Thousands of Filipino immigrants to Europe over the last five years fell into the hands of modern slave traders, who sent the women into prostitution and the men into illegal labor, investigators said Wednesday.
With 10 suspects in the alleged international immigrant-smuggling ring already behind bars in Belgium, investigators expect the inquiry to broaden further in Italy, the Netherlands and the Philippines.
“This is a huge case,” said Nel van Dijk, the European Parliament’s chairwoman of the women’s rights commission.
After paying $8,000 each to the smuggling ring, about two dozen Filipinos a week came to Europe through Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport on a tourist visa, hoping to settle permanently, authorities said.
“They had visions of the opulent West - plenty of work and butter on their bread,” said one of the chief investigators, who demanded anonymity.
They would be picked up and driven south to Belgium, loaded into trailers and driven to Milan in northern Italy, with many women ending up in bordellos and the men working in textile sweatshops or construction sites.
The investigator estimated up to 5,000 Filipinos were shipped in this way, allowing the Belgian members of the ring to collect $2,000 per individual. The drivers, mainly unemployed people from Belgium’s northeastern region of Hasselt, would collect half of it.
Although the investigator refused to say how police discovered the ring, the conspicuous signs of wealth from some of the unemployed drivers apparently helped catch their attention.
A new law in Belgium allows anyone who forces immigrants to work against their will to be charged with illegally trafficking in human labor. Without that legislation, any abused immigrant trying to get the police involved would immediately be kicked out of the country as an illegal alien.
“There wouldn’t be a witness and it would scare off others to go to the police,” said Van Dijk.
Many other EU nations still have antiquated laws going back to the days of traditional slavery, making modern-day cases difficult to prosecute.