Sex trafficking in Belgium
The trafficking of adults and minors for sexual exploitation has been of growing concern to Belgium for the past decade and has become a priority for the police and the judiciary alike. Jean O'Connor reports.
Saturday night on rue des Commercants, rue van Gaver, boulevard Albert II and Avenue Louise — the night was still, pavements dimly-lit, cars purring slowly along blue stone curbs. Brussels police swooped on the four hotspots, checking the status of dozens of the city’s prostitutes.
In last weekend's clampdown, 44 prostitutes had their identities checked. Only five of them were Belgian.
The sudden clampdown put Belgium’s illegal sex trade and human trafficking rings back in the spotlight.
The high degree of tolerance given to prostitution in Belgium has been taken advantage of by Eastern European traffickers. And no coherent policy of control of the industry exists.
Last year it was estimated there were 30,000 prostitutes working in Belgium, half of which came from Eastern Europe, although the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights confirms statistics on sex trafficking are impossible to obtain.
“Among EU member states, Belgium is one of the top destinations for victims of trafficking, it is also one of the main countries used for the transit of sex-workers,” says International Organisation for Migration (IOM) spokesperson Mathieu Luciano.
“Most of those destined for prostitution are young women between the ages of 21 and 30 and teenage girls under the age of 18.”
According to a report by the Centre for Equal Opportunities, out of about 150 who testified as having escaped some form of exploitation in Belgium, 88 had been forced into prostitution. The reported victims were from Albania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Liberia, Nigeria, Sudan, China and Thailand.
Until the 1950s, Belgium had an official prostitution charter with a registration system and health checks. Since its abolition it has been re-implemented, albeit unofficially, in different ways in varoius cities across the country.
Prostitution is not a crime per se in Belgium but the exploitation of another is deemed immoral and prosecutable in a court of law. Sentences can be 15 years. Article 380b of the Penal Code was recently amended to introduce the exploitation of prostitutes as an aggravating circumstance permitting harsher penalties.
The International Convention of New York, combating the traffic and exploitation of human beings, was incorporated by law in 1965 and a further bill passed in 1994 recognising and regulating prostitution.
Pimping, taking someone to or bringing someone away from a place for purposes of prostitution as well as acts which lead the under-aged into vice or prostitution are illegal. The trafficking of sex workers, however, is the most serious offence.
Belgian policy on trafficking is considered progressive compared to some of its European neighbours. The number of sex trafficking victims however continue to rise every year.
Although a harsh stance is taken against trafficking, once women are in the country and working in a brothel, authorities become more lenient. Politicians had hoped, by making prostitutes bona fide ‘employees’ of brothels, that they would be able to curb exploitation. But what can look ‘legal’ from the outside is, often, illegal and bordering on sexual slavery on the inside.
In general, jurisprudence considers that clubs with excessive gain are an indication of exploitation. It is up to the local police department involved however to decide on what is excessive gain.
Brothel owners on rue d’Aerschot, just behind Gare du Nord, generate an annual turnover of over of almost EUR 25 million. The owners of these bordellos are alleged to play an active role in the exploitation of prostitutes as the majority of their employees arrive from Eastern Europe, many having been coerced.
Nadia has been working as a prostitute on Avenue Louise for three months. She was brought to Belgium by a family friend who had promised her bar work which would pay more than in her native Ukraine.
Upon her arrival, she was dropped off at a brothel on the French-Belgian border where, at one stage, she had 30 clients a day and was not let out for periods of up to four weeks. She ‘escaped’.
“The landlady said I owed her money to stay there so I had to work. The police don’t mind brothels but they don’t know what goes on in them. You’re freer on the streets, it’s better.”
Interpol defines the trafficking of women and children for sexual exploitation as “an international, organised, criminal phenomenon that has grave consequences for the safety, welfare and human rights of victims of it. Trafficking in women and children is a criminal phenomenon that violates the basic human rights of the victims, and totally destroys their lives.”
According to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), hundreds of thousands of women and girls are trafficked to and from European countries year to work as virtual slaves in the sex industry. Although trafficking differs somewhat in each country or region where it occurs, certain common patterns have emerged.
Young women and girls in countries or regions where socio-economic conditions are difficult and opportunities for women are extremely limited are the main targets. Recruitment usually involves some form of coercion or deception. Typically, young women respond to advertisements or are recruited informally by an agent (often an acquaintance), offering a good job in another country or region.
Some women are brought to a foreign country expecting to work as waitresses, hairdressers or nurses but many women who are trafficked know that they will be working in the sex industry, albeit deceived about the nature or conditions of their work. Some agree to work in milder forms of sex work, such as peep shows or clubs, but later are forced into prostitution.
Others agree to work abroad as prostitutes or escorts, expecting to earn money quickly and then return home after a short period of time. Instead they are sold on the marketplace to a pimp or brothel and then trapped in abusive situations by intimidation and debt bondage.
Traffickers often use drugs and drug addiction to control the women and ensure their continued compliance. Intimidation and violence is commonplace, and often extreme, particularly in cases with ‘mafia’ or organised crime connections.
"Unfamiliarity with the language, lack of money and proper documentation, mistrust of police or other authorities, lack of information, irregular or illegal immigration status, fear, shame, and isolation further reinforce the victim's dependence on the traffickers,” notes an OCSE report.
Belgium’s leading child protection agency, Child Focus, has long-warned that hundreds of child migrants and asylum seekers arriving in Belgium go missing and that many of them are thought to become victims of traffickers and prostitution rings.
Heidi De Pauw, who carried out a study for the IOM, says that “a great number of children are disappearing every year and they are in a very vulnerable position… they have no money, no friends and no family to turn to.” Many of these children are perfect targets for traffickers.
The Brussels Declaration on Preventing and Combating Trafficking in Human Beings outlines a comprehensive set of policy and operational recommendations towards counteracting trafficking on a European level.
It has provided recommendations for concrete action against trafficking in human beings and operational guidelines for those involved with counter-trafficking activities.
Several organisations have also been set up across Belgium to campaign for sex workers' rights and fight against sex trafficking such as Le Mouvement du Nid , Espace P, Pasop, Payoke and Vinova.
But for many the nightmare continues, and it is neither an institutional disposition nor a support group which will break these rings of vice and fear.
Until the root of the problem is tackled, which Brussels police officials concede could take decades, young women arriving in Belgium and forced into sex work will continue to suffer.
“You’re alone in this work, alone on the streets,” – Nadia.