Legalising deportations in Belgium
In Belgium, the arrival of asylum-seekers during the ‘migration summer’ of 2015 led to significant investments in deportation infrastructure. The trend of politically prioritising the so-called ‘removal of foreigners’ continues today: legal boundaries are continuously challenged to further facilitate deportations.
A Refugee Camp Neighbouring the Immigration Office
In its capital city in the summer of 2015, Europe’s so-called migration crisis gained visibility through a temporary camp in the Maximilien city park, right next to the Immigration Office in Brussels. It was spontaneously set up by people waiting to file their asylum request—applicants could access government shelters only after this.
The Immigration Office could not keep up with the increase of arrivals. The tent camp soon attracted support from the local sans-papiers or undocumented movement and NGOs. Moreover, hundreds of citizens self-organised in support of the newcomers, and eventually formed a support network, the ‘Plateforme citoyenne de soutien aux réfugiés Bruxelles’.
But the waiting line for asylum requests soon appeared to not just be a temporary hurdle caused by a government taken by surprise by the number of arrivals. Anticipation through reorganisation remained absent from the side of the authorities.
The volunteers running the camp announced they would abolish it in September 2015, not wanting the tent camp to become a structural solution for the lacunas of the government. Nevertheless, ‘Parc Maximilien’ had attracted national attention among both the Flemish and the French speaking population of bilingual Belgium. On 27 September that year, close to 20,000 people joined the solidarity march, ‘Refugees Welcome’. Holding banners, the demonstrators’ march passed the Immigration Office to the centre of Brussels. Their positive vibe was assisted by a late summer sun.
Measuring Levels of ‘terrorist threat’
Six weeks later, on 13 November, 2015, the ‘Paris Attacks’ shocked Belgium. The attacks were understood as being close to home, not only because France is a neighboring country, but mostly because one of the volatile attackers appeared to have lived in the Brussels neighborhood Molenbeek for most of his life. He derived his legal residence in Belgium from his French citizenship. His brother, who worked for the local Immigration Office, still lived in Molenbeek with their parents. Another brother had joined the attacks, with fatal results.
The nervous government, under pressure from the international community to find the attacker, kept on updating its citizens of the ‘terrorist threat’ level in Belgium. This information was adjudicated by the so-called independent ‘Organ for the Coordination and Analysis of Threats’ (OCAD). Tensions were rising, even more so when the government announced a security lockdown in Brussels on 21 November, 2015, following a “maximum level threat”. For five days, schools and public transport were closed, as were bars and restaurants. Otherwise busy streets were quiet and mostly patrolled by the military, equipped with heavy guns and trucks. But nothing happened. After five days, the lockdown was lifted without any noticeable reason. Hence, the atmosphere in the city remained tense. Not only did OCAD’s threat assessment remain high, but the presence of the military at metro stations and public events remained severe. Furthermore, the search for the still volatile attacker was carefully watched by international media.
Then, on 18 March, the attacker, who appeared to have been hiding in Brussels, was caught. There was not much time for relief though: early in the morning of 22 March, the first bombs of the Brussels attack exploded at the international airport, followed by another bomb in the metro line running through the area that housed the European institutes.
Deportation in the Name of Security
In the short term, the Brussels attacks delayed deportations. The national airport closed for some days, and police capacity was limited due to their being occupied with the ‘threat of terrorism’.
However, for the State Secretary for Asylum, Migration and Administrative Simplification and member of the right-wing nationalist party NVA, Theo Francken, it had been a selling point to increase the number of deportations since his appointment in 2014. So even before public attention focussed on the arrival of migrants in 2015, it had been their future removal that merited organisational priority.
In the long term, the attacks assured increasing public support for this priority. During the summer days of 2015, when asylum applicants queued up beside the Immigration Office, the units occupied with deportations were reinforced. Some of them almost doubled the number of functionaries within their unit. Ties between the Immigration Office and the police were intensified in order to identify potential terrorists. Moreover, during the period in between the attacks, functionaries at the Immigration Office were recruited to join a newly established unit called ‘Radicalism’, responsible for assisting the detection of potential terrorists.
