Rights Court Turns Away Syrian Refugees Seeking Belgian Visas

A ruling against Belgium would have had far-reaching implications for countries signed on to the European Convention on Human Rights.

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. (Photo via CherryX/Wikipedia)

STRASBOURG, France (CN) — In a closely watched case involving asylum seekers, the European Court of Human Rights found Tuesday that Belgium isn’t obligated to give humanitarian visas to Syrian refugees. 

In 2016, the Belgian government rejected the visa application of a Syrian couple and their two children, who ultimately wanted to apply for asylum to escape the armed conflict in Aleppo. The family had no formal connection to Belgium, though a family friend had agreed to host them once they arrived. 

The couple applied for the visa at the Belgian embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, and appealed their rejection to Belgium’s Council of Alien Law Litigation, which handles disputes over immigration procedures. The council disagreed with the rejection and ordered the immigration office to issue visas. 

Theo Francken, then-secretary for asylum and migration in Belgium, intervened in the process and refused to issue the visas. The far-right politician was later fined by a Belgian court for interfering in the case. 

The family’s appeals were successful and they filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights alleging a violation of the 1953 European Convention on Human Rights, which created the Strasbourg-based court.

“The Belgian state has deliberately refused to respect a whole series of judgments,” Olivier Stein, a lawyer representing the family, told the 17-judge panel during a hearing last year.

The family argued that Belgium had violated the prohibition of torture or inhumane treatment by leaving them in a war zone, as well as violating their right to an effective remedy and fair trial. 

The fundamental question in the case is whether the family falls under the jurisdiction of the convention. The Court of Human Rights has ruled in previous cases that the rights afforded in the convention extend beyond just state nationals living within territories that are parties to the agreement. 

In the 2011 case Al-Skeini and Others v. the United Kingdom, the court found that relatives of Iraqi civilians killed by British soldiers in Iraq in 2003 fell within the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom. But it also found in Banković and Others v. Belgium and Others that a complaint brought by six victims of NATO bombing in Belgrade during the Kosovo War was not admissible because the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, where the victims were living, was not a party to the treaty. 

The court ruled against the Syrian refugees on Tuesday, finding that the “mere fact that an applicant brings proceedings in a state party with which he has no connecting tie cannot suffice to establish that state’s jurisdiction over him.” 

“The court considers that to find otherwise would amount to enshrining a near‑universal application of the convention on the basis of the unilateral choices of any individual, irrespective of where in the world they find themselves, and therefore to create an unlimited obligation on the contracting states to allow entry to an individual who might be at risk of ill-treatment contrary to the convention outside their jurisdiction,” the ruling states.

The case would have had far-reaching implications for European countries if the court had decided the family was under the jurisdiction of Belgium. Belgium was supported in the case by 11 other European countries, including France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

Some 5 million people have fled Syria for other countries during the Syrian Civil War, which started in 2011. The majority, around 3.5 million people, are now in Turkey, but an estimated 500,000 have arrived in the European Union. 

Another European court, the Court of Justice, rejected the advice of its magistrate and ruled in 2017 that EU member states are not obligated to grant visas to people whose ultimate goal is asylum.

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