Two weeks ago, Karina* and her daughter were given notice by Belgian officials and were ordered to return to Kosovo immediately. They had been living in Belgium for more than fifteen years. Karina’s daughter now faces the challenge of finishing her final year of high school in a language she does not speak. Belgian in all but the strictest legal terms, she speaks Flemish and French, not Albanian or Serbian.
Karina’s case struck a peculiar chord with me—my grandmother** has known her for years. The difficulty that immigrants have integrating into western Europe, however, is not uncommon. For years, the Belgian government’s approach to immigration policies and its integration strategies have been lagging. Immigration procedures for the influx of migrants from Serbia, Kosovo and Albania (who immigrated to Belgium around seventeen years ago due to the Kosovo War), are only in their final stages of completion—nearly two decades later. That a family who lived in Belgium for more than fifteen years, learned the local languages, attended school, and contributed to society can be given notice to leave within a week is incomprehensible, and represents a total failure of the Belgian immigration registration system.
Cases like Karina’s rarely make it into the news. However, due to the ongoing Migrant Crisis and the 2015 Paris attacks, immigration is once again a hot topic across Europe. While Belgium has come under fierce international criticism for its immigration system due to its terribly slow speed and its inability to effectively deport migrants who raise concerns during the background checks, France’s proposed exclusionary citizenship laws go against Western Europe’s open and free movement principles. Despite being neighbours, Belgium and France present two opposite approaches. Belgium’s upcoming immigration reforms are nowhere near perfect, but the groundswell of support for France’s controversial new citizenship laws is unequivocally worse.
No other place encapsulates Belgium’s immigration failures like Molenbeek. A borough in Brussels where migrants comprise 70 to 80% of the population, Molenbeek has increasingly been connected to violent attacks, including the 2014 shooting at the Jewish museum in Brussels, the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, and the failed Thalys train attack in August 2015. By connecting these incidents to the November Paris attacks, the media has recently portrayed the area as a European exporter of Islamic radicalism. While this designation is overly harsh, the November 13th attackers did stay there prior to going to Paris. One of the attackers, Salah Abdelslam, also hid in Molenbeek after the Paris Attacks, when Belgian officials failed to capture him. By failing to deal with an extremist element at the heart of the European Union, the Belgian government was humiliated, and is now under considerable pressure to reassess its integration policies.
A side-effect of Belgium’s integration failures is an increase in militant xenophobia. Belgium is thousands of registration cases behind from incoming Syrian migrants who are gathering in public squares and temporary lodging until they can be processed. Paris made people afraid. Now, in an unprecedented move, paramilitary troops are patrolling major cities. As more and more migrants arrive seeking citizenship and xenophobic fears continue to spread, Belgian legislators are being pressured by their citizens to react—and quickly.
Despite the military on the streets, New Year's Eve celebrations being canceled in Brussels, and the media-induced fear over boroughs like Molenbeek, there is still hope for Belgium. People are demanding a faster and more efficient immigration processing system with more thorough background checks. Fedasil, the government agency responsible for immigration, is discussing changing the duration of the procedure for incoming migrants fleeing conflict in Syria. This potential change is the most radical attempt at immigration reform that Belgium has seen in the last thirty years. If implemented, thousands of refugees trying to register in Belgium will be able to start building a permanent life in the country within months instead of years. It would prevent disheartening cases like Karina’s.
While Belgium is in the process of updating its immigration and asylum procedures, its neighbour, France, is entering into a critical phase of reflection after a tragic 2015. President Francois Hollande announced in late November that his government would ask Congress to change the constitution to "better prepare the country for new forms of domestic terror." In the bill lies a highly controversial new law which would allow dual-nationals to have their French citizenship stripped if accused of crimes against the nation, somewhat similar to its Canadian counterpart, Bill C-24 .
A staggering 94% of the French population supports the initiative, which they feel would provide a strong deterrent to radicalization. However, the text is so polemical that some MPs within Hollande’s majority oppose the draft, which they claim proposes to "divide the [French] people between dual and uni-nationals". The Hollande government, however, denies these criticisms, arguing that they have no intention of dividing the French people, and that such a distinction would violate the UN Declaration on Rights and Freedoms of 1949, which France helped write, by creating stateless persons.
Others, like the acclaimed French Historian Anne Simoneau, stress the importance of a debate on citizens’ rights and duties. She suggests the re-establishment of ‘peines infamantes,’ sentences declared against French politicians for failing their civic duties by collaborating with the Nazis during the Occupation. Those punished under these rules did not become stateless, but they were made into second-class citizens deprived of major rights such as owning property, the freedom of professional practice, and the right to vote.
The debate surrounding the legal punishments for those involved with terrorism intensified when the dean of the sacred Académie Française, Jean d’Ormesson, publicly criticized the French PM on national television of "being radicalized." The 92 year old veteran, novelist and philosopher argues that having French civil rights or citizenship taken away may not mean much for those who are willing sacrifice their life for a cause. This begs the question: why and to whom does stripping people’s citizenship matter and what right does the government have to strip its citizens, dual or uni, of their citizenship? The Belgian case offers an alternative solution.
The ongoing crises Europe has experienced in 2015 are challenging French and Belgian nationals alike. The urgent need for reforms and a re-evaluation of the integration of non-Europeans on the old continent has never been this high. Europe's border security policies have already changed significantly in the span of a year. For better or worse, policies and legal texts are already evolving to respond to this urgency.
Is the safer route to overhaul a dysfunct immigration and integration system or to remove those who do not fulfil French "civic duties"? Either way, a conversation regarding what it means to be Belgian, French, or European, and how that corresponds to feeling safe, has opened up. In the coming decades, this debate’s policy outcomes will re-shape European immigration, and even more importantly, European integration.
Don’t be fooled: what happened in France in 2015 was tragic, but depending on the outcomes of these debates, legal changes in 2016 could be detrimental to people’s civil rights. The future of Europe should be based on stronger integration, not politically expedient exclusion.
*Name changed for privacy reasons