U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 2004 - Belgium
|Publisher||United States Department of State|
|Publication Date||28 February 2005|
|Cite as||United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 2004 - Belgium , 28 February 2005, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4226d97d11.html [accessed 14 February 2016]|
|Disclaimer||This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.|
Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
February 28, 2005
Belgium is a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarch who plays a mainly symbolic role. The Council of Ministers (Cabinet), led by the Prime Minister, holds office as long as it retains the confidence of the lower house of the bicameral Parliament. Federal parliamentary elections held in May 2003 were free and fair and resulted in a four-party coalition government. The country is a federal state with several levels of government, including national, regional (Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels), community (Flemish, Francophone, and German), provincial, and local. The judiciary is independent.
The civilian authorities maintained effective control of the security forces. The Federal Police are responsible for internal security and nationwide law and order. Local Federal Police branches operated in all 196 police districts. There were no reports that security forces committed human rights abuses.
The country, which has a population of approximately 10.3 million, is highly industrialized, with a large private sector and limited government participation in industry. The primary exports were machinery and equipment. The economy grew an estimated 2.7 percent during the year and provided a high standard of living for most citizens; there was little economic disparity.
The Government generally respected the human rights of its citizens, and the law and the judiciary provided effective means of addressing individual instances of abuse. Racist and xenophobic violence against Jews and Muslims occurred infrequently. Trafficking in women and children remained a problem, which the Government took steps to address.
RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS
1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom From:
a. Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life
There were no reports of the arbitrary or unlawful deprivation of life committed by the Government or its agents.
During the year, six people were convicted of conspiracy to murder the former Socialist Party Minister Andre Cools, who was assassinated in 1991. Socialist Party Minister Alain Van der Biest was implicated in the conspiracy and committed suicide in 2002.
There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The law prohibits such practices, and there were no reports that government officials employed them.
There were instances of violence by groups towards Muslims and Jews (see Section 5).
In July 2003, the Government published its response to a report by the Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) based on a 2001 visit. The CPT report made recommendations concerning the use of force and means of restraint during involuntary movement of prisoners, but noted that the Government had already taken measures to reduce risks to prisoners. The report's principal concerns were violence among prisoners at Andenne Prison, chronic overcrowding at Antwerp Prison, and the operation of the psychiatric care system in prisons. In response to the report, the Government adopted specific articles in the Criminal Code prohibiting torture and inhumane treatment and prohibited the use of plastic handcuffs and the use of immobilization techniques that could result in asphyxiation. Other Government actions to implement the CPT recommendations included closure of a psychiatric ward at Lantin prison; new measures to combat prison violence; and a more liberal policy for allowing prisoners access to medical treatment. Following the July 2003 death of a prisoner at Lantin penitentiary, a judicial inquiry began into the actions of two prison guards. The investigation continued and was still pending at year's end.
Prison conditions varied: Newer prisons generally met international standards, while some older facilities nearly met international standards despite their austere physical conditions and limited resources. During the year, the U.N. Human Rights Committee on the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights expressed concern over the level of prison populations. Overcrowding remained a problem: The prison system, which was designed to hold 8,133 prisoners, held on average 9,000 prisoners in 2004, according to government figures. Projects to expand the prison system by approximately 200 persons were not completed by year's end. To reduce overcrowding, the Government adopted alternative sentencing, electronic surveillance at home for about 350 prisoners nearing the end of their sentences, and entered into agreements with several countries to return foreign prisoners to their home countries to complete their sentences. During the year, the psychiatric prison ward capacity was expanded following criticism of inmate treatment by the International Prison Observatory. In December, the Government passed a bill on the fundamental rights of prisoners. Legislation was also enacted and implemented abrogating legal incapacity status for certain categories of convicts, such as repeat criminal offenders.
Men and women were held separately. Juvenile prisoners were not held in adult prisons. However, a juvenile court judge can determine whether to release or imprison those over age 16. Convicted criminals and pretrial detainees were not held in separate facilities.
