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Containers piled up at Zeebrugge port in Belgium
Image: picture-alliance/imageBROKER

Free travel facilitates trade — and trafficking

Max Zander | Amien Essif
October 30, 2019

People are being trafficked to the UK and security isn't tight enough to keep them from trying to sneak into trucks headed across the English Channel, a harbormaster and trucker in the Belgian port of Zeebrugge told DW.


Peter Degroote was surprised by all the attention that's been focused on his office. Media from all over Europe have been contacting him ever since it became known that the truck in which 39 people died boarded a ferry here, in the Belgian port city of Zeebrugge, en route to Essex in southern England.

He said security in Zeebrugge's port is good, and he added that when traffickers hide people in the cargo space of trucks, it doesn't happen near the docks. Degroote, one of the harbormasters in Zeebrugge, is very familiar with the security measures in place there. He speaks openly, but adds that he doesn't know any more about the activities of trafficking gangs than what's been written about in the press.

"We can only hope that this isn't the norm," Degroote said. "But, of course, large numbers of people reach Britain every year. If we can say one thing with certainty, it's that people are being trafficked."

But it's impossible to know how often that happens in Zeebrugge, Belgium's third-largest port. Last year, it handled 40 million tons of goods. Most of the ships heading to sea from here are ferries, transporting cars and trucks. The majority of the freight leaving the port is bound for Britain — as in the case of the refrigerated lorry container with the 39 people on board. 

Peter Degroote
No port can offer 100% security, Degroote saidImage: DW

Read more: Where do EU countries stand on migration?

Superficial controls

The windows of the harbor authority's fourth-floor conference room overlook one of the terminals. This is where trucks are processed for their onward journey. Vehicles that pass the barrier and drive into the fenced-in compound must then go through an enclosure, where they are automatically photographed from all angles, including the driver, license plates and axles, the harbormaster said. This ascertains the driver's identity and that no one is hiding underneath the vehicle. What it doesn't do is establish what's inside the truck. Harbor authorities say fewer than 2% of all containers are X-ray scanned.

On the rare occasions when a truck does pass through a mobile X-ray machine, it usually isn't because it's suspected of trafficking people. When the security agencies sporadically take this action, it's generally to check shipping documents and take counterfeit goods out of circulation.

Goods being loaded onto a cargo ship in Zeebrugge
Some 44% of goods leaving Zeebrugge head to the UKImage: DW

No one at the port's police station would comment on the security measures there. Interview requests were politely declined and officers directed enquires to the Interior Ministry in Brussels.

Truck drivers are worried

Few of the truck drivers passing through Zeebrugge are willing to speak, but Niculescu Nicutse is one of them. The Romanian driver and his colleague are preparing dinner in the truck parking lot: collar steaks and potatoes that his colleague is peeling neatly over the saucepan on an improvised kitchen on the diesel tank of their truck. It's cold, and, as the evening wears on, more trucks roll into the parking lot.

Nicutse called security in Zeebrugge port good, but people do try to board trucks elsewhere.

"While you're parked in Germany, the Netherlands and France. In Calais, in particular, it's a problem," he said, adding that on one occasion, a colleague had six people climb into the cargo compartment of his truck.

Niculescu Nicutse
Nicutse said people try to board trucks outside of ports to reach the UKImage: DW

The truck drivers are anxious about being subject to general suspicion. Nicutse said security measures like seals wouldn't prevent anyone from opening the cargo hold. The seals, which are put in place immediately after loading, are meant to guarantee the recipient that no one has been able to access the goods during transit. To demonstrate how little they help, Nicutse takes an old seal and a bolt cutter from the driver's cab; one hard yank, and the solid metal pin snaps in two and crashes onto the asphalt.

Harbormaster Degroote has also been thinking about how security measures and the frictionless movement of goods can be reconciled, but he hasn't come up with an answer. The problem, he said, is that the people they're dealing with are criminals and they're always one step ahead when it comes to taking advantage of the system.

Read more: Italian Mafia, bikers, Berlin clans: Europe's crime gangs

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