Allegations that Sudanese refugees deported from Belgium were tortured upon their return has shaken Belgium’s governing coalition. Prime Minister Charles Michel has suspended deportations pending an “independent investigation” with the UN.
The Chamber of Representatives held an emergency meeting late on Friday to hear testimony from Belgium’s secretary of state for immigration, Flemish nationalist Theo Francken. Francken has borne the brunt of the criticism for collaborating with the regime of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court at the Hague for war crimes and on charges of genocide.
Francken invited Sudanese officials to Brussels in September to help authorities identify Sudanese migrants and arrange for their forced repatriation. He wanted the delegation to review the cases of more than 100 migrants, many of whom were arrested camping in Brussels’ Maximilian Park on their way to Britain.
But human rights groups warned that the Sudanese officials were likely to be security agents for Bashir’s oppressive regime who would deliberately misidentify genuine political refugees as illegal migrants.
Belgium’s Human Rights League further argued that the Sudanese were subject to arbitrary arrest and maltreatment and said the expulsions were in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. On Wednesday, a court of appeal in Liège threw out a lawsuit lodged by the group in a bid to stop the deportations.
The issue was thrust back into the spotlight after new testimonies compiled by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy surfaced this week, detailing the arrest and torture of several young refugees who were deported after the Sudanese “identification mission”.
Prime Minister Charles Michel, who heads a coalition of liberals, Christian Democrats and Flemish nationalists, suspended deportations of Sudanese refugees on Thursday pending an “independent investigation” in collaboration with the United Nations.
Michel initially suspended deportations until the end of January. Francken described the move as “absurd”, saying no new repatriations were scheduled before that deadline.
It was later revealed that at least one new expulsion was to take place within that timeframe, and Francken apologised in a tweet on Friday morning.
But the opposition and majority party, the Flemish Christian Democrats, denounced Francken’s “lies” about new deportations. They also accused him of enflaming tensions with his criticisms of the prime minister.
The accusations led the home affairs committee to convene an emergency meeting in which Francken admitted to “withholding” information, according to the Belga news agency.
Representative Benoit Hellings tweeted that Francken had admitted to lying about the need for a moratorium on deportations because he feared such a move would act as a “siren call” to new refugees.
Karel De Gucht, Belgium’s minister of foreign affairs from 2004-2009, said that Francken “can no longer remain secretary of state for Migration; he is politically, ideologically and innately unfit for it”.
It’s not the first time that Francken has gotten into hot water. The flamboyant right-wing politician came under pressure to resign in 2014 after he was photographed at the birthday party of a convicted Nazi collaborator.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)