The government increased efforts to protect victims. In 2019, the government identified and assisted 265 victims (including 143 victims of labor exploitation, 92 victims of sexual exploitation, and 30 victims of other forms of exploitation), a significant increase compared to 139 victims in 2018 (including 80 victims of labor exploitation, 38 victims of sex exploitation, and 21 victims of other forms of exploitation). 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. First responders followed a national victim referral protocol to identify victims and refer them to care, and the government distributed victim identification guidelines to relevant stakeholders across the government and NGO community. Law enforcement identified the majority of victims during inspections, although social workers, immigration officials, and NGOs also referred victims to government-funded shelters for assistance. The national rapporteur, however, reported persistent challenges in accurately 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. In one case, police informed local authorities in Brussels about a possible case of child sex trafficking; however, despite knowing the location of the victim, several months passed before they arrested the traffickers and protected the victims. The government did not report providing training to authorities on victim identification.
The government funded three specialized NGO-run shelters and allocated approximately €427,000 ($479,780) for each shelter in 2019, compared with €426,000 ($478,650) in 2018; 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 unaccompanied minors or in facilities with victims of other crimes. In December 2019, the government announced it had approved an NGO proposal to open a shelter specifically for female child sex trafficking victims, which the organization expected would open in 2021. GRETA reported the government’s child safety services lacked sufficient capacity to accommodate unaccompanied child victims. Shelters for unaccompanied minors reported many children went missing from the shelters each year, some of whom may have been victims of trafficking; in 2019, the agency responsible for these shelters reported 1,072 children as missing.
The government conditioned its victim assistance services on three criteria: victims had to break off all contact with their trafficker, agree to counseling at a specialized shelter, and assist in the prosecution of their trafficker. During criminal proceedings, witness protection laws provided only those victims under the physical threat of violence or living abroad options to testify via video. Child victims had a specific provision that allowed courts to permit video testimony. 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 must return to their country of origin. The government granted foreign victims who participated in investigations and prosecutions three-month residence and employment 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 prosecution and sentencing of traffickers. 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 did not report how many residence permits it issued or renewed for trafficking victims in 2019, compared with 248 in 2018 and 235 in 2017. Victims could claim compensation at local courts, but many victims found it difficult to prove their case involved the required intentional act of physical violence. 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.