Belgium in Uproar Over Torture of Sudanese It Deported
Posted January 10, 2018 7:49 p.m. EST
BRUSSELS — A Belgian official’s decision to expel several Sudanese migrants late last year — several of whom say they were tortured when they went back home — has roiled Belgium’s politics, reflecting not only the fraught migration debate in Western Europe but also the divisions that have made the country notoriously difficult to govern.
The official, Theo Francken, is a 39-year-old Flemish nationalist who in 2014 was appointed secretary of state for asylum and migration. He is known for making incendiary comments about migrants; in September, he apologized for using the term “cleaning up” about a police operation in which several unauthorized immigrants were arrested. The term was condemned as xenophobic.
Supporters and critics alike have called Francken “the Flemish Trump.”
Last September, Francken invited several Sudanese officials to Belgium to review the cases of dozens of Sudanese people who were in the country without authorization. The decision outraged advocates for the migrants, who pointed to Sudan’s abysmal human rights record and the fact that its president, Omar al-Bashir, is wanted by the International Criminal Court for trial on war crimes and genocide charges.
Representatives of the Belgian government were present during most of the interviews, but were not always accompanied by Arabic-language interpreters, raising the possibility that they did not follow all of what was said. Lawyers for the migrants said the Sudanese officials warned that if the migrants applied for asylum in Belgium but were denied and sent home, they would be targeted for abuse.
Nine Sudanese were subsequently sent home, and accounts quickly surfaced that at least three of them, from the violence-prone Darfur and South Kordofan regions, were abused. The accounts appeared in the Belgian media and in interviews conducted by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, a Washington-based think tank.
In the interviews, the men said they had been detained, interrogated, threatened with persecution, and beaten or even tortured.
Francken has said he did not know the men would be mistreated. “Let me be clear: Torture is never allowed,” Francken wrote on his blog in December.
But he maintained his stance. “There is no discussion,” he wrote, “about the core issue here, which is that whoever resides illegally in our country and refuses to demand asylum must go back.”
Critics have demanded that Francken resign, pointing to inconsistencies in the government’s account of the deportations.
Prime Minister Charles Michel told Parliament on Dec. 21 that deportation procedures against migrants from Sudan had been suspended pending the outcome of an investigation he had ordered into the reports of abuse. Michel based that statement on information he received from Francken, but it later emerged that yet another deportation flight for Sudan had been scheduled for January.
Michel says that Francken neglected to tell him about that flight, which was canceled, but the incident embarrassed the prime minister and led to assertions that Francken had deliberately misled his boss. (Francken says that he learned about the scheduled flight only the day before Michel testified before Parliament, and that since he decided to cancel it, he felt no need to inform the prime minister.)
Michel has so far declined to dismiss his minister. He has invited the European Commission and the United Nations to participate in the independent investigation, which is expected to conclude by the end of January. But for now, he has defended Francken’s approach as “tough but fair.”
“Toughness, because we protect our borders with our asylum policies,” he said, and “fairness, because we try to host properly those who meet the criteria to be allowed in.”
Critics — including Koert Debeuf, the Europe director of the Tahrir Institute — say that “tough but fair” is a cynical description, given the abuse that occurred.
Belgium is not alone in working with countries to arrange for the return of migrants. Italy struck a deal last summer with Libya to stem the flow of migrants, despite concerns that many were enslaved and abused in Libya. And in 2016, Greece and other countries promised aid and concessions to Turkey to stop the flow of Syrian migrants seeking to enter the European Union via Greece.
Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights prohibits torture, and the court that enforces the treaty says that prohibition also extends to the extradition of people to a foreign state if they are likely to be subjected to torture, according to Carl Devos, a political scientist at the University of Ghent.
“If the investigation indeed shows that there is systematic torture upon return,” he said, “then not only Belgium but other European countries, too, and in extension the European Union itself, could be found guilty of violating Article 3.”
Critics also note that an independent agency, the Office of the Commissioner General for Refugees and Stateless Persons, warned Francken in an internal memo in October that because of the “war situation” in the regions of Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile, some asylum-seekers there who have no alternative situation in Sudan have a right to legal protection in Belgium.
“Were these people tortured? Are they reliable enough to be believed?” asked Eric Van Rompuy, a Belgian lawmaker who is part of Michel’s governing coalition. “Whatever the outcome of the investigation, Francken’s way of communicating in itself is problematic and irritating to the coalition partners.
“His rhetoric is right-wing populist, very Trump-like — you’re either for or against him — ridiculing opponents on social media, complaining about fake news, always polarizing and dividing public opinion.”
Observers say Michel is in an unenviable position. His coalition relies on support from Flemish nationalists, many of whom see Francken as a champion. If Michel were to dismiss Francken, it could plunge Belgium — which once went 541 days without a government — into new political chaos.
“This is a power play,” said Ivan De Vadder, a veteran Belgian political commentator and journalist. “If the government falls, and if that leads to new elections, the Flemish nationalists would be in the best starting position, looking tough on migration.”