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How the issues of migration and asylum are reshaping the politics of Belgium

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It was a big surprise for many people seeing the Belgian government break up after intensive negotiations between all parties involved. Mr. Charles Michel , the prime minister, representing the center-right and liberal parties supporting the UN Migration Compact on the one hand, Mr. Theo Francken (State’s Secretary for Asylum and Migration) and his N-VA-colleagues occupying ministerial posts within the government strongly opposing the Compact on the other hand. The NV-A (New Flemish Alliance) even threatened to leave the government if Mr. Michel insisted on approving the Compact, hoping that by doing such, Belgium would not approve the Compact or at least abstain.

Through his political career as a State’s Secretary for Asylum and Migration Mr. Francken demonstrated a very strict policy towards migrants and asylum seekers as well as refugees. By implementing extremely tough measurements, he hoped to limit the numbers of asylum seekers who choose Belgium as the final destination of their long often journey of hardship and misery.

Starting from discharging massive campaign  against refugees and asylum seekers in media, social media and even his own twitter account, executing one of the largest deportation action in Europe, to his putting a limit on the number of daily asylum applications by only allowing 60 people per day submit such claim, the latter sparking widespread anger. All of these procedures aimed solely at making Belgium less attractive a country of destination for asylum seekers, as Mr.Francken himself expressed. The strategy he maintained throughout his time in office was and is a clear reflection of the party he represents, the N-VA which has recently used improper photos for its campaign which they took form a campaign launched by one of the notoriously well-known extreme right German party.

The clearly incoherent cabinet, later to be known as Michel I,  survived for almost 4 years with visible discordant voices, though. It all started with “marathonic” negotiations to form the new government in 2014. At the time the N-VA , the relatively new formed party , won the largest number of seats among other parties in federal Belgian parliament , beating the deeply rooted Belgian  parties like the Christian democrats, the liberals, the socialists and the green. Allied with the Christian democrats  and the liberals the new Flemish alliance could successfully form the new cabinet.

The newly formed cabinet, at the time, would soon be hit by a series of problems, migration wise, amongst which the huge influx of refugees in 2015, which some refer to as the ‘asylum crisis’, was the first one. Apparently there were different voices within the government on how to handle the matter. The right wing was overwhelmed by the public pressure  to present a humane solution for these poor people  in the Maximilian Park. The park , which will play a central role in the shaping of Mr.Francken’s migration policy at a later stage, was in 2015 a place where over the course of several months thousands of asylum seekers took shelter including elderly, women and children while awaiting their asylum claim to be registered.  A Park that over time has also become be synonymous to a different approach on migration.

Soon after the biggest influx of asylum seekers in the history of the Belgian kingdom, a phenomenon that had existed  for decades started to draw public attention, the phenomenon of transmigration, people on the run who are in Belgium but only plan to stay there temporarily awaiting a change to get to the United Kingdom or another European country. The Maximilian Park became a meeting point for these people on the run who are mainly originary from Eritrea, Sudan and Ethiopia and who range from young children (as young as 12 years old) to grown-up men and women. Being forced out if their little tents in Calais and Dunkirk, they found themselves in the heart of the Belgian capital, profiting from the presence of international bus lines at the nearby Brussels-North railway station to try and get to the United Kingdom clandestinely. Or using the national railway network to get to local ports or highway parking lots to get aboard lorries or containers, hoping these would set course for the United Kingdom. Living conditions in the Park being in human, soon a citizen’s platform of hundreds of families willing to offer a place to eat and sleep to these people on the run emerged. This initiative was wildly criticized by the right wing and hardliners in the country . The police force was on high alert especially in the surroundings of the Park and the earlier mentioned Brussels North station.

New tough measurements were introduced including a wide spread man hunt for the (transmigrants) by the police, a scheme which was designed by both the Home Office and the State Secretary for Asylum and Migration. The photos of young men handcuffed ignited public outcry asking for a humane solution rather than arresting the unknowing migrants.  In the meantime Mr. Francken was bringing up even more sensitive issue for the public. With his broad scheme of deportation and his record number that no minister of migration has reached before, he began to lock up asylum seekers who failed to get their claims accepted by authorities as well as people who stay in Belgium illegally in detention centers as a step to deport them to their homeland soon after. A step which was widely criticized keeping in mind that families with children were also locked up.  The European supreme court issued a statement that this step contradicts the European laws and firmly stated that (you cannot lock up children in detention centers).

Among other things Mr. Francken also tried to introduce a separate social security system for refugees so they would receive lower social benefits than the Belgians, his attempt was doomed to fail due to the strict European equality laws.

