Iraqi Refugee Detained in Belgium for Assault After Saving Girl From Drowning

An attempt to save a child who thought she was drowning landed the man in a closed detention facility, and provoked an outcry in the city of Koksijde and in the media.

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Mayor of Koksijde Marc Vanden Bussche, center, at a press conference on January 25, 2016. The city council was contemplating preventing migrants from entering the local swimming pool.
Koksijde Mayor Vanden Bussche, center, at a press conference, on Jan. 25, 2016. The city was contemplating preventing migrants from entering the local swimming pool.Credit: AFP

A municipal swimming pool in the Belgian city of Koksijde has become a symbol in recent days of mounting xenophobia and racism in the country and further afield, in Europe. Members of the municipal council convened on Monday to discuss barring refugees from entering the pool, “for fear of the continued sexual harassment of women and children.”

The story began last weekend when a young Iraqi man, who lives in an immigrant absorption facility in a former military camp on the outskirts of Koksijde, was arrested by policemen who were summoned to a local swimming pool. The reason for the arrest was a suspicion that the young man had assaulted and tried to commit an indecent act on a 10-year-old girl.

After an initial investigation, the 23-year-old man was transferred, on order of the government ministry responsible for the absorption of foreigners, to a closed facility, a type of detention center for asylum seekers who are candidates for expulsion.

The minister in charge of refugees in the Belgian government is Theo Francken, a member of the New Flemish Alliance, a nationalist party whose platform supports imposing harsh constraints on the absorption of migrants.

Newspapers in Belgium provided broad coverage of the alleged indecent act and emotions have been running high. The newspaper De Morgen added another angle to the story on Tuesday. Its reporters interviewed the parents of the girl who was “assaulted” and heard from them, to their surprise, that the couple did not even submit a complaint to the police. They said that the young man had tried to help their daughter, who started screaming when she thought she was drowning. It was the lifeguard who called in the police, and they arrested the refugee after the girl and her parents had left the pool.

Other witnesses confirmed the family’s version of events to the journalists, but despite their reports in De Morgen, the ministry responsible for immigrant absorption and the police announced that the investigation is continuing and the Iraqi man will remain in the closed facility until its conclusion.

For Marc Vanden Bussche, the Flemish mayor of Koksijde, located on the shores of the North Sea, this incident proved he was right: From the first moment, he had opposed the influx of refugees in his city, and when he was forced by the federal government to accept them, he demanded that the local police force be permitted to carry out daily inspections and searches (“equipped with flak jackets,” he emphasized to the local media) in the immigrant centers. In the case of there being a suspicion of even the most minor infraction on the part of a refugee – like taking a stroll outside the absorption center without an “identification tag” – the mayor demanded that the suspect be detained for up to 12 hours.

In advance of the meeting of the Koksijde city council there was a public discussion of the refugee subject. In addition to reports of the incident, the media cited warnings by the country's equal opportunity authority, human rights organizations and jurists that the suggestion to forbid foreigners from going to the pool would violate the law.

The municipality’s legal advisers agreed with that claim, and the council made do with demanding that migrants undergo “instruction” with respect to the norms of behavior at the site, and that instructions to that end be prepared in Arabic.

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