The Belgian authorities, including the justice minister, have admitted a group of eight minors being smuggled through Belgium by a human trafficking gang were lost after they walked out of accommodation run by the federal asylum agency and disappeared.
Last week the British police arrested three men in connection with a human trafficking ring, while police in Belgium arrested the driver of the truck when stopped at Gentbrugge.
The lorry was carrying 10 migrants, two adults and eight minors, all believed to be from South-East Asia. They had been smuggled in a lorry carrying a load of car tyres.
“Our close working with our Belgian partners in this instance has led to the safeguarding of a number of migrants who had been put in a very dangerous situation, and we are grateful for their support,” said Detective Chief Superintendent Gerry McLean, regional head of investigation for the National Crime Agency in the UK.
But DCS McLean spoke too soon.
According to federal justice minister Koen Geens, replying to a parliamentary question from Ben Segers (sp.a) in the justice committee, by the time the British investigation was announcing the safe delivery of the minors, they had already disappeared, most likely back into the hands of the smugglers.
The minors had been handed over to Fedasil, the federal agency for asylum and migration. However that organisation denied responsibility.
“If there are indications of human trafficking, the prosecutor’s office has to take protective measures and contact a specialised institution,” a spokesperson said.
“It is strange that [the minors] were dropped off with us, because that is not our mission. We are very upset about this.”
Heidi De Pauw, head of Child Focus, agreed. Her office has tracked a large number of minors from Vietnam being smuggled through Belgium in the past year. When stopped, she said, they often show a desire to escape from the authorities, presumably to continue their journey to the UK.
The matter of human trafficking from Vietnam to the UK became a major issue last year when a refrigerated container was found in the port of Purfleet in Essex in southern England with the bodies of 39 Vietnamese migrants inside. The container had passed through Zeebrugge on its way to England.
“These minors should have been brought to a specialised institution that handles underage victims of human trafficking,” Segers said.
One such specialist is the institution Esperanto in Wallonia (the exact location is not publicised).
“This time, nobody called us,” said director Sébastien Biaudelle. He feels certain the children were the victims of traffickers.
“They are pressured to work to pay off the debt of their family in Vietnam. It’s a question of exploitation. Often they go to work in nail salons, where they are exposed to toxic vapours.”
“This is unacceptable because it was alas so predictable,” Segers said. “It would have been better to opt for a small-scale reception in a secluded, protected environment. What is needed is a plan to be followed. If Vietnamese minors are picked up, an alarm should go off and everything should be done to prevent them falling back into the hands of the criminal networks.”