The internal conflict within the government, reached its peak with the issue of signing the UN Migration Compact. With strong  opposition from the N-VA (which only started to criticize the Compact after 2 years of negotiations and after a formal approval by – amongst others – their own government ministers earlier on in 2018) and the willingness to sign it from its counterparts, many analysts expected the end of the coalition. N-VA constantly threatened to withdraw from the government if Michel insisted on going to Marrakesh to approve the Compact  . Michel decided to consult the parliament as a whole about the issue and the Compact was approved of by a majority of government and opposition parties, except the N-VA and the far-right Vlaams Belang.

Shortly after Michel travelled to Marrakesh and stated there Belgium approves of the pact. A collective resignation from N-VA ministers took place only one day before. A new State’s Secretary of Asylum and Migration was appointed, Mrs. Maggie De Block. Mrs. De Block introduced her first day at the office by declaring that she would l abolish Mr. Francken’s 60 asylum applications per day policy. She also promised to clear the mess in the federal asylum department ,known as FEDASIL , in order to fetch more places in the reception centers for the new asylum seekers. Furthermore, she gave her orders to offline the social media anti-asylum campaign.

It is a bit early to judge and to determine whether there is actually a new asylum policy, but it is crystal clear that the new State’s Secretary has come with a different tone. The coming months will reveal more about the new adapted policy.

While Mrs. De Block was busy clearing the mess in her new ministry, Mr. Michel’s new government, also known as Michel II, has failed to gain trust from the parliament. Both N-VA and Vlaams Belang are calling for early elections. The King himself has intervened to put an end to the chaos. He consoled all the parties except the extreme right wing Vlaams Belang.

Whether there will be early elections or not, the federal elections of 2019 will definitely shape the new governmental façade of Belgium including its migration and asylum policy. But more importantly the issue of migration and asylum will be heavily present in the parties programs. So it is not only the politics changing migration, but migration changing politics as well.

Policy officer at Flanders Refugee Action (Vluchtelingenwerk Vlaanderen) Syrian, Freelance journalist/blogger and lecturer Writes in Arabic and English

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Fifth report on the EU visa-free regime with Western Balkans and Eastern Partnership countries

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What is the Commission presenting today?

Today, the Commission reports on results of its monitoring of the EU visa-free regime with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia as well as Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. For the countries that obtained visa exemptions less than 7 years ago (Georgia and Ukraine), the report also provides a more detailed assessment of other actions taken to ensure the continuous fulfilment of the benchmarks.

What is the general assessment?

The Commission considers that all countries concerned have taken action to address the recommendations made in the previous report and continue to fulfil the visa liberalisation requirements. However, all 8 countries need to continue to take further measures to address different concerns related to the fight against organised crime, financial fraud and money laundering, as well as addressing high-level corruption and irregular migration. To ensure a well-managed migration and security environment, and to prevent irregular migration flows to the EU, the assessed countries must ensure further alignment with the EU’s visa policy. Countries concerned should also take action to effectively phase out investor citizenship schemes or refrain from systematically granting citizenship by investment.

It is imperative that the reform process undertaken during the visa liberalisation negotiations is sustained and that the countries do not backtrack on their achievements.

What is a visa liberalisation requirement (benchmark)?

While 61 countries around the world benefit from visa-free travel to the EU, in some cases, visa free access can be decided following bilateral negotiations, called ‘visa liberalisation dialogues’. They are based on the progress made by the countries concerned in implementing major reforms in areas such as strengthening the rule of law, combatting organised crime, corruption and migration management and improving administrative capacity in border control and security of documents.

Visa liberalisation dialogues were successfully conducted between the EU and the 8 countries covered by today’s report. On this basis, the EU granted visa-free travel to nationals of these countries; for Montenegro, Serbia and North Macedonia in December 2009, for Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina at the end 2010, for Moldova in April 2014, for Georgia in March 2017 and for Ukraine in June 2017.

These dialogues were built upon ‘Visa Liberalisation Roadmaps’ for the Western Balkan countries and ‘Visa Liberalisation Action Plans’ for the Eastern Partnership countries.

During the visa liberalisation dialogues, the Commission closely monitored the implementation of the Roadmaps and Action Plans through regular progress reports. These progress reports were then transmitted to the European Parliament and the Council and are publicly accessible (see here for the Western Balkan countries and here for Eastern Partnership countries).

Why does the report only assess 8 countries out of all those which have visa-free regimes with the EU?

