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25th Jul 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.

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  • 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.

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