The Government permitted visits by independent monitoring and human rights groups, and such visits took place during the year.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, and the Government generally observed these prohibitions.
The Federal Police Council, an anticorruption unit, and the Federal Interior Ministry manage the operations of the Federal police forces. An independent oversight committee monitors police activities and compiles an annual report for Parliament. The Federal Police were responsible for internal security and nationwide law and order. The local police operated branches in all 196 police districts responsible for local law enforcement. Corruption was not a problem with local or Federal police, although a parliamentary oversight committee noted an increase in reported wrongful use of force, racism, and verbal abuse by police at all levels during the year.
Arrested persons must be brought before a judge within 24 hours. Pretrial confinement was subject to monthly review by a panel of judges, which could extend detention based on established criteria, for example, if the court deemed the arrested person likely to commit further crimes or attempt to flee if released. There were instances where lengthy pretrial detention was a problem. The law provides for bail, but it was not a prevailing practice and was only occasionally granted. During the year, 39 percent of the prison population consisted of pretrial detainees. Arrested persons were allowed prompt access to a lawyer of their choosing or, if they could not afford one, to an attorney appointed by the State.
Fehriye Erdhal, a Kurdish woman accused of involvement in a 1996 terrorist attack in Turkey, remained under house arrest pending trial at year's end. Following the Council of State's March 2003 reversal of a 2000 expulsion order, Erdhal renewed her application for political asylum, and her asylum case was pending at year's end. By year's end, the federal prosecutor sought to indict Erdal for arms possession and membership in a criminal organization.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the Government generally respected this provision in practice.
The criminal judicial system is composed of civil and criminal courts and their respective courts of appeal. The Courts of First Instance (district courts) are responsible for civil and commercial litigation for matters that exceed the jurisdiction of a justice of the peace. There are five appeal courts and one Supreme Court of Appeal. The latter verifies that the law has been correctly applied and that no procedural errors have been committed. When the Supreme Court overturns a ruling, the case is referred to one of the appeals courts to reexamine the facts. The criminal courts consist of the magistrate's court, correctional courts, and the criminal chambers of the court of appeal. Each province has a Court of Assize, with a public jury judging the cases. These courts have jurisdiction over all the most serious crimes and political crimes. The Courts of Assize are courts of first and last instance and their rulings cannot be appealed.
The High Council on Justice supervises the appointment and promotion of magistrates. The Council serves as a permanent monitoring board for the entire judicial system and is empowered to hear complaints against individual magistrates.
The Federal Prosecutor's Office prosecutes crimes involving nuclear materials, human trafficking, arms trafficking, human rights violations, terrorism, crimes against the security of the State, as well as any case involving foreign perpetrators, victims, or territory.
The law provides for the right to a fair trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right. Charges are stated clearly and formally, and there is a presumption of innocence. All defendants have the right to be present, to have counsel (at public expense if needed), to confront witnesses, to present evidence, and to appeal.
The courts rarely used the Summary Trial Act, which allows for the immediate arrest and summary appearance of criminals caught in the act of committing a crime.
Peacetime use of military tribunals was abolished on January 1.
Each judicial district has a labor court, which deals with litigation between employers and employees regarding wages, notice, competition clauses, and social security benefits. There is also a magistrate in each district to monitor cases involving religious groups (see Section 2.c.).
A law adopted in 2003 amended the controversial "universal competence" law, and authorizes jurisdiction over alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed outside the national territory only when the victim or perpetrator is a citizen or resident of the country.
There were no reports of political prisoners.
f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The law prohibits such actions, and the Government generally respected these prohibitions in practice.
2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and the Press
The law provides for freedom of speech and of the press, and the Government generally respected these rights in practice and did not restrict academic freedom. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to ensure freedom of speech and of the press.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The law provides for freedom of assembly and association, and the Government generally respected these rights in practice.
c. Freedom of Religion
The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respected this right in practice.