The report only focuses on countries that have successfully completed a visa liberalisation dialogue: Albania; Bosnia and Herzegovina; Montenegro; North Macedonia; Serbia; Georgia; Moldova and Ukraine.

Under the EU rules, the Commission is responsible for reporting to the European Parliament and the Council on the continuous fulfilment of visa liberalisation requirements by non-EU countries which have successfully concluded a visa liberalisation dialogue less than seven years ago.

Georgia and Ukraine have been visa-exempt for less than seven years, therefore the Commission is required to report on the continuous fulfilment of the benchmarks. As regards Moldova and the visa-free countries in the Western Balkans, which are visa exempt since more than 7 years, the report focuses on the follow-up to the specific recommendations the Commission made in the fourth report adopted in August 2021, and assesses the actions taken to address them. An assessment of aspects related to the visa liberalisation benchmarks for the Western Balkans is included in the European Commission’s annual Enlargement Package.

What is the Commission doing to help partner countries to address organised crime and irregular migration?

The Commission together with EU agencies and Member States are stepping up operational cooperation to address both organised crime and irregular migration with the countries assessed in the report.

On 5 December the Commission presented an EU Action Plan on the Western Balkans. It aims to strengthen the cooperation on migration and border management with partners in Western Balkans in light of their unique status with EU accession perspective and their continued efforts to align with EU rules.

Partner countries are encouraged to actively participate in all relevant EU Policy Cycle/EMPACT operational action plans, undertaken to fight serious and organised crime. The EU-Western Balkans Joint Action Plan on Counter-Terrorism is an important roadmap and evidence of our strengthened cooperation to address key priority actions in the area of security, including the prevention of all forms of radicalisation and violent extremism, and challenges posed by returning foreign terrorist fighters and their families.

The EU has signed a number of Status Agreements with Western Balkan countries on border management cooperation. The agreements allow the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) to carry out deployments and joint operations on the territory of neighbouring non-EU countries. A number of agreements have been successfully implemented and the remaining agreements should be swiftly finalised.

Cooperation between Frontex and partner countries takes place though different level working arrangements, and includes cooperation on return operations as well as information exchange, sharing best practices and conducting joint risk analyses.

The Commission is also providing significant financial support to partner countries to support capacity building and the law enforcement reforms.

What is the Commission doing to ensure the partner countries’ alignment with the EU’s visa policy?

Visa policy alignment is a pre-condition to ensure a continuous fulfilment of the visa liberalisation benchmarks as well as to ensure a well-managed migration and security environment.

All countries covered in the report are required to take further actions to align their visa policies with the EU’s. The Commission has consistently recommended, both in the visa suspension mechanism reports and in the annual enlargement packages, that the countries should ensure further alignment of their respective visa policies with the EU lists of visa-required third countries, in particular as regards those third countries which present irregular migration or security risks for the EU.

What are the next steps?

The report sets out actions to be taken by the partner countries to ensure the sustainability of reforms. Close monitoring is an ongoing process, including through senior officials meetings as well as the regular Justice, Freedom and Security subcommittee meetings and dialogues between the EU and visa-free countries, the regular enlargement reports, including, where relevant, EU accession negotiations.

What is the revised visa suspension mechanism?

The visa suspension mechanism was first introduced as part of the EU’s visa policy in 2013. The mechanism gives a possibility to temporarily suspend the visa exemption for a non-EU country, for a short period of time, in case of a substantial increase in irregular migration from the partner countries.

The European Parliament and the Council adopted a revised mechanism which entered into force in 2017. Under the revised mechanism, the Commission can trigger the suspension mechanism, whereas previously only Member States could do so. In addition, the revised mechanism introduced an obligation for the Commission to:

  • monitor the continuous fulfilment of the visa liberalisation requirements which were used to assess to grant visa free travel to a non-EU country as a result of a successful conclusion of a visa liberalisation dialogue;
  • report regularly to the European Parliament and to the Council, at least once a year, for a period of seven years after the date of entry into force of visa liberalisation for that non-EU country.

The new measures allow the European Union to react quicker and in a more flexible manner when faced with a sudden increase in irregular migration or in internal security risks relating to the nationals of a particular non-EU country.

When can the suspension mechanism be triggered?

The suspension mechanism can be triggered in the following circumstances:

  • a substantial increase (more than 50%) in the number people arriving  irregularly  from visa-free countries, including people found to be staying irregularly, and persons refused entry at the border;
  • a substantial increase (more than 50%) in the number of asylum applications with from countries low recognition rate (around 3-4%);
  • a decline in cooperation on readmission;
  • an increased risk to the security of Member States.

