Thursday January 11, 2018

'Flemish Trump' under fire after Sudanese migrants he deported allegedly tortured

The New York Times labelled Theo Francken the 'Flemish Trump' after news broke that Sudanese migrants he deported were tortured when they were sent home.

The New York Times labelled Theo Francken the 'Flemish Trump' after news broke that Sudanese migrants he deported were tortured when they were sent home. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

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He's known to some as the "Flemish Trump."

And now Theo Francken — Belgium's secretary of state for asylum and migration — is under fire for his decision to deport nine Sudanese migrants.

It emerged last year that Francken invited Sudanese officials to interview the migrants before they were sent back. Now, as many predicted, some of the migrants say they have faced torture upon their return to Sudan.

Koert Debeuf is a director at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, and a former advisor to the Belgian prime minister. 

He spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about how he tried to warn the government to reconsider their decision. 

On what grounds were these nine people from Sudan expelled from Belgium and sent back to Sudan?

The Belgium government had Sudanese refugees here in Brussels and they were not able to identify them because they didn't ask for asylum. So they asked a Sudanese delegation, coming from Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, to identify these people.

So the government has let, let's say, all control out of their hands and have given this to the Sudanese government. So there were not grounds. They were not picky at all. So everyone who was Sudanese was going to be sent back to Sudan.

 'I warned them that this is a tortuous regime so this is a procedure we cannot follow.' - Koert DebeufTahrir Institute for Middle East Policy

Theo Francken invited officials from Sudan to come to Belgium and review the cases of the people who ended up being returned to Sudan. What did you think when you heard that that was how this process had begun?

When I heard this in September I was absolutely horrified. I lived for five years in Egypt. I know how these kinds of regimes work. Sudan is a regime that is completely controlled, the entire country is controlled, by a very brutal secret service.

The president of Sudan is actually having cases against him in the Hague for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. We are giving these people the power to decide about people on our territory so for me that was horrifying news. 

EUROPE-MIGRANTS/BRUSSELS-PROTEST

A man holds a sign as he takes part in a protest in support of a new EU migration policy a day before an EU leaders' meeting in Brussels. (Eric Vidal/Reuters)

And what kind of consultation did they have? Was it a high level? Were there documents? Did the Sudanese produce any material that could support the case of deporting them? What kind of review was done?

There was no review at all by the Belgium administration. The Sudanese saw people one-by-one, tried to identify them [and] threatened them not to ask for asylum. They said, "If you ask for asylum and you fail, then we will send you to the headquarters of the secret service." Which means for every Sudanese that they probably will not get back alive to home. So they threatened them very much.

Then they gave them papers and just on the basis of these papers these people were sent back. There are two war zones in Sudan, Darfur and Kordofan, and if you're from there, I mean the chance that you are being beaten or threatened or even tortured when you go back are very high. 

That's exactly what has happened, isn't it? You have corresponded with at least three of the Sudanese men who have returned. Where did they return to and what happened to them?

They told me that when they arrived in the airport in Khartoum that they were sent to a police station and that they were beaten, sometimes several times a day, for days.

One guy told me that he was beaten for three hours with sticks by the secret services.

Most of these guys are now absolutely terrified and they don't like to talk of course. Even another guy didn't want to talk at all because he's traumatized after 10 days of investigation or interrogation by the secret service.

And could, should, or would the Belgium government have known that they were likely to face this kind of persecution and abuse if they were sent back to Sudan?

When this came out in September I warned them that this is a tortuous regime so this is a procedure we cannot follow. But they said, "No. It's going to be fine. All rules will be followed." And now, I mean it's clear that this was not the case at all. 

EUROPE-MIGRANTS/BRUSSELS-PROTEST

Protesters holding a list of migrants' names take part in a demonstration in Brussels last month. (Eric Vidal/Reuters)

What can you tell us about the secretary of state involved here, Theo Francken? He's been called the "Flemish Trump." Can you tell us about him?

He's one of the most popular politicians in Belgium because he's responsible for asylum and migration. But what he does is he has a very harsh communication.

He spoke once of "cleaning up" the park of illegal people and he's always happy tweeting about the amount of people that have been sent back and so forth.

So this makes, let's say, the policy of asylum, I think rather extreme, rather inhumane, like everyone who has been sent back is a victory for the country.

This interview transcript has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Koert Debeuf.