The law accords "recognized" status to Roman Catholicism, Protestantism (including evangelicals and Pentecostals), Judaism, Anglicanism, Islam, and Orthodox Christianity (Greek and Russian), and these groups received government subsidies. Nonconfessional philosophical or secular organizations served as a seventh recognized "religious" group, and their organizing body, the Central Council of Non Religious Philosophical Communities of Belgium, received funds and benefits similar to those of the six recognized religions.
By law, each recognized religion has the right to provide teachers at government expense for religious instruction in public and private schools. For recognized religions, the Government paid the salaries, lodging, and retirement expenses of clergy members and also subsidized the construction and renovation of houses of worship. The lack of recognized status generally did not prevent nonrecognized religious groups from freely practicing their religions, and citizens generally practiced their religion without official harassment or impediment.
During the year, the Justice Minister decided to create a committee to assist in preparing the Muslim representative body, the Muslim Executive Council, for new elections after an impasse was reached on how to elect a general assembly and executive council. The Muslim Executive Council is responsible for appointing religious teachers (imams) and for the secular administration of cemeteries, buildings, and food preparation. Continued organizational disputes within the Muslim community and with the Ministry of Justice associated with the preparation for these elections have postponed formation of this council.
Some groups continued to complain that their inclusion on a 1998 parliamentary commission's list of groups that may pose a threat to society or individuals caused discriminatory action against them. While the list has no official status, the groups continued to state that the prominence of the list, and governmental funding of the Center for Advice on Harmful Sects to monitor some groups from the list, caused negative assumptions and guilt by association.
In 2002, an independent judge completed his 5 year criminal investigation into allegations against the Church of Scientology, clearing the way for a prosecutor to take the case to trial. The charges related to alleged financial irregularities by some local church officials, bribery, violation of privacy legislation, and unlawful exercise of the medical profession. The trial had not started by year's end.
There is no provision in immigration law for foreign members of religious groups to enter the country to conduct religious work or for them to obtain work permits for that purpose. However, various religious groups, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, continue to receive visas for members from abroad temporarily to conduct missionary activities.
Political leaders avoided parliamentary debate over the use of religious symbols in public schools and allowed individual schools to continue to determine such matters.
Jewish advocacy groups noted 21 anti-Semitic incidents during the first half of the year and Muslim organizations reported 6 anti-Islamic incidents. In July, in the most serious incident involving the Jewish community of Antwerp, a Jewish youth was stabbed. No arrests had been made by year's end.
In the June 2003 failed car bombing of the synagogue in Charleroi, a suspect was arrested, declared mentally incompetent, and was detained at year's end.
In July, three men attacked the asylum center of Ranst (Antwerp Province), leaving one Muslim asylum seeker hospitalized and two more injured. Three youths were convicted and sentenced to an institution for juvenile delinquents until they turn 18 or a judge decides otherwise, and one 18-year-old youth was given conditional release. Following the incidents during the year, the Federal Government adopted an action plan to step up the fight against racism and to protect more effectively the Jewish community, asylum centers, and mosques. The Center for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism (CEEOR) (Anti-Racism Center) and federal authorities have created a monitoring unit to follow these cases.
For a more detailed discussion, see the 2004 International Religious Freedom Report.
d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation
The law provides for these rights, and the Government generally respected them in practice.
The law prohibits forced exile, and the Government did not employ it.
The law includes provisions for the granting of asylum or refugee status in accordance with the 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol, and the Government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. In practice, the Government provided protection against refoulement, the return of persons to a country where they feared persecution. The Government granted refugee status or asylum. The Government cooperated with the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees and asylum seekers. From January to October, 12,374 asylum applications were submitted, continuing the downward trend begun in 2000. Approximately 40 percent of applicants were permitted to continue processing their applications, having received a stay from the immigration office. Of the 18,817 requests received in 2003, 1,201 applicants obtained political refugee status.
From January to November, 5,850 persons were repatriated. During the year, 2,007 non-nationals were stopped at the border (including the airport). From January to November, there were 396 forced repatriations. Joint repatriations were organized between the Government of the Netherlands and the Government of Luxembourg.
