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.