ETHNIC TENSIONS AND VIOLENCE ROIL BELGIUM

Identifier: 
06BRUSSELS1670

UNCLAS BRUSSELS 001670

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV, KCRM, SOCI, BE
SUBJECT: ETHNIC TENSIONS AND VIOLENCE ROIL BELGIUM

REF: BRUSSELS 1417

1. Summary: Simmering ethnic and religious tensions
have recently come to the surface of Belgian political
and social life through a spate of racially motivated
attacks and the occupation of approximately 25 churches
by asylum seekers in Antwerp, Brussels, and Namur.
While it is not possible to read a casual connection
between the issues of violence and illegal immigration,
the correlation of these events is surprising for
normally peaceful Belgium. These events are
symptomatic of the continuing struggle to integrate a
diverse population of Belgium?s ?native? population and
an increasing presence of ?outsiders?.

Deadly Racist Attacks in Flanders:
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2. On a crowded street in Antwerp on the afternoon of
Thursday, May 11, an 18 year-old man shot and killed an
au pair from Mali, the Flemish toddler she was caring
for, and seriously wounded a Turkish woman sitting on a
nearby public bench. The accused was apprehended and
is quoted as saying that he wanted to kill foreigners
because of perceived slights received at the hands of
foreign children while in school. The assailant later
identified himself as a skinhead. The assailant?s aunt
is a member of the Flemish parliament for the right-
wing, nationalistic Vlaams Belang (VB) and VB
literature was found in his bedroom, though the VB has
stated that such violence is abhorrent to its goals and
conduct.

3. In a separate incident, on Wednesday, May 10 the
body of a 23 year-old Moroccan was pulled from the
river Schelde near Antwerp. After an altercation with
several white youths in a bar on April 30, the man was
pursued and either pushed or jumped into the river to
escape his pursuers and drowned. His family and
religious community protested that his death did not
cause an uproar similar to the death of a white Belgian
in April, Joe van Holsbeeck (see reftel). There was a
1,500 strong march on Friday, May 12 (in contrast to
the 80,000 strong march for van Holsbeeck) starting at
the mosque in Kiel which turned violent, resulting in
several Molotov cocktails being thrown at a local
police station and the destruction of a police van.

4. Yet a different racist attack occurred in Bruges in
the early morning hours of Sunday, May 7. Two men, a
white Belgian and a black Frenchman with roots from
Gabon, were attacked and severely beaten by five
skinheads. Both victims were hospitalized and the
foreigner still lies in a coma. The attack took place
near a known skinhead bar and the police were able to
apprehend the suspects at the bar. The police have
since released two of the apprehended, while the other
three have been remanded in custody. The skinhead bar
has temporarily closed its doors, upon the urging of
the mayor?s office.

5. On the evening of Monday, May 8 a burning cloth was
pushed into the mailbox of the house of a Moroccan
family in Heule, West Flanders. The family was awoken
by smoke and falling debris and all six escaped
unharmed. No suspects have been taken into custody.

Longstanding Turmoil over Undocumented Aliens Comes to
the Surface
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6. In contrast to the recent conflagration of violence
directed toward immigrants in Belgium, which is outside
the norm for Belgian social life, a longstanding
problem of how to deal with the many undocumented
aliens currently living illegally in Belgium has risen
again to the surface of the Belgian political
landscape. This controversy, which has been pushed to
the forefront of political debate in Belgium because
asylum seekers have begun a well-publicized occupation
of approximately 25, has involved bitter words
exchanged between some politicians and leaders of the
Catholic Church in Belgium. The continued occupation
of churches has forced the Verhofstadt administration
to attempt the streamlining of the asylum application
process. There is broad support for the asylum seekers
beyond the narrower debate between the government and
the Belgian Catholic hierarchy and, indeed, the
Catholic bishops have found a rare point of agreement
between them and popular Belgian sentiment.

Comment:
--------

7. Before the recent convulsions of violence in
Belgium, one of the hottest political issues was the
occupation of churches by those demanding amnesty.
The shocking violence in Flanders ? to which the
Belgians are plainly not accustomed ? has now surpassed
the occupation issue in importance. In any discussion
of immigration or racism in Flanders, mention of the
right-wing, nationalistic Vlaams Belang (VB) ? the
largest political party in Flanders ? cannot be
avoided. Even though the party has been kept out of
power by an agreement of the other political parties,
it is in a sense the most important Belgian political
party. The other parties must react to VB?s continued
incremental gains and massive popular support. Some of
the other parties have been quick to blame what they
see as the racist rhetoric of the VB as the root cause
of the recent attacks, especially the emotionally
wrenching episode of the toddler and her babysitter in
Antwerp, and hope that the recent violence will signal
an ebbing of support for the VB. One of the VB?s
primary electoral tools, the issue of security, stands
to be weakened significantly because of a perception of
the relation between the VB and the recent surge in
violence. A VB advertising campaign on security, for
instance, which pictured a little girl who looks
startlingly similar to the toddler shot in Antwerp, has
been scrapped in the VB?s effort to distance itself
from the recent violence which is so uncharacteristic
for Belgium. Polls show that a majority of Flemings do
not hold the VB morally responsible for the recent
violence but that may change if more violence is to
follow. END COMMENT
KOROLOGOS