The increasing priority given to removal over arrival had thus started with the new state secretary in 2014, lasted during the ‘migration summer’, and was boosted on a public and political level after the attacks in both Paris (2015) and Brussels (2016).
The Continuing Process of the Legalisation of Deportation—Three Cases
In this heavily loaded climate, the national legal framework through which contemporary deportations become legalised has been repeatedly brought up in public discussion. The three cases below were all covered by national media. They challenge the perception of law as stable and objective, instead illustrating the fluid character of the legal framework.
“Residence babies” as the new “sham marriage”, June 2016
In the parliamentary questions of 8 June, 2016, the Minister of Justice, Koen Geens, reassured the chamber on the development of a new law proposal. The current law, he argued, would lead to systematic and increasing abuse referred to as “residence babies”. He stated, “the improved combat against sham marriages resulted in increased abuse in the area of sham recognitions of children, purely for the intention of obtaining a residence permit…functionaries at the civil registry now lack legal grounds to refuse sham recognition”. He continued that legislative action was his priority, and added that the legal adjustments to “fight” the phenomena of “residence babies” were being developed in cooperation with Francken.
Home Visits Without Search Warrants, November 2016
“Illegal residence is an ongoing crime”, a national newspaper quoted the Minister of Internal Affairs, Jan Jambon. The news article reported on a request of the Deportation Unit, executed by local police, to visit an elderly woman at her home and arrest her. Usually a search warrant would have been needed for such action. However the minister defended the local police, stating that the home of illegalised people “can be entered 24/7 without a search warrant or consent of the inhabitant”. Nevertheless, the Belgium Constitution defines the home as “inviolable” (article 15).
A month later, the court indeed condemned the arrest of a 39 year old man at his house, ruling that: “entering the home to arrest persons who are residing in the country illegally, is not provided for by law”. However, a juridical exception to this constitutional protection exists in the case of a “caught in the act”. Although a non-legal stay, as such, is not a penal violation in Belgium, following the claim that the minister had already advanced in the media, the illegalised person cannot help but commit a crime, and is thus caught in the act, period. Hence, the rule of the court was appealed. Awaiting the decision, the arrested man remained detained.
Deportation of Residents, February 2017
In early 2017, a newly approved bill caused uproar in civil society: Belgian residency can now be withdrawn in order to enable deportation. A “hate preaching” imam believed to be involved in the radicalisation of youth was brought forward by politicians in defence of the adjustments, as well as the jailed accomplice of the Paris attackers, who used to live in Brussels.
The imam is a Dutch citizen. The accomplice is a French citizen. Both were Belgian residents on the basis of their EU citizenship. The new bill, however, also applies to those holding a Belgian residency based on being born in Belgium, or having moved to Belgium before the age of 12. Before, as formalised in the Aliens Act from 2005, their residency could not be withdrawn. This was changed under the new law.
Concerns raised by the opposition were countered by the State Secretary for Asylum and Migration: “the residence permit will only be withdrawn if national security is under threat”, he said.
These single cases illustrate a broader process that is important to highlight. It is not the outcome of single cases that is most important in analysing this process—although for the individuals involved, the outcome is of course crucial. Despite the legal changes proposed in these examples actually becoming a reality (or not), they should be taken as serious attempts to challenge the boundaries of the legal framework concerning deportations from Belgium. Winning a case or changing the law is not always or exclusively the goal of those going to court or proposing legal adjustments. Neither is its broader effect restricted to a black and white ‘win or lose’. These cases test push, and eventually transgress, the boundaries of law.
This goes for both appeals against deportation, and those pushing for deportation. Its symbolic politics cannot be dismissed. Both public opinion and jurisdiction are maneuvered into a certain direction. That the legal framework proves to be subject to change is not new, nor necessarily undesirable. Eventually, change is inherent to social constructions organising our societies, such as legal frameworks. What is important, however, is to recognise the direction of the adjustments. Here, they assure a transgressive move towards the further legalisation of deportation.