Belgian authorities deport Slovak Roma as European efforts to expel refugee Roma become more aggressive
7 December 1999
The Belgian government deported seventy-four Romani asylum seekers on October 5 — a number of whom reportedly still had pending asylum claims — in one of the most forceful actions by European authorities against Romani asylum seekers to date. According to reports, the 74 Roma were called in by local police authorities in the city of Ghent, on the orders of the Interior Ministry, on September 30 and October 1. They were brought there under the false pretext that they had to complete additional forms as part of their asylum application procedure. Once there, however, they were immediately detained and transferred to a closed detention centre called "127 ‘bis’ Steenokkerzeel" on the outskirts of Brussels. They remained in the detention centre under heavy police guard until their deportation on October 5. Another group of Slovak Roma was deported from the city of Tirlemont. The Belgian government's decision to proceed with the deportation came in the face of a decision earlier the same day by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, in response to a complaint filed on behalf of the Roma applicants by the Belgian League for Human Rights that expressly requested that the Belgian government stay deportation for eight days to permit consideration of whether such deportation would violate the European Convention of Human Rights. In a communication reportedly faxed to the Ministry of Justice at approximately 4:00 PM on October 5, the European Court requested the Belgian government to provide information by no later than October 8 concerning whether it had given due consideration to the applicants' claims that they would be subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment in Slovakia, and why it had proceeded to expel asylum applicants whose cases had not yet reached a final decision by the State Council (Conseil d'Etat). Almost two hours after the receipt of the European Court's request for a stay, the Roma were deported from Brussels national airport. The Belgian government's apparent disregard for the European Court of Human Rights was affirmed by subsequent statements by Belgian officials: on October 6, a spokesperson of the Interior Ministry reportedly told Radio Free Europe (RFE) that the government had acted lawfully since, in the government's view, the European Court would certainly have agreed had it considered the matter. The expulsions caused a government crisis as members of the ruling coalition Green "Ecolo" Party threatened to quit over the issue.
The expulsions were preceded by a number of articles in the Belgian press inciting anti-Romani sentiment. The articles described Slovak Romani refugees in Belgium in defamatory terms. One article, published in the daily De Standaard on September 24, ran under a headline stating that Roma from Slovakia eat dogs; the article in question did not go on to substantiate the claim in any way. The same article quoted a local official from the town of Tirlemont as stating, "There are some of them who want to stay here, who want to learn Dutch and look for a job. But they're Gypsies, most of them just loiter about." During the several weeks prior to the deportations, high-ranking Belgian officials referred on several occasions to persons with open asylum claims as "illegals". Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt was quoted in the daily Het Laatste Nieuws on September 20 as stating, "We have been talking with Albania and Slovakia and we modestly began with repatriation. But also with Bulgaria and Macedonia and with Kosovo we want to reach a repatriation agreement in order to let the many illegals go back quickly. Refugees from countries like Slovakia and Bulgaria are not even real asylum seekers, because there are no political problems there which would justify this. Moreover, these are countries that want to join the European Union. We cannot allow that in the meantime masses of illegals from there come to Belgium." The ERRC is not aware of any subsequent efforts by the Prime Minister's office to distance the Prime Minister from the statement quoted in Het Laatste Nieuws or to calm anti-foreigner and anti-Romani sentiment.
The ERRC protested the deportations in a letter to Prime Minister Verhofstadt, calling upon his office to reverse the decision to expel the Romani asylum seekers from Slovakia and offer to pay for all 74 Romani deportees to return to Belgium; to ensure that their applications for asylum be given due consideration in accordance with the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees; and to ensure that several hundred other Romani asylum seekers from Slovakia presently remaining in Belgium were not expelled as long as their asylum applications had not been given adequate consideration by all appropriate judicial authorities. In a letter dated November 10, 1999, Mr Antoine Duquesne of the Belgian Ministry of the Interior responded to the ERRC letter. The Belgian response is the subject of a forthcoming ERRC publication.
(Amnesty International, ERRC, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty)