Belgium asylum row: Bailiffs threaten minister's furniture

Belgian Immigration Minister Theo Francken squats in an empty office after he claims bailiffs took furniture over his refusal to pay fines relating to the case of the Syrian family (image from Facebook) Image copyright Theo Francken
Image caption Immigration Minister Theo Francken posted an image on Facebook suggesting that his office had been stripped of furniture by bailiffs intervening in the row

Belgium's immigration minister joked that bailiffs had removed his office furniture after he failed to pay a court-imposed fine for refusing to grant asylum to a Syrian family.

Theo Francken posted an image of an empty office on Facebook, although it soon emerged nothing had been taken.

The Syrian family, who live in the war-ravaged Syrian city of Aleppo, were granted visas by a Belgian tribunal.

They have been offered food and lodging by friends in Namur (Namen).

Mr Francken argues the family's links to Belgium are weak and he will not open the door to "asylum chaos".

The minister has refused to pay fines of €4,000 (£3,600 ; $4,450) per day - a total bill now said to have surpassed €30,000.

He was handed a letter by bailiffs on Monday and posted a picture of an empty party office on Facebook on Wednesday.

"With or without furniture we carry on working," he said. "My team and I can always request political asylum anyway in the office of my good colleague and friend, (Interior Minister) Jan Jambon," he joked.

A spokeswoman later told the BBC that no furniture had yet been taken although the threat existed. The ministry was appealing against both the fine and the ruling, she said.

The family seeking asylum includes two children of five and eight and has the support of a Belgian family who have promised to pay for all their costs.

The family of four live in Aleppo, which has seen years of bombardment and fighting between the government and rebels, and their home is said to have been destroyed.

Image copyright AP
Image caption At least 100,000 children are said to be stuck in the middle of the fighting in Aleppo

The father left the city in August to travel to Beirut in neighbouring Lebanon to apply for asylum at the Belgian consulate. Reports said he did not want to subject his family to the risk of people smugglers and a dangerous Mediterranean crossing.

"The (court) has said their situation is exceptional," said their lawyer, Mieke Van den Broeck. "This is really urgent for us: the situation in Aleppo is getting worse. There's an offensive under way, and we've lost contact with our clients."

The lawyer accused Mr Francken of trampling on Belgium's separation of judicial and government powers. "He's actually playing with our clients' lives and with Belgian tax money."

But Mr Francken, who is a member of the centre-right New Flemish Alliance, countered that the family should have applied for refuge in Lebanon itself, and that courts should not set asylum policy.

"I am elected to serve the public interest and will continue to do so," Mr Francken said, insisting that Belgium had already welcomed refugees but did not support granting the family a home in this case.

If he did let the family in, he argued, then he would have to send every Syrian a three-month visa, even if they had no connection with Belgium.

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