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Human Trafficking: Modern Day ‘Slavery’ in Belgium

by Grace Kwinjeh

A Thai woman, aged 28, met a handsome Belgian man and fell in love. He assisted her in getting a visa to leave Thailand and marry him in Belgium.

The young woman from Thailand who was trafficked to Belgium to work as a sex worker. Photo courtesy of the author.
The young woman from Thailand who was trafficked to Belgium to work as a sex worker. Photo courtesy of the author.

The mother of two, who had worked as a commercial sex worker for the greater part of her adult life, must have thought that she was free at last. Life as a happily married woman had begun. She could now enjoy some peace and relief; free from life’s toils and hardships endured back home in Thailand.

But, alas, her husband was no ordinary groom. He had not planned to give her a diamond ring, nor had he planned a romantic honeymoon. Instead, as soon as he could get the paperwork done, he opened a parlour for her to ‘work’ in. She worked long hours and was at times abused. Like many others in her position she became trapped in a vicious cycle of drug addiction.

Scores of other women share a similar story; they are brought to Belgium in promise of a better life and when they get here it is a different story altogether. They soon discover they have been lured into some form of slavery.

According to human rights activist Emma Gooding, human trafficking “is very grey [and] does not enter a neat box of what happens. [It involves] more subtle forms of control and deception.” Gooding is the Project Director for OASIS, an NGO that runs a project aimed at raising awareness around human trafficking and the rehabilitation of survivors. Belgium is reported to be a source, destination, and transit country for individuals who are victims of human trafficking, particularly for forced labor and prostitution.

Because of the hidden nature of human trafficking, reliable statistics are hard to come by. The lack of quantitative information regarding its scope and development has been identified as a major challenge by policy makers.

In a debate last March in in the Belgian Parliament, Minister for Justice Annemie Turtelboom noted that human trafficking reached its peak in Belgium in 2013. The figures include: trafficking cases involving sexual exploitation (196), forced begging (12), labor exploitation (183) and the imposition of committing offenses (39). The number of trafficking cases was the highest Belgium has seen in five years, Turtelboom remarked.

The young woman from Thailand had to come to terms with the fact that she was a modern day slave. She belonged to her husband. She could not escape. Her life was further complicated by the cultural shock of not being able to speak any of the local languages – mainly French and Flemish – resulting in her total isolation from the community around her.

She is among victims of organised crime in an apparently fast lucrative industry. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), $32 billion is made annually by unscrupulous persons like her husband involved in the trafficking of human beings. They prey on unsuspecting women through dating sites and employment agencies and bring them to Belgium to become slaves. Traffickers make between $4,000 and $50,000 per person trafficked the UNODC further reports.

Elaine and Emma from the OASIS team making it to the top of one of the Greek mountains that they ran through for the 'In the Long Run'.
Elaine and Emma from the OASIS team making it to the top of one of the Greek mountains that they ran through for the ‘In the Long Run’. Photo courtesy of the author.

The UNODC describes human trafficking as, “the acquisition of people by improper means such as force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them” and estimates that at any one time, 2.4 million people “suffer the misery of this humiliating and degrading crime.” Of trafficked humans, 2 out of every 3 victims are women, and most are exploited as sexual slaves.

OASIS-Belgium works with escaped or rescued victims of human trafficking who have been isolated from the community around them and forced to work in massage parlours or brothels against their will. Gooding explains that some victims do not immediately realise that they are being abused and remain trapped in this horrible industry. According to Gooding, based on available global figures, only one in a hundred women are able to escape from this slavery. Belgium OASIS, among other organisations, do what they can to help those who manage to escape.

Last July, OASIS held an “In the long run” marathon across Europe. Participants ran from Bulgaria through Macedonia and Albania to Italy raising awareness in each country on the gravity of human trafficking.

The United Nations listed Germany, Italy, Belgium, and Greece as the most common destinations for this deplorable international trade in human beings with the source mostly being former Eastern Bloc countries like Bulgaria, Albania, and Belarus.

According to the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons’ 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report, at least 89 percent of identified victims of sex trafficking in Germany originate from European countries, including 25 percent from Bulgaria, 26 percent from Romania, and 20 percent from within Germany. Non-European victims originate in Africa, Asia, and the Western Hemisphere.

The Belgian government, through its ministry of Federal Public Service Interior Immigration Service, has committed to the fight against the trafficking of human beings through prevention and assistance of victims, including investigating and prosecuting those involved. The Interdepartmental Coordination Unit against Trafficking and Smuggling in Human Beings has been set up to bring different players working to combat human trafficking together to share information and to coordinate their efforts. Belgium was the first European country to set up such an institutional mechanism, which is now recognised as a best practise globally.

Once the young woman from Thailand realised her fate at the hands of her abusive husband, she tried to get police help. Unfortunately, because of her language barrier, her husband at first got an upper hand and managed to convince the police his story against hers. As her language skills improved, she was able to get much needed help. A divorce process has started and the husband has been served with a court restraining order.

The 'In The Long Run' team made it to the finishing line, the Colosseum in Rome. Photo courtesy of the author.
The ‘In The Long Run’ team made it to the finishing line, the Colosseum in Rome. Photo courtesy of the author.

In its latest ‘trafficking in persons’ report, the Belgian government details measures it is taking to curb the vice of human trafficking through stringent legal measures. In 2013, 196 defendants were prosecuted versus 190 in 2012 for sex trafficking offenses and 184 versus 164 in 2012 for labor trafficking or economic exploitation offenses.

The report also details assistance given to victims of trafficking through NGOs with 152 new adult victims receiving protection and shelter in the year 2013 alone.

OASIS-Belgium not only raises awareness around human trafficking but also helps victims reintegrate into society. They are helped out of addiction and exposed to new ways of making a living. Through mentoring programmes the women identify other skills they are capable of and they learn there is life after the dehumanising experience of being trafficked.

While she has continued work in a parlour, the young woman from Thailand, who recently celebrated her birthday with her new friends, has a vision to one day start her own Thai food restaurant in Belgium.

“I feel blessed to be in this area of work. People are made in the image of God, with dignity and value compared to what the rest of the world sees,” says Gooding.

Grace-KwinjehAbout the Author: Zimbabwean Grace Kwinjeh is a feminist, journalist by profession, and a political activist. She currently lives in Belgium with her family where she studies Theological Leadership and French and writes about women’s rights and human rights. She recently co-authored a book with other African women with a foreword by Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. The book will be released in Holland on October 16th and 17th, 2014.

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