ERRC appeal not to expel Slovak Romani refugees from Belgium

On April 21, 2000, the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC), an international public interest law organisation which monitors the rights of Roma and provides legal defence in cases of human rights abuse, sent a letter to Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt to express concern at reports that Belgium plans to expel Slovak Romani asylum seekers. The letter was copied to Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for the Budget, Social Integration and Social Economy Johan Vande Lanotte, as well as to Minister for Home Affairs Mr Antoine Duquesne. In the letter, the ERRC called Prime Minister Verhofstadt's attention to the fact that the collective expulsion of aliens is in contravention of Article 4 of Protocol 4 to the European Convention on Human Rights. The ERRC additionally noted that discriminatory treatment violates international legal provisions to which Belgium is a party including Article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Articles 2 and 5 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The text of the ERRC letter follows:

Honourable Prime Minister Verhofstadt,

The European Roma Rights Center (ERRC), an international public interest law organisation which monitors the rights of Roma and provides legal defence in cases of human rights abuse, is concerned at media reports of statements by Belgian authorities to the effect that (i) Belgium is undertaking measures to block the entry of Slovak citizens into Belgium and encouraging member states of the European Union to block the entry of Slovak citizens into the EU and (ii) that Belgium may soon engage in group expulsions of Slovak Romani asylum seekers.

Slovak Roma have, in recent months, fled Slovakia and sought asylum in Belgium. The situation of Slovak Roma became an issue of wide public discussion in September 1999 after several inflammatory media reports. Belgian authorities evidently caved in to popular pressure on October 5, 1999, when, over the protests of civil organisations and the European Court of Human Rights, Belgium expelled 74 Romani asylum seekers from Slovakia. The ERRC sent a letter to your office on October 7, 1999, expressing deep concern over the expulsions, calling your attention to their illegality under international law, and appealing to you to ensure that Romani asylum applicants do not suffer discriminatory treatment in Belgium in the future.

On April 18, the Belgian daily Morgen reported that a "New Collective Expulsion of Gypsies" was planned. According to the article, following an order by the Ministry of the Interior, the local police of Tienen started warning a number of Slovak asylum seekers on April 17 that they would soon be expelled unless they left the country voluntarily. The article stated that "the mayor of Tienen, Marcel Logist, confirms that these are Roma-Gypsies." He reportedly called the Slovak asylum seekers an "invasion". On April 20, Morgen again reported that "1500 Gypsies" from Slovakia and Bulgaria would be expelled. Minister for Home Affairs Mr Antoine Duquesne reportedly stated on Belgian television on April 20, "We have nothing against Gypsies, but we see this as a test case for a humane asylum policy."

Honourable Prime Minister Verhofstadt, the collective expulsion of aliens is in contravention of Article 4 of Protocol 4 to the European Convention on Human Rights. Discriminatory treatment additionally violates international legal provisions to which Belgium is a party including Article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Articles 2 and 5 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights. We are deeply concerned that although statements by Belgian authorities seem to indicate that their actions may be in contravention of international law, they appear to be seriously contemplating them in any case.

Sincerely,
Dimitrina Petrova
Executive Director

The ERRC subsequently received a letter dated May 18, 2000, from Belgian Minister of the Interior Antoine Duquesne. In the letter, Minister Duquesne wrote that there would be no "collective expulsions by special flight, but it will concern smaller groups (4-6 persons) that will return to Slovakia by regularly scheduled flights." As of June 23, 2000, activists and media reported that authorities were putting intense pressure on Roma to participate in so-called "voluntary return" programmes, abandoning their claims for asylum. On June 24, 2000, the Slovak daily Sme reported that by the end of August, Belgium would deport approximately 400 Roma from Slovakia whose asylum applications had been rejected. Roma were supposed to have registered with local authorities by June 19, but as of the deadline, only 215 had done so. According to Sme quoting the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the body effectively managing the expulsions, 156 of the Roma had plane tickets for the end of June, and the rest would be expelled in July and August. The ERRC is concerned that although possibly formally in compliance Belgium with its obligations under Article 4 of Protocol 4 of the European Convention, where Roma are concerned, the right to freedom from collective expulsions is effectively eviscerated in Belgium. Persons wishing to express concerns about the treatment of Slovak Romani refugees in Belgium are urged to contact:

Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt
Fax: (32 2) 512 69 53

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for the Budget, Social Integration and Social Economy Johan Vande Lanotte
Fax: (32 2) 217 33 28

Minister for Home Affairs Mr Antoine Duquesne
Fax: (32 2) 504 85 00

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