In the end Belgium’s government survived. A three-week-long crisis provoked by accusations that the secretary of state for migration and asylum, Theo Francken, had deported migrants to face a dangerous situation in Sudan ended with little more than a reprimand.
The Belgian prime minister, Charles Michel, and his coalition partners survived an opposition push for a vote of no confidence, and a human rights fiasco was chalked up as another communications gaffe by Francken.
It was not just the opposition who critizised Francken. Within the ruling coalition Francken’s policy and communication was under attack. Just a few days ago the government closed ranks.
The president of the Flemish nationalist N-VA party, the biggest coalition partner, only had to threaten to withdraw from the government to prevent their man being fired. Fear of making migration the primary issue in upcoming Belgian election was enough to ensure the incident was shut down.
But it is worth revisiting the seriousness of what actually happened and considering what it says about the way in which migration fears are redrawing European politics.
In September 2017, Francken invited a delegation from Sudan to review the cases of a number of undocumented Sudanese migrants sheltering in a park in Brussels. The outspoken secretary of state posed for pictures with Sudan’s ambassador, Mutrif Siddiq, a former leader of Sudan’s notorious secret service. The migration minister posted on Twitter and Facebook that it was necessary to cooperate with the government of Omar al-Bashir, who is under indictment by the International Criminal Court, in order to “return illegal immigrants” and “clean up” the park.
Warnings from international and local NGOs over Sudan’s disastrous human rights record and previous instances of torture suffered by returnees were dismissed. Critics allege that the regime of Omar al-Bashir was allowed to handpick political opponents to repatriate.
When some of the Sudanese were returned from Brussels, they were subject to detention and torture, according to testimony gathered by the Washington-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. Prime Minister Michel ordered an independent inquiry and temporarily suspended all returns to Sudan until the investigation was completed.
In the process, a litany of mistakes by Francken and the service under his control emerged that put migrants at risk of serious human rights violations.
First, so far there is no written agreement between Belgium and Sudan dealing with returns and, according to Prime Minister Michel, no formal decision on the issue has been taken by the government.
Second, Francken had to admit that Belgian government representatives present during the interviews were not accompanied by interpreters, so could not follow what was said.
No official record of the interviews was kept. Migrants afterward testified that Sudanese officials threatened that if they applied for asylum in Belgium and were denied and sent home, they would be punished.
Third, the director of the immigration office testified on national television that his service only “briefly” reviewed the risk of violation of article 3 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR) that prohibits deportation if there is a real risk of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment.
It remains unclear whether any risk assessment was even performed. It also remains unclear if any planned returns were cancelled after this review. Francken’s fellow Flemish nationalists came to his defense, stating that migrants cannot be protected by the Belgian authorities if they have not submitted an asylum request. However, this is not the case: The ECHR provisions make no distinction, and protection applies to everyone regardless of their asylum status.
Fourth, a leaked confidential note by the Belgium’s Office of the Commissioner General for Refugees and Stateless Persons made it clear that persons originating from the Sudanese regions of Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan automatically had the right to protection. It cannot be excluded that some of the returned migrants originated from these regions and thus were entitled to automatic protection.
Francken had revealed his incomplete grasp of the situation in Sudan previously on Twitter when he asserted that “Darfur is not in Sudan but in South Sudan.” When it was pointed out that Darfur is a western region of Sudan, not South Sudan, he admitted to not having any information about the regions from which the returned migrants originated, raising serious questions about due process.
Last, Francken was forced to concede that he had not told the truth about a scheduled deportation flight after the prime minister had imposed a moratorium on further returns. The incident embarrassed Michel and led to accusations that Francken deliberately misled the public and the government.
Francken’s supporters have been keen to point at other E.U. countries who have returned migrants to Sudan. Meanwhile the “Khartoum Process” has seen a significant change in the relationship between the E.U. and Sudan.
Although forced returns remain a national competence and the Belgian government carries the full responsibility, it is clear that Belgium’s Sudan crisis is part of a broader trend. E.U. and member states are going to extreme lengths to deport people and to keep people from migrating to Europe. Projects of support to Sudanese and Libyan coast and border guards show a European Union disregarding basic ethical and legal standards to increase returns at any cost.
Antonio Guterres, the U.N. secretary-general, may as well have been speaking to Belgium when he said last month: “I am concerned that, in a period in which many countries are implementing increasingly restrictive border management measures and may see returns as a deterrent to irregular migration, authorities risk breaching their basic human rights obligations.”
Let us hope that the Belgian uproar will lead to a thorough investigation of the situation of Sudanese citizens returned from Europe. In the meantime full and proper respect for article 3 of the European Convention should make these ex post facto investigations redundant.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.