The Government, in partnership with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), provided relocation assistance to unsuccessful asylum applicants who agreed to repatriate voluntarily to their country of origin. Unsuccessful applicants who did not leave voluntarily were subject to forced repatriation. From January to November, there were 2,964 voluntary repatriations.
There are five detention centers for aliens who entered the country illegally. The detention of minors in these facilities remained controversial, and the Government indicated that it was exploring new means for handling underage asylum seekers.
The Government also provided temporary protection to certain individuals who fall outside the definition of the 1951 U.N. Convention/1967 Protocol. Undocumented asylum seekers arriving by air, whose claims did not appear legitimate as determined by immigration officials, were not allowed to enter but were held in a closed detention center at the airport while awaiting forced or voluntary repatriation. The children of such asylum seekers did not attend school. Those applicants whose claims appeared to be legitimate were released to a system of 39 reception centers for shelter and assistance. The Federal Government, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and municipalities had a combined 15,375-bed capacity. Use of these reception centers was provided to 86.6 percent of those persons who had legitimate claims. The remaining applicants found private means of support.
Authorities rejected the applications of many refugees from Iran and Afghanistan. In 2003, approximately 300 Afghan asylum seekers took refuge in a church to protest the rejection of their applications. Many also went on a hunger strike. The Interior Minister allowed all of the protesters to remain in the country for part of the year, some with families until as late as June, before they had to leave, or they could file for asylum to have their cases individually reviewed. Since the law permits a family of asylum seekers resident in the country for at least 3 years to apply for regularization (4 years for an individual), the extension meant that many of the 300 would be able to remain in the country permanently; however, these cases were still pending at year's end. Fourteen Iranian asylum seekers also went on a hunger strike to protest the rejection of their applications and were also granted a temporary stay while their cases were re-examined. These cases also were still pending at year's end. In 2003, 87 Iranians voluntarily returned to Iran under IOM auspices.
3. Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government
The law provides citizens with the right to change their government peacefully, and citizens ages 18 and older exercised this right in practice through periodic, free, and fair elections held on the basis of universal suffrage. Voting in all elections is compulsory, with failure to vote subject to a nominal fine. Direct popular elections for parliamentary seats (excluding some Senators elected by community councils and others elected by Senate members) are held at least every 4 years. Opposition parties operated freely. During the year, legislation was enacted allowing long-term non-European Union (EU) immigrants to vote in municipal elections.
The existence of communities speaking Dutch, French, and German created significant complexities for the Government. Most major institutions, including political parties, are divided along linguistic lines. National decisions often take into account the specific needs of each regional and linguistic group. With three official languages, the country had a complex linguistic regime, including language requirements, for various elective and appointive positions. The law prohibits the official financing of any racist or xenophobic party or any party that does not respect human rights.
After two lower courts ruled that they were not competent to hear the case of charges brought against three nonprofit organizations linked to the Vlaams Blok party, the prosecutor and the CEOOR, an autonomous governmental entity, appealed to the country's Supreme Court of Appeals, which remanded the case to the Ghent Court of Appeals. In April, the Ghent Appellate Court ruled that the three non-profit organizations, which constituted the Vlaams Blok, violated the country's anti-racism and anti discrimination legislation. In November, the Supreme Court of Appeals upheld the verdict of the Ghent Appellate Court. As a result, the Vlaams Blok changed its name to the Vlaams Belang to avoid further legal action. The Vlaams Blok, which received public funds from both the Federal and Flemish regional parliaments under its original name, is now receiving funding under its new name.
There were 52 women in the 150-seat Chamber of Representatives and 26 women in the 71-seat Senate; 5 of the 21 Federal Cabinet ministers were women, and there were 11 female ministers out of 43 regional ministers. In 2002, Parliament adopted legislation that requires an equal number of male and female candidates on party tickets for all future regional and federal elections.
There was one minority federal cabinet member, six minorities in the Federal Senate, four in the Federal Chamber, and two in the regional governments.
The Government provides free access to citizens and noncitizens to government information; however, there were exceptions, such as material involving national security.
4. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights
A number of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were very cooperative and responsive to their views.
5. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
The law prohibits discrimination based on race, gender, disability, language, or social status, and the Government generally enforced these laws.
Domestic violence against women remained a problem. In March, the Government initiated a national plan to prevent domestic violence that attempted to increase awareness through educational campaigns; however, the results were not evident by year's end. The law defines and criminalizes domestic violence with the aim of protecting married and unmarried partners. The law allows social organizations to represent victims of domestic violence in court with the victim's consent. It allows police to enter a home without the consent of the head of household when investigating a domestic violence complaint. According to the law's proponents, the police did not use it enough in practice. By year's end, the Government had not implemented provisions of the law that required it to establish and maintain a database of statistics on domestic violence. Spousal rape is illegal, but no data was available on the number of persons charged or convicted of spousal rape.
A number of government-supported shelters and telephone help lines were available across the country. In addition to providing shelter and advice, many offered assistance on legal matters, job placement, and psychological counseling to both partners. One of the three regional governments provided approximately 80 percent of these organizations' budgets. The law also allows the victim of domestic violence to claim the family dwelling.
The law prohibits organizing prostitution or assisting immigration for the purpose of prostitution, but not prostitution itself.
Sexual harassment is illegal. The Government has implemented procedures to monitor sexual harassment claims. The law provides victims of sexual harassment the right to sue their harassers. The law also prohibits discrimination in hiring, working conditions, promotions, wages, and contract termination. Most cases of sexual harassment were resolved informally.
The Constitution and the law provide for the equal treatment of men and women. The Government actively promoted a comprehensive approach to the integration of women at all levels of decision making. The Institute for the Equality of Men and Women is authorized to initiate lawsuits if it finds that equality laws have been violated.
In 2002, the gross average salary for a woman was 85 percent of the national gross average salary. Almost 51 percent of working age (age 15 to 60) women were gainfully employed, 36.8 percent of these were part-time.
The Government was strongly committed to children's rights and welfare; it amply funded a system of public education and health care and provided free compulsory education from ages 6 to 18. The Francophone and Flemish communities each subsidized an official children's rights organization headed by a commissioner.
The Constitution provides that every child has the right to respect for his or her moral, physical, mental, and sexual integrity. The Federal Police has a specialized unit dedicated to investigating child pornography complaints and there are comprehensive child protection laws. The law provides for severe penalties for child pornography and persons possessing pedophilic materials. It permits the prosecution of residents who commit such crimes abroad and provides that criminals convicted of the sexual abuse of children cannot be paroled without first receiving specialized treatment and must continue counseling and treatment upon their release from prison. The law provides for the protection of youth against sexual exploitation, abduction, and trafficking.
In June, Marc Dutroux was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment by the Luxembourg Province Court of Assize for rape, drug trafficking, and forceful detention of six girls and the murder of three of them. His accomplices, including his wife, were also convicted. The investigation into these high profile crimes lasted 8 years, was the subject of public outrage and a parliamentary investigation, and caused a general overhaul of the police and numerous changes to the criminal code. It also led to the formation of nongovernmental, governmental, and quasi-governmental organizations focused on child protection.
There were some reports of abuse of children, although there was no societal pattern of abuse directed against children.
Child prostitution was a problem but was not widespread, and in September, the Federal Government initiated a new campaign to prevent it.
Government and private groups provided shelters for runaways and counseling for children who were physically or sexually abused. Child Focus, the government-sponsored center for missing and exploited children, reported that it handled 2,954 cases in 2003, a nearly 30 percent increase since 2000. Approximately 42 percent of the reported cases concerned runaways, 23 percent involved abduction by parents, 23 percent were reports of disappearance, and nearly 8 percent were pedophilia cases. The most marked increase was in the reports of disappearances. Child Focus also noted that 67 percent of the reported runaways were girls.
f. Trafficking in Persons
The law criminalizes trafficking in persons; however, the country was both a transit and a destination point for trafficking in women and children. Despite laws that offer protection and continued residence in the country to foreign victims of trafficking who come forward, both governmental and nongovernmental sources indicated a continuing rise in trafficking of women and minors for sexual exploitation.
