Members of the federal parliament have strongly condemned a system of issuing humanitarian visas to vulnerable people in the Middle East set up by former minister for migration and asylum, Theo Francken. Only Francken’s N-VA party colleagues abstained. Members were voting on a report commissioned by Francken’s successor, Maggie De Block. It describes a parallel system of asylum operating outside the oversight and controls of the established system. De Block said the system “was doomed to lead to problems”.
The system worked like this: Francken (photo) used a network of intermediaries selected by him to find worthy candidates who could receive a humanitarian visa to allow them to leave the places they were living in Iraq and Syria to come to safety in Belgium, where they would be able to apply for asylum.
However despite the fact that whole populations are in danger in those war-torn areas, Francken’s system favoured only the small group of Syrian-Assyrian Christians with whom they were in touch. In addition, there was no control over who was given a visa: one intermediary, Melikan Kucam, a city councillor in Mechelen and head of an Assyrian Christian association here, is facing charges of having demanded fees of up to 10,000 euros for a visa – money which he allegedly kept for himself.
The report also tells how inadequate checks were carried out on the identity of the recipients of humanitarian visas, and procedures to check how vulnerable their current situation is were ignored.
The system also saw explosive growth, from 200 recipients in 2014 to more than 2,000 in 2018, when the Kucam fraud case came to light.
The share of that total taken by Francken’s system of intermediaries accounts for 1,502 people, of whom 1,150 are on track to receive asylum or have already been accepted. Another 121 people came into Belgium on a Francken visa, arranged by Kucam, but never made an approach to seek asylum, and instead vanished into the world of illegality. The visa was a document allowing entry to the country; it is not any sort of residency permit.
Francken’s former coalition partners were unsparing. “The report confirms what we have known for years,” said Nahima Lanjri (CD&V). Philippe Pivin (MR) said he was “shocked at the number of people who were not registered and who slipped into Belgium while in the other chambers of the government so much noise was being made about strengthening the security of the country,” a reference to how Francken’s party resigned from the government over the United Nations pact on migration.
Francken later told the news agency Belga he was content to leave the matter to the legal authorities, and not prepared to “take part in little political games”. And he regretted, he said, the fact that Maggie De Block was using the risks to the Christian community “for electoral purposes”.