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Issue Date:  February 17, 2006

Belgian, French bishops advocate for illegal residents


With the question of immigration at the forefront of political concerns in Europe, French and Belgian governmental authorities have issued public warnings that aiding illegal residents is a criminal offense. Bishops in the two countries responded to the warnings, siding with illegal immigrants.

Speaking to the Flemish newspaper De Morgen Jan. 26, Bishop Paul Van den Berghe of Antwerp, called for a “humane amnesty” for illegal residents. “Numerous persons without residence permit are practically integrated [into our society], they have learned our language, and send their children to our schools,” he said. Expelling them would be wrong, he said. He said he would support illegal residents in Antwerp. For three and a half months, illegal residents have occupied St. Boniface Catholic Church in the center of Brussels, the Belgian capital.

Belgian Minister of Interior Patrick Dewael reacted to Van den Berghe’s comments with “disappointment.” In an open letter sent to the bishop Jan. 31, he wrote: “Should I then, as you suggest, regularize people for whom a support committee has mobilized and expel from our borders those for whom nobody [spoke up]?” Dewael also warned that regularizing illegal residents would cause “a flood of paupers” from around the world into Belgium.

Earlier, in France, Bishop Jean-Paul Jaeger of Arras, wrote to the French Minister of Interior Nicolas Sarkozy, to protest the closing of a refugee center in Sangatte, in northern France. The Red Cross camp, which is used as a staging post for asylum seekers entering Britain, stopped taking new admissions in November as part of a joint British-French initiative to clampdown on illegal immigration.

“I am astonished at seeing the Republic behave as though [refugees and illegal immigrants] do not exist,” Jaeger wrote, accusing the “national community” of abandoning its responsibility and tradition of providing hospitality to migrants and refugees.

Sarkozy responded to the bishop by acknowledging the situation was “not satisfactory,” but vowed to ease the situation “by fighting against the criminal channels that lure migrants into the dead end of illegal immigration.”

Sarkozy has proposed allowing “selective” immigration for persons who would pledge to return to their home countries after receiving education or job training in France and a financial means test for legal immigrants who want to bring family members into France.

Marc Mazgon-Fernandes is a freelance writer based in Brussels, Belgium.

National Catholic Reporter, February 17, 2006

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