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The role of the protected shelter in the fight against human trafficking

As part of EU Anti-Trafficking Day, Defence for Children - ECPAT Netherlands and Free Press Unlimited have published a series of three perspectives on the fight against human trafficking. In the first interview, Lost in Europe shed light on the perspective of investigative journalism. For the second interview, we spoke to Warner ten Kate, the Dutch National Public Prosecutor for trafficking in human beings and people smuggling, for his view from within the justice system. In this third and last interview we speak to the spokesperson of COA, the Central Reception Organization, taking care of asylum seekers in the Netherlands.

When there are signs of human trafficking and/oror smuggling, the COA places unaccompanied minors in protected shelters. In 2019 this step was taken for 30 children. Despite the security measures, about 20 of them, all Vietnamese, disappeared. We ask the spokesperson of COA how this was possible, and he talks about the challenge of preparing these young people for their uncertain future.

In the first interview, investigative journalist Roeland Termote sketched a picture of the (disappeared) unaccompanied Vietnamese minors. He said:

“They want to go to Europe, preferably to the UK, or their families want that, because they have debts to pay off or see economic opportunities. They think life in Europe is better. Some have had a comfortable journey, others have been abused. They do not like to cooperate with authorities, do not know who to trust. They want to work, or have made a commitment with the smugglers to work to pay off their debts. They are under pressure and don't want to get their families in Vietnam in trouble.”

Does COA also recognize this?

“Yes, that is recognizable. The impression is that they are in transit and do not want to stay in the Netherlands. They usually don't apply for asylum here either. They left [Vietnam] with some kind of promise. Families have often invested heavily and have the hope that they will get a better life, that is the focus. The minors often cannot bring themselves to tell parents or family on the other side of the world that it has not worked out. They have been shown pictures on Facebook of young people who had previously left for Europe: they wear designer clothes and look happy. That is the picture that is being painted and they want to comply with it."

What is the role of COA in the protected shelter in the Netherlands, and what does it entail?

“A young person is entitled to reception in the Netherlands until he or she turns 18, regardless of whether an asylum application is pending or not. The COA and the Nidos Foundation are responsible for this. If there are signs of human trafficking and/or human smuggling among unaccompanied minors, and these may come from several organizations, the COA will provide safe housing in the protected shelter. The COA also provides the necessary resources, such as access to education, and guides young people in preparation for a future in the Netherlands or in the country of origin. To make sure that only minors enter the protected shelter, an age assessment takes place first.

The shelter is provided by two care institutions: XONAR in the south and Yadeborg in the north of the Netherlands. The national organisation Nidos also plays a role. Nidos gives the indication for placement in the protected shelter and all minors in the protected shelter are under the guardianship of Nidos.”

According to Nidos, the Dutch system where unaccompanied children are placed under the guardianship of the Nidos foundation, is unique in Europe. It means that Nidos has the same rights and obligations as a parent would have. As a guardianship institution, Nidos supervises the proper exercise of the care that is offered, and if this care is not sufficient, Nidos intervenes. The guardianship is carried out by Nidos’ social workers, who each have about 19 children under their care and see them at least once a month.

What is life like in the protected shelter?

“These young people receive intensive 24-hour guidance from day 1 and go to school every day. Together we work on their resilience and independence. This happens in three phases: settling in, residence and saying goodbye. In the first phase, for example, they are not allowed to go outside without supervision. After a while they get more freedom, and are allowed to go outside independently for a short period. Time and distance are constantly being expanded. Obviously there are language barriers and cultural differences, but the people that work at the shelter have experience with this, and organise activities with cultural aspects such as food and music.

In the protected shelter a number of security measures apply to protect the minors against human traffickers and / or smugglers. They are not locked up, but their freedom is limited. For example, they have to hand in their mobile phone and are not allowed to use the internet without supervision. This way, COA tries to prevent unwanted departures. Most minors successfully complete the program in the protected shelter and move on to follow-up care. Unfortunately, we cannot say that about the Vietnamese minors. We have even seen them disappear through a tiny window on the first floor.”

What is the greatest challenge for COA in the reception of this group of vulnerable minors?

“These young people are given more and more freedom, because they also have to get used to the fact that they are not allowed to stay in the shelter forever. The average length of stay is nine months. In principle, a minor must leave the shelter if he or she no longer belongs to the risk group, or turns 18. Vietnamese people are normally not often granted asylum, and if they report human trafficking, the case is usually dismissed. It is therefore a challenge to offer them a long-term future perspective.

The fact that the protected shelter is not a closed setting allows them to make the choice to leave. The staff sometimes have the impression that minors have been instructed about the procedures in the Netherlands. They may have a strong urge to stick to the predetermined plan, or they may be forced to make the choice to leave. Regardless of the effort (and it can go far) and the guidance by the COA, this cannot always be prevented.”

The staff of protected shelters indicate that they are literally empty-handed when minors leave. They lack a mandate, are not allowed to search and physically stop anyone. Should that change?

“No, our task is to receive and guide young people, and tasks such as body searches and physical restraint are not part of that. And a completely closed shelter is only a temporary solution. There always comes a time when the minor can "go to the outside world" again."

When minors disappear from the protected shelter, like the two Vietnamese boys who died in the refrigerated van in Essex, it must be very frustrating for the employees in question. Were new measures taken after this drama?

“The tragic outcome of the Essex story has certainly had a significant impact on the employees. A cosy, home-like atmosphere is created within the groups and the employees often have intense conversations with these young people. They try to build a relationship of trust. When a minor has suddenly disappeared from the shelter, it is a shock to everyone. A farewell letter was once found in the protected shelter stating that they thank the employees for the care and guidance, that they had a good time, but their goal was not to stay in the Netherlands. The Essex drama has not led to new measures.”

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