Human trafficking is recruiting, transporting or trading people against their will with the aim of exploiting them. Trafficking in human beings is a modern-day form of slavery and affects many economic sectors such as prostitution, construction, hospitality, agriculture, etc. Traffickers can be part of an international criminal network or solo operators. It is not easy to identify situations or help victims of human trafficking.
Human trafficking is a crime that generates huge financial gains for those who traffic. It is a global phenomenon that not only happens in prostitution but in many other economic sectors: such as the hospitality industry, construction, agriculture, etc. Victims of human traffickers are often transported from one country to another, but it is not necessarily something that takes place in foreign countries. Belgians also can fall victim to human trafficking in Belgium.
In practice, human trafficking is a complex issue and victims often see no other way out, cannot find work anywhere else or do not have a residence permit. They are afraid to go to the police for fear of reprisals from the criminal network.
Forced or involuntary prostitution
Forced prostitution is the best-known form of human trafficking. Some sex workers are required to pay off sky-high debts, are not allowed to set their own working hours and live in extreme poverty. The victims are exploited, blackmailed, threatened or in extreme cases physically abused.
Despite this, it is often difficult to distinguish between those who work voluntarily and those who are forced into prostitution. Victims often don't see another solution and perpetrators know how to manipulate their victims. For some people, prostitution is the only way to acquire an income. Others see no other way to a better life than by asking the help of people they know are involved in criminal activities.
Sex workers who are forced into prostitution usually work for a pimp, who may or may not be a member of a criminal network and have several women working for him. These networks are very often also involved in other criminal activities such as drug or arms trafficking. Pimps in networks are not always males, there are also female pimps.
Sometimes a pimp is not part of a network but works alone or with family members. He/she has only one or two women under his care and there is often an emotional bond. This emotional bond is an important factor in the "lover boy tactic", i.e. the pimp forms a romantic relationship with the sex worker. He claims that he can’t find a job and tells the woman that they can’t realise their dreams (get married, buy a house) if she stops working. If the sex worker objects or starts to resist, he trades her for another.
How to identify signs of human trafficking?
Victims of human trafficking rarely seek help or come forward of their own accord for fear of threats to their family. In some cases, the victims do not see themselves as victims because they have work and can keep some of the proceeds. They often depend on the person exploiting them in different ways: they are in love with the exploiter or cut all ties with family and friends. They can’t see a way out and are convinced that no one can help them.
The alertness of people close-by or aid workers can make all the difference. If you recognise several of the following signs in a sex worker, you may be faced with a case of human trafficking: signs of human trafficking.
What to do if you suspect human trafficking?
If you suspect human trafficking, do not carry out your own investigation and arouse suspicion. It is just possible that the victim doesn't want to be saved. If the pimp gets worried, the victim may even disappear. So, think before you act.
A victim who contacts one of these organisations is taken to a safehouse where he/she can stay for 45 days, rest and reflect on whether to file a complaint.
More information about human trafficking
In Belgium there are three recognised centres for victims of human trafficking: Payoke in Flanders, Pag-Asa in Brussels and Surya in Wallonia. They provide short- and long-term tailor-made care and guidance to help the victim reintegrate into society. The centres also provide information, advice and training on human trafficking. For more information, please visit their websites:
There are no exact figures on what percentage of sex workers are a victim of human trafficking. Figures on the number of convictions for human trafficking can be found on the site of the federal migration centre Myria.