The law provides that persons convicted of violating the anti trafficking law are subject to 1 to 5 years of imprisonment and substantial fines. Members of trafficking "organizations" and persons committing offenses that include aggravated circumstances may be punished by 10 to 15 years of hard labor and higher fines. Penalties for trafficking of children are more severe and include possible life imprisonment if the victim is less than 10 years of age.
In July, the Government incorporated the existing trafficking laws into the criminal code. Death of a trafficking victim can now result in 20 years of imprisonment and a $195,000 (150,000 euro) fine.
An interdepartmental committee provided coordination and communication between the various agencies and ministries involved in combating trafficking. This committee met several times annually under the auspices of the CEOOR. A magistrate was designated in each judicial district to supervise cases involving trafficking. The Federal Prosecutor's Office is in charge of coordinating the various anti-trafficking initiatives. In March, the Government set up a new Information and Analysis Center on Trafficking. The new center coordinates data from the CEOOR, Child Focus, several ministerial departments, the college of prosecuting magistrates, and the office of the federal prosecutors.
There are anti-trafficking units in both the Federal and local police forces. The CEOOR identified 330 human trafficking related cases in the courts in 2001 and 2002: 160 cases involved alien smuggling, 80 were prostitution-related, and 30 concerned labor exploitation. Sentences for persons convicted under the law ranged from approximately 2 to 10 years' imprisonment and fines of approximately $2,970 to $33,750 (2,200 to 25,000 euros). However, at least some of the convictions were related only indirectly to trafficking.
Trafficking victims continued to come primarily from sub-Saharan Africa (particularly Nigeria), Central and Eastern Europe (particularly Albania), Chechnya, Iran, and Asia (particularly China). Nigerian and Albanian victims usually were women between the ages of 21 and 30 trafficked for prostitution. Victims of sexual exploitation were increasingly women under age 18. Gangs that controlled the trade sometimes threatened victims with violence, including retribution against the victims' families in their home countries. Chinese victims often were young men trafficked for manual labor in restaurants and sweatshops.
Most cases of trafficking were the work of organized gangs from Central and Eastern Europe, particularly from Albania. While a growing number of victims came forward, this rarely led to the identification or capture of the traffickers. Traffickers not only moved their victims frequently from city to city within the country, but also used the EU's open borders to move victims from country to country. Freedom of movement also made it easy for traffickers to evade arrest if one of their victims went to the authorities.
The law provides that victims of trafficking who provide evidence against their trafficker may be granted temporary residence and work permits and are eligible to receive significant financial assistance from government-funded reception centers managed by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). In each of the country's three regions, the Government designated and subsidized a nonprofit organization to provide such assistance. At the conclusion of legal proceedings against their traffickers, victims generally were granted permanent residence status and unrestricted work permits. The rights of victims generally were respected in practice, and they were not treated as criminals. The CEOOR did not maintain statistics on how many victims of sexual exploitation were sheltered and assisted.
Anti-trafficking liaison officers were assigned to the country's embassies in some countries of origin, including Albania, Cote d'Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. These officers gathered information about local conditions and trafficking trends and assisted in establishing anti-trafficking information campaigns for the local population.
The Government worked closely with the IOM to develop programs to combat trafficking and to assist its victims. For example, the Government provided funding for information campaigns in countries of origin to warn women of the dangers of trafficking. It also provided funding to the IOM to assist the voluntary return of victims to their home countries and to assist them in readjusting once they had returned home. The Government worked closely with and supported NGOs that combated trafficking.
The Federal Police increased their activity in the port of Zeebrugge to stem the flow of persons transiting by boat to the United Kingdom. During the year, the Federal Police intercepted more than 6,000 persons and arrested 26 persons suspected of alien smuggling.
Persons with Disabilities
The law provides for the protection of persons with disabilities from discrimination in employment, education, access to health care, and the provision of other state services. There were no reports of societal discrimination against persons with disabilities. The Government mandated that public buildings erected after 1970 be accessible to such persons and offered subsidies to encourage the owners of other buildings to make necessary modifications. However, many older buildings were not accessible.
