An unprecedented law enforcement operation involving different countries has resulted in the dismantlement of an international sex-trafficking ring that held hundreds of Chinese women trapped in debt bondage across Europe.
This action is the biggest hit to date against Chinese human trafficking in Europe.
In the beginning of February, some 34 house searches were carried out in Belgium (Brussels, Antwerp and Charleroi) and Spain (Alicante and Barcelona). These actions follow earlier actions against members of this group which led to 7 arrests in Switzerland in May 2022.
A total of 28 individuals were arrested (27 in Belgium and one in Spain). Among those arrested in Belgium feature five Chinese nationals considered as high-value targets by Europol due to their involvement in multiple high-profile cases in Europe.
This international sweep follows a complex investigation led by the Belgian Federal Prosecutor (Federaal Parket) and Federal Judicial Police East Flanders (Federale Gerechtelijke Politie Oost-Vlaanderen), working together with their counterparts in Spain, Germany, Poland and Switzerland, with the coordination of Europol and Eurojust.
A conveyor belt for sexual exploitation
The investigation uncovered how hundreds of Chinese women were forced into prostitution after being lured to Europe by the promise of a legitimate job.
The perpetrators would use popular messaging apps in China to ensnare their victims. They would then smuggle their victims to Europe using forged EU ID documents and residence permits which were either falsified or obtained using falsified supporting documents.
Once in Europe, the victims were held in bondage and forced to work as prostitutes to pay off debts.
The criminals would advertise the women online and set them up in hotels across Europe, rotating their victims between EU countries.
Over the course of the three year-long investigation, over 3 000 online advertisements linked to this ring have been monitored by law enforcement. The investigators were able to identify over 200 victims so far, with the actual number believed to be much higher.
International police cooperation
With cells scattered across Europe, international police cooperation was central in breaking up this Chinese prostitution ring.
Initiated in 2020 by the Belgian authorities, this operation rapidly grew in scale, with targets being investigated simultaneously in multiple European jurisdictions.
In order to bring all these perpetrators to justice, an Operational Taskforce (OTF) was set up at Europol in December 2021 between Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands, Poland and Switzerland. This OTF was later joined by Germany at the end of 2022.
Europol has been supporting this high-priority case from its onset in 2020. Its experts coordinated the operational activities, mapped out the different targets and their criminal activities and brought together the investigators on all sides to agree on a joint strategy.
Investigators from the OTF Member States were also deployed to Europol’s premises to work jointly with Europol on the case.
Six Europol officers were deployed in February to Belgium and Spain to assist the national authorities with their investigative measures. Europol also funded the deployment of two German and two Spanish investigators to the coordination centre in Belgium.
The case was opened at Eurojust in October 2020 at the request of the Belgian authorities. Two coordination meetings were hosted by the Agency to facilitate judicial cooperation and provide support for the coordinated investigative efforts.
The following authorities took part in this operation:
- Belgium: Federal Prosecutor (Federaal Parket), Federal Judicial Police East Flanders (Federale Gerechtelijke Politie Oost-Vlaanderen)
- Germany: Federal Criminal Police Office (Bundeskriminalamt)
- Poland: National Police HQ (Komenda Główna Policji)
- The Netherlands: National Police (Politie)
- Spain: National Police (Policía Nacional)
- Switzerland: Federal Police (fedpol)
Photo courtesy Europol