Sunday

24th Oct 2021

How Belgian government got caught up in human smuggling

  • Former Belgian state secretary Theo Francken followed a sectarian agenda on Syria - which ended up with a party colleague being found guilty of human smuggling. (Photo: The Council of the European Union)

Melikan Kucam, a member of the Mechelen city council in Belgium for the Flemish nationalist party New Flemish Alliance (NVA), was sentenced by a court on Tuesday (12 January) to eight years in prison for human smuggling.

Kucam in 2015 was given free reign by then Belgian state secretary for asylum and migration, Theo Francken (also of the NVA) to compile lists of Syrian Christians.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • Former Belgian state secretary for asylum and migration Theo Francken and Melikam Kucam (right) - who was this week sentenced to eight years for human smuggling (Photo: NVA)

The Kucam list contained the names of 326 people who would get a Belgian humanitarian visa - a fast-track special procedure that gives people the opportunity to fly to Belgium immediately.

However, Kucam asked for payments from those Syrians in order to get on his list, ranging from €2,500 up to €7,500, according to the court. In total, Kucam would have received more than €500,000 through this system of human smuggling.

When Kucam sent his lists to the office of Francken, the office ordered the Belgian administration to issue humanitarian visa to each one of the names, without questioning it. Yet for some of the people on the list, even basic information like a birth date was lacking.

Strangely, 78 of the people who were granted a humanitarian visa then never picked it up at the Belgian embassy in Beirut.

Conversely, the Belgian government doesn't know the whereabouts of 140 of those who came to Belgium via this exceptional humanitarian procedure.

Most probably they used the Belgian humanitarian visa to travel on to other European countries - which is not permitted.

In addition to Kucam's eight-year jail sentence, he was also fined €696,000. Kucam's son received a four-year sentence and a €216,000 fine, while his wife received a prison sentence of 40 months and a fine of €32,000.

In his initial reaction, Francken called the sentences "appropriate", but refused any responsibility. But on Wednesday (13 January) he admitted that, as a member of the government, he in fact had political responsibility.

The Francken system

Francken was state secretary, or deputy minister, for asylum and migration in the Belgian government of prime minister Charles Michel from 2014 to 2018.

He was known for taking a hardline on migration, and was one of the first supporters of push backs of refugee boats in the Mediterranean Sea.

The New York Times called Francken the "Flemish Trump" in a piece exploring how Francken used Twitter to spread inflammatory statements.

In several tweets he accused the NGO Doctors without Borders of human trafficking - based on the fact that they provided aid to refugees who reach Europe illegally by boat.

He was also criticised of sending Sudanese refugees back to their home country through cooperation with the Sudanese regime, known for its widespread torture.

However, Francken said he wanted to do something for the Christians in Syria in order to "keep them out of the hands of Isis".

Francken discussed his plan with the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, but they refused to select people based only on religious beliefs.

As a critic of Islam as an alleged danger to Europe, he wanted to push through his sectarian agenda.

Thus Francken set up his own system of humanitarian visas, in order to get Syrian Christians to Belgium.

He worked with three different organisations to select and list people who would be granted a humanitarian visa.

Two of these organisations were well established and no problems have been signalled with their own lists, or with the people who came through this procedure to Belgium. Most of them asked for and received asylum in Belgium.

This was not the case with the Kucam's lists.

Francken admitted that he or his office had been tipped off twice about possible fraud in the way Kucam had been working. But he did not alert the justice system.

It does not seem as if there will be any political consequences for Francken, as he is no longer a member of the Belgian government.

However, he is a candidate to become the new vice-president of his NVA party.

Belgian mayor invites Orban to migrant-diverse town

Winner of 'World's Best Mayor', Mechelen's Bart Somers has invited Hungary's PM to visit. "You know, in the whole of Hungary with 10million inhabitants, they have less Muslims than we have in a small city of 90,000," he told EUobserver.

EU states want more Belarus sanctions

EU heads of state and government on Friday, at a summit in Brussels, demanded more sanctions against Belarus "as a matter of urgency" and want the European Commission to tweak rules governing borders to tackle "state-sponsored smuggling".

Analysis

Commissions's new migration pact still seeking 'landing zone'

Last October, the European Commission gave an optimistic outlook on the adoption of its migration and asylum pact. EU commission vice-president Margaritis Schinas said its pact on migration was lowering the landing gear - suggesting agreement was possible.

News in Brief

  1. Russia's anti-vax campaign backfired, EU says
  2. China angered as MEPs call for Taiwan talks
  3. Emissions from La Palma volcano reach Brussels
  4. Body of eighth victim of Belarus border-crisis found in river
  5. Report: Syrian bank fiddling currency to evade EU sanctions
  6. Nato adopts plan to counter new Russian threats
  7. Alleged killer of British MP 'felt affiliated' to IS
  8. Coronavirus: Belgium returns to 'red' zone

Libya to get new EU-funded boats despite crimes

The EU Commission is to deliver three new 'P150' patrol boats to the Libyan coast guard, despite a recent UN report citing possible crimes against humanity at Libyan detention centres.

Dozen ministers want EU to finance border walls

Interior ministers from 12 member states are demanding the EU finance border-wall projects to stop migrants entering through Belarus, in a further push towards a fortress Europe.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNew report reveals bad environmental habits
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersImproving the integration of young refugees
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNATO Secretary General guest at the Session of the Nordic Council
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCan you love whoever you want in care homes?
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNineteen demands by Nordic young people to save biodiversity
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersSustainable public procurement is an effective way to achieve global goals

Latest News

  1. EU states want more Belarus sanctions
  2. Gas price spike exposes rift at EU summit
  3. Poland vows not to give into EU 'blackmail' at summit
  4. EU vows to uphold Paris climate ambition amid scientists' fears
  5. Commissions's new migration pact still seeking 'landing zone'
  6. Europe can't ignore Chinese encroachment in Ukraine
  7. Lithuania - where 'biodiversity funding' is cutting down trees
  8. Dutch lawyers take Frontex to EU court over pushbacks

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us