The Commission can also trigger the mechanism in case certain requirements are no longer met as regards the fulfilment of the visa liberalisation benchmarks by non-EU countries that have gone through a visa liberalisation dialogue.

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Hungary’s Victor Orban uses soccer to project Greater Hungary and racial exclusivism

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Image source: veja.abril.com.br

Hungary didn’t qualify for the Qatar World Cup, but that hasn’t stopped Prime Minister Victor Orban from exploiting the world’s current focus on soccer to signal his Putinesque definition of central European borders as defined by civilization and ethnicity rather than internationally recognized frontiers.

Mr. Orban drew the ire of Ukraine and Romania for wearing to a local Hungarian soccer match a scarf depicting historical Hungary, which also includes chunks of Austria, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia.

It was the second time in a matter of months that Mr. Orban spelt out his irredentist concept of geography that makes him a member of a club of expansionist leaders that includes Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, Israel’s Benyamin Netanyahu, and members of the Indian power elite, who define their countries’ borders in civilisational rather than national terms.

Speaking in July to university summer camp students in Romania, which is home to 1.2 million ethnic Hungarians, Mr. Orban insisted that “Hungary has…national…and even European ambitions. This is why…the motherland must stand together, and Transylvania and the other areas in the Carpathian Basin inhabited by Hungarians must stand together.”

Responding to Ukrainian and Romanian objections to his scarf, Mr. Orban insisted that “soccer is not politics. Do not read things into it that are not there. The Hungarian national team belongs to all Hungarians, wherever they live!”

Hungary has accused Ukraine of restricting the right of an estimated 150,000 ethnic Hungarians to use Hungarian in education because of a 2017 law that curbs the usage of minority languages in schools.

Slovak Prime Minister Eduard Heger presented Mr. Orban with a new scarf at a recent summit of Central European leaders in a twist of satire. “I noticed that Viktor Orban has an old scarf, so I gave him a new one today,” Mr. Heger said on Facebook.

Mr. Orban’s territorial ambitions may pose a lesser threat than his supremacist and racist attitudes.

Those attitudes constitute building blocks of a cvilisationalist world that he shares with Christian nationalists and Republicans in the United States, as well as a new Israeli coalition government that Mr. Netanyahu is forming. Mr. Putin has used similar arguments to justify his invasion of Ukraine.

In contrast to Mr. Putin and potentially Mr. Netanyahu, depending on how the Biden administration responds to his likely coalition, Mr. Orban is on a far tighter leash regarding territorial ambition as a member of NATO and the European Union.

As a result, far more insidious is what amounts to a mainstreaming of racism and supremacism by men like Mr. Orban, Mr. Netanyahu, and former US President Donald Trump, who consistently mainstream norms of decency and propriety by violating them with impunity.

Speaking a language shared by American Christian nationalists and Mr. Netanyahu’s potential coalition partners, Mr. Orban rejected in his July speech a “mixed-race world” defined as a world “in which European peoples are mixed together with those arriving from outside Europe.”

The prime minister asserted that mixed-race countries “are no longer nations: They are nothing more than conglomerations of peoples” and are no longer part of what Mr. Orban sees as “the Western world.” The prime minister stopped short of identifying those countries, but the United States and Western European nations would fit the bill.

In a similar vein, Mr. Trump recently refused to apologise for having dinner with Ye, a rapper previously known as Kanye West, who threatened he would go “death on con 3 on Jewish people,” and Nick Fuentes, a 24-year old pro-Russian trafficker in Holocaust denial and white supremacism.

Mr. Trump hosted the two men at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida resort, just after launching his 2024 presidential election campaign. Mr. Ye “was really nice to me,” Mr. Trump said.

Candidates backed by Mr. Trump in last month’s US midterm elections, including Hershel Walker, who is competing in next week’s runoff in Georgia, have similarly felt comfortable associating themselves with Messrs. Ye and Fuentes.

Mr. Fuentes asserted days before the dinner that “Jews have too much power in our society. Christians should have all the power, everyone else very little,” while Mr. Ye’s manager, Milo Yannopoulos, announced that “we’re done putting Jewish interests first.”

Mr. Yonnopoulos added that “it’s time we put Jesus Christ first again in this country. Nothing and no one is going to get in our way to make that happen.”

Featured on notorious far-right radio talk show host Alex Jones’ Infowars, Mr. Ye professed his admiration of Adolf Hitler. “I like Hitler,” Mr. Ye said, listing the various reasons he admired the notorious Nazi leader.

