The government increased efforts to protect victims. The government formally identified and assisted 151 victims (including 86 victims of labor exploitation, 33 victims of sexual exploitation, and 32 victims of unspecified forms of exploitation), an increase from 91 in 2020 but similar to 159 in 2019. 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 the international law definition. Law enforcement identified the majority of victims, followed by NGOs and social services. There were also many cases of victims who self-identified. The three government- funded shelters received 1,055 referrals of victims and potential victims in 2021, compared with 820 referrals in 2020. 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 frontline professionals, including hospital and social workers. The government trained immigration and asylum officers on victim identification. Observers noted that local police often struggled to identify trafficking, were overburdened by too many responsibilities, faced high rates of turnover, and lacked specialized anti-trafficking officers. Moreover, experts recommended increased training for law enforcement on the identification of trafficking on online platforms. Experts reported particular challenges in identifying child victims, in spite of a sharp increase in the number of unaccompanied migrant children entering the country in recent years. 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. Gaps in identification efforts, such as with child victims, made these victims vulnerable to penalization for crimes traffickers compelled them to commit. The government reported three working groups advised service providers on the identification of child victims, and the government began conducting a comprehensive revision of the national referral mechanism, including the referral procedures for child victims.
The government funded three specialized NGO-run shelters and allocated approximately €428,000 ($485,260) for each shelter, compared with €419,000 ($475,060) in 2020; the shelters also received funding from regional and local governments. 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. A government- funded temporary residence center for unaccompanied female potential trafficking victims between the ages of 14 and 18 began operations in January 2022. The center offered shelter, legal assistance, and tailored follow-on assistance plans; the center did not require victims to participate in the investigation of a trafficker to receive support. GRETA reported the government’s child safety services lacked sufficient capacity to accommodate unaccompanied child victims. In December 2021, the government reported it was only able to accommodate 16 out of 30 unaccompanied migrant children who sought shelter at a Brussels reception center, noting that the child protection system for unaccompanied children had not been overwhelmed to this degree since 2015. 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 individual was a trafficking victim, 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. Victims who chose not to accept the conditions were eligible for other types of assistance, including access to temporary housing and psycho-social care, and non-EU victims could apply for humanitarian residency. Nonetheless, 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 202 residence permits for trafficking victims in 2021, compared with 174 in 2020.
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; for the third consecutive year, the government did not report if courts granted restitution. Victims could claim compensation in local courts but often had to prove their case involved the intentional act of physical violence to receive compensation. Victims could also seek compensation through the Commission for Financial Assistance to Victims of Intentional Acts of Violence; in 2021, the commission awarded €12,500 ($14,170) to one trafficking victim (the same amount awarded to two victims in 2020). The high costs of legal representation discouraged victim cooperation in criminal and civil proceedings. Additionally, foreign victims were only granted relief from deportation or other penalties if they assisted in the prosecution of their trafficker.