Maggie De Block, federal minister for asylum and migration, is to smooth over relations with the United States after questions were raised over the system of humanitarian visas for Syrians operated by her predecessor, Theo Francken. Francken has been under fire since the beginning of the year after it was revealed that the system of humanitarian visas, intended to bring vulnerable or persecuted people to Belgium to apply for asylum, was operated by a network of intermediaries outside of the official channels. More than 1,500 such visas were issued, mainly to Syrian Christians, and in some cases the recipients had been charged up to 10,000 euros which went straight into the pocket of the intermediary.
One such, a city councillor in Mechelen for Francken’s party N-VA, was arrested and charged with corruption. Francken has since left the government over its support for the United Nations migration pact.
This week the Trump Administration raised questions about the system in a letter to foreign affairs minister Didier Reynders. The US is concerned because Belgium is one of 50 countries whose citizens do not require a visa to enter the US, and the administration, which has made a great deal over illegal immigration, was concerned that holders of the humanitarian visas, many of whom had not been checked thoroughly, and some of whom have in fact gone missing, might make their way to the US under the privileged country system.
When the news broke, Francken responded with his characteristic diplomacy. Posting on Twitter, he said, “Saving Christians is a problem for the [Trump] administration? Don’t make me laugh. This minority government has organised the leak of one confidential document after another in an attempt to damage me. So transparent.” He then went on, “I’d like to see this so-called official letter from the States. A link made in the press with the visa waiver programme is false. That programme is for Belgians only.”
Now his predecessor De Block intends to patch up relations. “We will be explaining to the Americans that these practices have ceased since I took back the department,” she said in a statement.
In fact, the system of humanitarian visas existed before Francken and continues now he is gone, though not in the form he gave it. At no point before, during or after, were the holders of those visas eligible to enter the US under the visa waiver programme.