence. Belgium criminalized sex and labor trafficking through a 2005 amendment to the 1995 Act Containing Measures to Repress Trafficking in Persons, which prescribed penalties of one to 15 years’ imprisonment and a fine of €500 to €50,000 ($613 to $61,350) for offenses involving adult victims, and 10 to 20 years’ imprisonment and a fine of €1,000 to €100,000 ($1,230 to $122,700) for those involving a child victim. These penalties were sufficiently stringent and, with respect to sex trafficking, commensurate with penalties prescribed for other serious crimes, such as kidnapping. Belgium’s definition of trafficking in persons was broader than the definition in the 2000 UN TIP Protocol. Inconsistent with the definition of trafficking under international law, the law established the use of force, fraud, or coercion as aggravating factors, rather than essential elements of the crime. Additionally, Belgian law also allowed the failure of an employer to meet the prevailing wage and working conditions to constitute “exploitation,” and the government included these cases in its prosecution data. GRETA reported this overly broad definition could lead to confusion between trafficking and other criminal offenses and possible difficulties in mutual legal assistance with foreign governments that used a definition more consistent with the UN TIP Protocol.

The government did not report law enforcement data consistently from year to year, making it difficult to assess its law enforcement efforts. Despite recommendations from GRETA in both its 2013 and 2017 evaluation reports, the government lacked a coherent system to collect law enforcement and victim data for trafficking cases, which hindered its ability to track and evaluate law enforcement and victim protection efforts. Authorities investigated 372 cases in 2020, compared with 374 cases in 2019. The government prosecuted an unknown number of defendants in 38 cases in 2020, compared with an unknown number of defendants in 73 cases in 2019. Authorities reported 113 convictions in 2019, the most recent year for which data was available, compared with 127 convictions in 2018. The government reported it sentenced 101 convicted traffickers to prison terms in 2019 (118 in 2018), 57 of which were suspended or partially suspended (53 in 2018). Of the prison sentences issued, including those that were suspended or partially suspended, 19 were for less than one year, 39 were for one to three years, 36 were for three to five years, and seven were for five to 10 years. The failure to sentence the majority of traffickers to significant terms of imprisonment weakened deterrence, may have undercut broader efforts to hold traffickers accountable, and did not adequately address the nature of the crime. In March 2021, media reported an Antwerp-based cafe owner was convicted for trafficking and operating a brothel and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment and a fine; the owner’s son was reportedly sentenced to three years’ imprisonment and a fine, two additional associates received 30 months’ suspended sentences, one associate received a one-year suspended sentence, and one defendant was acquitted. The government issued pandemic-related restrictions and lockdowns that significantly limited court proceedings from March 2020 to May 2020 and from October 2020 to December 2020. Law enforcement activities were similarly limited by pandemic-related restrictions; media reported in October 2020 over 500 police officers were in quarantine, and almost 2,000 went into self-isolation between early September 2020 and mid-October 2020.

Each judicial district appointed a magistrate to specialize in trafficking and serve as a resource to the district. The government mandated trafficking trainings for judicial officials who were on the career track to become magistrates and who may eventually become judges. The government conducted a virtual training for magistrates in February 2021 on trafficking indicators and victim referral procedures. In 2020, the police completed a comprehensive review and revision of its training courses on trafficking. Police continued to participate in an ongoing labor trafficking investigation with the Government of Luxembourg involving five suspects in five companies. In September 2020, authorities participated in a EUROPOL operation focused on trafficking in labor-intensive sectors such as construction, logistics, and transport, as well as in nail salons; the operation led to the arrest of 193 suspects, the initiation of 606 investigations, and the identification of 535 potential victims throughout the 19 participating countries. Law enforcement also participated in a 12-country EUROPOL operation in October 2020 that led to 388 arrests and the identification of 249 potential victims. The government did not report how many, if any, arrests, investigations, or potential victims identified during these two operations occurred in Belgium or involved Belgian nationals. Media reported in October 2020 that law enforcement cooperated with French authorities to arrest 13 suspects and identify 15 child victims as part of an investigation into a criminal organization accused of forcing children to beg, among other crimes. Law enforcement authorities also participated with French authorities in an exchange of best practices on combating forced labor. Authorities cooperated with foreign authorities to extradite five suspected traffickers to Belgium, one each from Austria, Germany, Hungary, Italy, and the United Kingdom (UK). The government transferred two convicted traffickers, one to the Netherlands and one to the UK. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government officials complicit in trafficking offenses.

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.

The government modestly increased efforts to prevent trafficking. The Interdepartmental Coordination Unit coordinated government-wide anti-trafficking efforts and monitored the implementation of the national action plan (NAP); the government updated the 2015-2019 NAP for action through March 2021, which they finalized and released in June 2020. Further updates beyond March 2021 were pending at the end of the reporting period. The MOJ chaired the unit, which included key government ministries and agencies, as well as representatives of the three government-funded shelters and Myria. Myria served as the secretariat for the unit and as the independent national rapporteur, and it produced its own annual report on government anti-trafficking efforts. The government held several awareness-raising events as part of a UN campaign in July 2020. The Labor Inspectorate conducted inspections throughout the reporting period, but the government did not report the number of inspections or if authorities identified any trafficking victims. The government maintained an online toolbox to provide information for businesses on how to prevent forced labor in their organizations and supply chains. The government continued a widely-used program that subsidized the wages of maids and domestic workers and criminalized exploitative practices such as the confiscation of passports and contract switching. The government maintained a system to prevent the exploitation of domestic employees of foreign diplomats by placing awareness-raising flyers in the consular sections of Belgian embassies and consulates abroad. The government did not make efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts or for participation in international sex tourism by its citizens, however, the law permitted the prosecution of Belgian citizens for participating in child sex tourism.

As reported over the past five years, sex and labor traffickers exploit foreign and domestic victims in Belgium. Foreign victims come primarily from Asia (including China, India, and Thailand), Eastern Europe (especially Albania, Hungary, Romania, and Ukraine), and North and Sub-Saharan Africa (primarily Morocco and Nigeria). Sex traffickers exploit Belgian women and girls, some of whom are recruited by local traffickers. Sex traffickers exploit foreign children, including Roma and Nigerian girls; the latter are recruited through extensive trafficking networks in Nigeria. Thai criminal organizations exploit Thai women for sex in massage establishments that are frequently managed by Belgian citizens. Traffickers recruit girls from Eastern Europe on social media by posing as potential romantic partners. Belgian citizens participate in international child sex tourism. Labor traffickers exploit male victims in restaurants, bars, sweatshops, horticulture, fruit farms, construction, cleaning businesses, and retail shops; they exploit men and women in domestic service, including in the diplomatic community. Within the Romani community, traffickers exploit Roma children in forced begging and forced criminality. Asylum-seekers who have their applications for legal status denied and migrants transiting through Belgium to the UK are highly vulnerable to trafficking.

U.S. Department of State

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