Flanders stirred by Afghan immigrant case

A well-integrated young Afghan plumber is likely to be expelled from Belgium on Sunday.

The case has provoked great emotion in Flanders but Maggie De Block is sticking to her guns.

While several hundred Afghans were being evicted from a building in Brussels which they were occupying illegally, in Flanders it is the story of just one Afghan that has kept the local press busy and has touched a great number of people. Navid Shariffi was four years old when he left Afghanistan for Iran. At 16, he arrived in Belgium, where he applied for asylum. In the meantime, he learned Dutch, became a plumber and met a young Polish woman, with whom he currently lives. Since 2011, his requests for asylum and for working papers have all been refused. On Wednesday, the Office of the Commissioner General for Refugees and Stateless Persons (CGRA) once again rejected an asylum application submitted by his lawyer, Pieter-Jan Staelens. Shariffi will now have to board an airplane early Saturday morning which will fly him back to Afghanistan. His lawyer has filed an urgent appeal and hopes that the flight will not be necessary, but that is far from certain.


If this story sounds familiar, it is: in July 2012, Parwain Sangari, another young Afghan, was expelled from the country despite demonstrations in his favor. The profile is almost identical every time: perfectly integrated, attending university or already working, supported by a network of friends and – the ultimate symbol of integration in Flemish society – able to speak Dutch. These arguments then stir an emotional general public, but they do not actually change the eventual outcome. And for good reason, as the arguments do not represent the required criteria for sorting out one’s legal status. But that is because the criteria don’t actually exist.


Legal vacuum

While the CGRA deals with asylum requests in a strict and justifiable fashion, requests for working papers are passed on to the Belgian Immigration Office. In terms of deciding who stays and who is sent back, no law has yet established set criteria. According to Staelens, “The debate is too difficult; members of parliament have never had the courage to tackle it.” The lawyer goes on to explain that successive secretaries of state, including Melchior Wathelet, produced memos setting out their own conditions, related to integration or language knowledge, for example. These memos were all cancelled by the Council of State following appeals by Vlaams Belang. Although the party’s intention was certainly not worthy of praise, their argument was admissible: the executive branch of power, by deciding who could stay and who could not, had violated the prerogatives of the legislative branch, which did not have the courage to legislate. Faced with this legal vacuum, lawyers now attempt to therefore contact the minister directly, by stirring up the media and lobbying political parties.


Less likely in Flanders

And while it has never been too tricky to convince Groen or SP.A, lawyers have also found themselves an unlikely ally. The N-VA has actually gotten behind Shariffi’s case, via member of parliament Theo Francken: “How can it be right that young people who are perfectly well integrated and who pay their taxes have to leave the country immediately while criminals who are here illegally are not expelled?” This show of support, which some have called populist, is even more unexpected in that, according to Staelens, it is much more difficult to win such an appeal in Flanders than it is in Belgium’s French-speaking areas. The legal representative explains that CGRA figures show an 8 to 9 % success rate of asylum request appeals there compared to barely 0.5 % in Flanders.


For the moment, the lawyers are hoping for a gesture from secretary of state Maggie De Block, whose position remains rigid. Her spokesperson, Else Cleemput, stresses that “Madame De Block can take charge of cases only if she feels that there are good reasons to do so: if there has been an administrative error, for example. The fact that someone has drummed up media and public support should not make us treat the case any differently from others. It would then become a completely random process!” The Open VLD politician had indeed gone down this road for a young man from Cameroon recently, but she appears unlikely to repeat that action for Shariffi.



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