Mr. Netanyahu’s likely coalition partners seek to legislate discriminatory distinctions between adherents of different Jewish religious trends, hollow out Israeli democracy, introduce an apartheid-like system, disband the Palestinian Authority, expel Palestinians “disloyal to Israel” in what would amount to ethnic cleansing, deprive women of their rights, and re-introduce homophobia.

Avraham Burg, an Israeli author, politician, businessman, and scion of a powerful leader of a defunct once mainstream religious political party, warned in 2018 that Messrs. Orban, Trump, and Netanyahu “are the leaders of paranoia and phobia.”

Mr. Burg cautioned that they represent “a global phenomenon that crosses all boundaries, ethnic, racial, or religious, gathering into a tribal ghetto that is smaller than the modern state, which is diverse and inclusive of all its citizens. Their fierce antagonism to the foundations of democracy and the attempt to do detriment to as many accomplishments and benefits of the open society as possible are evidence of inherent weaknesses and real existential fears.”

Mr. Burg’s dire vision is even more a reality today than when he spoke out four years ago.

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Strong will to enhance bilateral relations between Serbia and Pakistan

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Although the Republic of Serbia and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan are two sovereigns, independent states, with different cultures, religions, languages, histories, and ethnicities. One is located in Europe and the other in Asia. Yet, there exist so many similarities and commonalities, which provide a strong basis and convergence of interests.

Both, Serbia and Pakistan, are developing countries and struggling to improve their national economies and the standard of life of respective nations. Both nations were victims of the Western world and sanctions. Ugly media has been projecting a distorted image of both countries. Hindrances created by Superpowers in the path of development are a common phenomenon in both cases.

People in both countries are hardworking, strong, resilient, and capable of surviving in harsh circumstances. Both have demonstrated in the past that they can resist pressures from any superpower. Both have learned the lessons from past bitter experiences and are determined not to repeat the same in the future.

In my recent visit to the Republic of Serbia, I noticed that there exists a fair awareness in Serbian regarding Pakistan. I came into a cross with the general public and common people and they know a lot about Pakistan. They have shown strong feelings for Pakistan. There exists immense goodwill for Pakistan among Serbian youth.

Both countries are in the process of industrialization and promoting trade. Currently, both countries are earning from the export of workforce and human resources. Serbian youth are working in Western Europe and sending back foreign exchange. And Pakistan workforce finds a convenient destination in the Middle East for earning more and sending back foreign exchange to Pakistan. But, both nations have the potential to earn through export and foreign trade.

Serbia is known as the gateway to Europe and Pakistan is the gateway to Oil-rich Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, Central Asia, and Eurasia. Both countries can utilize each other for re-export too.

Both countries are far away from each other but, a strong bond of friendship and mutual understanding is admirable. Based on the convergence of interests, we can cooperate with each other. Especially can help each other in their areas of weaknesses and benefit from each other’s strengths.

Serbia has vast cultivatable land and is rich in water resources, very niche in the agriculture sector. Whereas its population is limited to only 7 million approximately. While Pakistan is 250 million population and a strong workforce in the agriculture sector. Both nations can positively collaborate and cooperate in the Agriculture sector.

The Republic of Serbia is in the process of Industrialization, especially in the automotive sector, whereas, Pakistan has a strong base for industrialization and is rich in the technical and skilled workforce. Pakistan has established a rich supply chain for industrialization and Serbia can benefit from Pakistan’s strength.

Science, Technology, Research, Innovation, and Higher Education is the important area where both can benefit from collaboration and cooperation. Pakistan has world-ranked Universities, recognized globally with English as a medium of study, and can meet the demand of Serbian youth. Whereas Serbia has the edge in the IT sector, Pakistani youth can be beneficiaries of Serbian facilities.

However, to achieve the real benefits from each other’s strengths, there is a need to do a lot of homework. There is a dire need to promote people-to-people contact and mutual visit at all levels. Scholars, intellectuals, academia, and media can play a vital role in bringing both nations closer.

Governments in both countries may take appropriate policy measures to strengthen the relations like relaxing visa regimes, removing tax barriers, and introducing attractive policies to each other’s nationals in various fields of life.

To promote trade, Free Trade Agreement (FTA) can be signed among them and formulate a trade policy benefitting each other. Similarly, investment mechanisms need to be devised to attract investment from each other country.

Media has a long-lasting impact and collaboration between two nations in Media will greatly help to build a positive narrative of both countries and simultaneously need to counter negativism in the ugly media in some countries over-engaged in distorting our image.

There is a strong will to enhance our bilateral relationship between the two nations, and whenever there is a will, there is a way. I am optimistic that bilateral relations will grow exponentially in the days to come.

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