Belgium: Children, Not Criminals

The Belgian Government is being hypocritical in its attempt to curb illegal immigration, putting in danger children’s mental and physical development.


BRUSSELS-- In spite of many previous condemnations, in 2018, Belgium opened a new immigration detention center to house families, including children, accused of illegally immigrating to Belgium. The Belgian Government argues that the new centers are adapted to children's’ needs, thus curtailing the mental and physical danger of prolonged closed detention. Others, however, including Human Right activist argue that the dangers are still there and more present than ever. In all, the shift to reopen a detention center despite previously failed efforts highlights a hypocrisy brewing in Brussels based on anti-immigration rhetoric and disregard for facts.


In 2009, after three condemnations by the European Court of Human Rights, the Belgian Government stopped detaining families in closed detention centers. The European Court accused Belgium of violating Article 3, prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment, of the European Convention on Human Rights. As well as exposing children to physical and psychological mistreatment with long-term negative effects on their physical and psychological health. However, in November 2011, Belgium introduced a law that permits the admission of families with children in closed detention centers, as long as those centers “were adaptable to their needs”.


Seven years after promulgating this new law, a new center named “127bis” opened its doors. To comply with the new law, the new detention center included brand-new houses, modern equipment, educational lessons and activities for children. Despite the new amenities, the detention center still poses a physical and psychological trauma for children. A point brought forward by organizations like Amnesty International, UNICEF, and even Mrs. Dunja Mijatovic, the European Commissioner for Human Rights.


The physical and psychological traumas children can develop by continued exposure to detention centers have been widely researched. Dr. Julian G. Simmons and his team of researchers at the University of Melbourne have provided insight to the life-long effects on a child’s exposure to immigration centers and activities that can occur while detained like sexual assault, family separation, environmental deprivation, and forced relocation. According to Dr. Simmons and his team, the brain develops responses to stressful situations throughout life. A child’s brain, because it is still in development, is the most vulnerable and at risk of developing psychological disorders due to alterations or increases in the “stress” hormone (cortisol). In other words, the more children are exposed to stressful situations early on, the higher chances of increased cortisol in their systems which can lead to prolonged psychological disorders. This disruption of stress level and its subsequent response is also seen in patients with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).


Likewise, UNICEF has also warned of the danger immigration centers pose to children. In a published paper, it reveals how, before the age of 6 years old, children go through development phases that are vital for the future. Exposure to obstacles like barbed wires, a rupture with the school system and deprivation of activities, intimacy, and movements induce the risk of regression and of developing psychopathological disorders.


Finally, Dr. Paulette De Backer, a Belgian pediatric who recently visited the new center, expressed her concern about the new arrivals, noting the lack of short or long-term psychological support available. Her observations indicate that the children already started to experience rejection and are distrustful towards adults, after being detained for only a few days.


All in all, the “appropriateness of housing conditions” is a bleak argument utilized to keep migrants under close watch. The deception that the 127bis represents is even more blatant when one takes into account the harsh immigration policy Belgium has recently put in place. 


What’s more, the shift to open the “adaptable” detention centers seems rather paradoxical for a country who was recently selected as a non-permanent member of the UNSC. And whose main argument ( to be voted into the UNSC) was “[the promotion of] civil protection and [to] diminish the impacts of conflicts on children” and it promised to strive throughout its mandate to achieve this objective. 


From a legal perspective despite its national law and the center’s adapted facilities, Belgium’s 2011 law violates EU and International law, questioning the integrity of these laws. Belgium’s 2011 law challenges, among others, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention notably states that “the interest of the Child is a primary consideration”, while detention should remain a measure of “last resort” in criminal juvenile justice. A premise the Belgian government is disregarding in the present case. 


In a decade when children’s living conditions keep deteriorating, it is time for the Belgian government to act accordingly to the image it tries to vehiculate on the international stage, a protector of children’s rights, to avoid losing credibility. It must start weighing in the short-term benefits it expects to gain in its fight against illegal immigration against the long-term detrimental consequences of its actions on the most vulnerable ones, someday to be future millennials. 



Pascale Budzinski briefs from Brussels, Belgium. She holds a Master of Arts in Translation, specialized in International Affairs from the Université catholique de Louvain.

Connect with her via LinkedIn.  


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