06.09.2018 Open letter : Roma children detained

It has now been a few weeks that families can be detained in a closed center for people “residing illegally” in Belgium, which wipes out the country’s pioneer role in the search and elaboration of alternatives to child detention. This decision by the Belgian government also means going back ten years in time, where the imprisonment of minors in Belgium led to three condemnations by the European Court of Human Rights.

In the same way in present days, the idea of creating a detention center for families without papers, with children, was unanimously criticized and condemned. Already in January 2017, the European Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižnieks urged Belgium to abandon its plans. His statement was followed by those of several international bodies such as UNICEF, Amnesty International, but also the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which called for the prohibition of these practices throughout the European Union. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees also recalled recently that "children, especially those who are entering another country seeking international protection, are extremely vulnerable and require specific care. We should treat them first and foremost as children, and not as foreigners in an irregular situation”.

Adding to that, many Belgian political representatives, as well as more than 300 organizations and thousands of citizens mobilized around this issue. The extent of this outrage is a reminder that, while the confinement of adults in illegal stay continues to be the subject of controversy, the detention of children is purely and simply unacceptable, both in the public opinion and in terms of the laws and rights at play. Indeed, as recently underlined by UNICEF Belgium, "the detention of children for cause of migration is a violation of the rights of the child and is always in opposition to the principle of the best interest of the child”. As stipulated in the International Convention on the Rights of the Child – an agreement signed by Belgium and inscribed in its Constitution – the best interest of the child always prevails over decisions of the State.

Despite the protestation and stir provoked, a first family was locked up on August 14, 2018, in the center 127 bis of Steenokkerzeel. Well aware that this event was at the center of attention, our surprise was all the greater when we heard that this family belongs to the most discriminated and disadvantaged European minority : the Roma community. The detainees are a mother, her 1-year-old baby, and three other children all under the age of 7. All four of these children were born in Belgium. Their father, temporarily in prison, does not benefit from a recognized nationality and hence cannot be expelled. What that means is that any repatriation will inevitably come with a forced separation of the children and their dad, which beyond the trauma and the obvious heartbreak that it implies, will strongly increase the vulnerability of the family once they reach a country they know nothing about.

As a matter of fact, this family is clearly more rooted in Belgium than in Serbia – a country that the mother left when she was a teenager and only kept distant memories of. Since the rest of their relatives live in Belgium and abroad, this mother does not have any material resource or family relationship left in Serbia. The children, born and educated in Flanders, speak better Dutch than Serbian. The complete absence of roots in Serbia, and at the same time the anchorage of the family in Belgium for many years, add to the absurdity of their imprisonment and expulsion. Bernard de Vos and Bruno Vanobbergen, the Belgian General Delegates for Children Rights, summed up the situation : "Belgium is about to send back a single mother without income or any roots left, with four children born on Belgian soil, in a  potentially hostile territory, which might expose them to unworthy and degrading living conditions”.

Just like an unpleasant wake up call, the detention of this first family takes us back almost 20 years, at the time of the arrest and collective expulsion of Slovak Roma families, in 1999. Back then, this event had already been condemned by several international bodies. More recently, the expulsion of a Roma family from Belgium to Serbia has also been condemned by the European Court of Human Rights. The Court invoked the multiplication of reports indicating that "Serbians of Roma origin were subjected to discrimination in Serbia, that they lived in deplorable conditions, and that they had no access to health care, housing or education”. The Court also added the need to take into account "the vulnerabilities specific to the applicants, namely the presence of a severely disabled girl and young children including an infant". Judging from this decision, it seems obvious that the family currently incarcerated in the center 127bis of Steenokkerzeel (composed of young children and likely to face similar discrimination because of their belonging to the Roma community) can claim equal legitimacy of its application for asylum and its fears of persecution.

It has now been more than three weeks that the family is imprisoned. However, the royal decree that determines the conditions of child detention in Belgium established a maximum of two weeks, renewable once and only on basis of a positive opinion on the children’s medical and psychological state. Yet, despite the alarming report of the pediatrician Paulette De Backer and the repeated concerns of medical experts, the Belgian Office for Foreigners has rather decided to rely on an observation report written by a staff member of the detention center. At this very moment, while the detention of this family is reaching the maximum period of 4 weeks, we hear that their imprisonment might be extend indefinitely. That would not only be illegal to the eyes of the royal order, but it would also represent an intolerable violence for those children whose anxiety is growing.

Today again, Belgium stands out in the worse way on the international scene by acting in flagrant violation of the international laws at play. We require the release of the family locked up in the detention center 127bis of Steenokkerzeel. We require a final stop to the detention of all and any families with children, regardless of the reason of their imprisonment.

Lastly, it is crucial for us all to comprehend that the choice of this specific family for a first detention of children was not random : it is time we stop using Roma to restrict everybody’s rights and freedoms.

Centre de Médiation des Gens du Voyage et des Roms – 6th of September 2018