Underage Afghan boys are being forced into prostitution in Belgium, and in many cases, are being lured via TikTok. Five Afghan men suspected of human trafficking in Belgium were arrested this summer. The case is extensive, involving dozens to hundreds of victims, reported De Morgen.
The investigation into the Afghan criminal organisation was launched late last year, with earlier news from the Public Prosecutor's Office revealing that the case included trafficking and selling narcotics. The prostitution of underage boys in Belgium is now confirmed to be another part of the investigation.
The Federal Judicial Police opened a file on an Afghan network of prostitution of underage boys, aged between 13 and 18. This file has since been transferred to the Antwerp Public Prosecutor's Office.
"Yes, prostitution is part of this investigation, in which these victims of trafficking may also have been sexually abused. Underage boys are involved in this. It involves dozens to hundreds of victims. It is a huge case and a special case. At the moment the judicial investigation is still ongoing," confirmed spokesman Kristof Aerts.
Social Media as a human trafficking tool
TikTok is the main tool through which suspects, victims and also the leading figures communicated with each other, it emerged.
The smuggling network also used TikTok outside the country's borders, by communicating with people in Belgium, Turkey, France and Germany. That criminals used TikTok is fairly new. "But it is inevitable that social media will also be used at this level," says Aerts.
Social media platforms are meeting places for organising and mutually facilitating human trafficking and human smuggling. Minors in particular are vulnerable to be targeted on social media: they expose themselves more quickly, and criminals misuse the information they find to get inside the head of the victim.
Stef Janssens, Myria's human trafficking expert, recognises the problem of abuse of underage Afghan boys. Myria paid attention to it in its annual report Human trafficking and human smuggling 2018.
"You see smugglers online selecting 12 and 13-year-old boys based on core physical characteristics. In one Afghan smuggling case, which we refer to in our 2018 report, the smuggling leader arranged a free smuggling trip for a minor to France via Skype where the boy had to pay afterwards."
The fact that underage Afghan boys are vulnerable to sexual abuse also has a cultural connotation, according to Janssens. "In Afghan society, there is a different approach towards sexuality towards underage boys," he says. It is related to the local custom bacha bazi (boy play or dancing boy), in which boys are a sexual object. Rape of young boys is considered more socially acceptable in Afghanistan than rape of girls, Myria data show.
Bacha bazi has helped normalise this form of abuse, Janssens says. As a result, Afghan minor boys are more susceptible to child prostitution, and sexual exploitation is much more prevalent among Afghan smugglers than among Kurdish or Syrian smugglers, for example.
The subject is a sensitive one, according to a survey of the Afghan community in Belgium. As Antwerp's Ramin articulates, "I consider it unlikely that there are any minors who want to engage in conversation about this. I have spoken out in the past about my trip to Belgium and contact with people smugglers, but was an exception in this. There is no talk about it, even among themselves."
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Lawyer Benoit Dhondt, who specialises in asylum and refugee law, recognises the picture painted about the target group. His office handles many files of minor refugees, 80 per cent of whom are Afghan minors. "Research shows that there is a high risk of sexual abuse for unaccompanied minors, but also that it is completely taboo among this target group. It is culturally very sensitive. There is a lot of shame, but mostly fear."
People, including Afghan minors, who arrive in Belgium and do not have sufficient financial resources to pay off their smuggling debts, are forced to pay off their smuggling debts via illegal activities. Dhondt denounces the narrative surrounding the smuggling industry. "The reasoning is always: if someone can pay ten thousand dollars for the trip, it means the family is rich. No, I then say, that means the family is in debt."
Dhondt can say "little to nothing" about minors in prostitution. "There is a lot of mistrust among my clients, it takes years before people to confide in us." The lawyer thinks this is not surprising given the group's experience with authorities, and the dangerous journey young Afghans go through before they get to Belgium.