The Government provided financial assistance to persons with disabilities. It gave special aid to parents of children with disabilities and to parents with disabilities. Regional and community programs provided other assistance, such as job training. Persons with disabilities were eligible to receive services in any of the country's three regions, not just in their region of residence.
In the country's pluralistic society, individual differences, particularly linguistic preference rights, were respected. Approximately 60 percent of citizens were native Dutch speakers, 40 percent French speakers, and less than 1 percent German speakers.
The law prohibits the incitement of discrimination, hate, or violence based on race, ethnicity, or nationality. It is illegal for providers of goods or services (including housing) to discriminate on the basis of any of these factors or for employers to consider these factors in their decisions to hire, train, or dismiss workers; however, immigrant communities complained of discrimination, particularly in the job market. The law also expanded the mandate of the CEOOR to encompass other discrimination, such as discrimination based on gender, age, and disability
Members of the Muslim community, estimated at 350,000, and principally of Moroccan and Turkish origin, claimed that discrimination against their community, notably in education and employment and especially against young men, was greater than that experienced by other immigrant communities. Only 30 percent of working-age, non-EU immigrants were employed.
In 2003, the CEOOR, which was tasked with investigating complaints of discrimination based on race, handled 779 complaints, only 45 of which led to court action by the Center. Of these, only 17 resulted in civil claims for damages. One fifth of the complaints were job-related.
During the year, there was an increase in ethnic/religious incidents, primarily directed towards Muslims and Jews (see section 2.c.).
6. Worker Rights
a. The Right of Association
The Constitution provides workers the right to associate freely, including the freedom to organize and to join unions of their own choosing, and workers fully and freely exercised this right in practice. Approximately 60 percent of employed and unemployed workers were members of labor unions.
b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively
The law allows unions to conduct their activities without interference, and the Government protected this right in practice. The right to organize and bargain collectively was recognized and exercised freely, and the Government protected this right in practice. The law provides for the right to strike, and workers exercised this right in practice. During the year, trade unions and employers generally respected the gentlemen's agreement of 2002 in which both sides pledged to honor the right to strike; employers would avoid court action against strikes provided that workers and unions undertook to respect the required notification period. At year's end, employers expressed concern about a short plant occupation, which occurred when management announced plans for a mass layoff. In addition, trade union elections were held during the year for representatives to the workers council's safety and health committees. The International Labor Organization has complained that the absence of specific criteria for the selection of employer and trade union representatives to the National Labor Council left broad discretionary power to the Government. There are no export processing zones.
c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor, including by children; however, there were reports that such practices occurred (see Section 5).
d. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The minimum age of employment for children was 15. Youths between the ages of 15 and 18 could participate in part-time work/study programs and work full-time during school vacations. The labor courts effectively monitored compliance with national laws and standards. There were no industries where any significant child labor existed.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The monthly national minimum wage for workers over 21 years of age was approximately $1,678 (1,243 euros); 18-year-olds must be paid at least 82 percent of the minimum, 19-year-olds 88 percent, and 20-year-olds 94 percent of the minimum. The national minimum wage, coupled with extensive social benefits, provided a decent standard of living for a worker and family.
As of January 2003, the standard workweek could not exceed 38 hours. Many collective bargaining agreements (negotiated by sector) set standard workweeks of fewer hours and prohibited work on Sundays. The law requires overtime pay for hours worked in excess of the standard. Work done from the 9th to the 11th hour per day or from the 39th to 50th hour per week are considered allowable overtime. Longer workdays are permitted only if agreed in a collective bargaining agreement. The Ministry of Labor and the labor courts effectively enforced these laws and regulations.
There are comprehensive provisions in the law for worker safety. In some cases, collective bargaining agreements supplemented these laws. Workers have the right to remove themselves from situations that endanger their safety or health without jeopardy to their continued employment, and the law protects workers who file complaints about such situations.