Bilzen building damaged by arson will still be an asylum centre, says state secretary

Summary

Acting migration secretary Maggie De Block says that the building someone set fire to in the ongoing protest against it becoming an asylum centre will still fulfil its purpose, sooner or later

‘You don’t set someone’s house on fire’

The building in Bilzen that was damaged by arson fire early last week will still become an asylum centre, according to federal migration secretary Maggie De Block (Open VLD). The fire was purposely set, according to police, to prevent the centre – meant to open next month – from moving in to the neighbourhood.

Previous to the fire, neighbourhood residents in the Limburg city of about 30,000 had hung signs of protest on the property – previously a rest home – and staged demonstrations. They said that they found a residence for 130 asylum-seekers was too large for their city.

A fire damaged part of the building (pictured) on 10 November, and police soon announced that it had been purposely set. A firestorm of controversy erupted among politicians and on social media.

Lax immigration policies?

N-VA, which held the migration secretary post before walking out of the federal government coalition (over a migration issue) last year, blames acting minister De Block for lax immigration policies. De Block’s party, meanwhile, blames the rise of the Vlaams Belang for emboldening the far right.

“Using violence to communicate your own opinions is political terrorism,” said diversity minister Bart Somers on Terzake. A debate between Vlaams Belang MP Filip Dewinter and Somers – who won the World Mayor Prize in 2017 for his initiatives to integrate refugees into Mechelen, where he was mayor – erupted later in parliament.

Dewinter called Somers a “political opportunist” who was trying to “silence every democratic, well-meaning, peaceful protest against asylum centres and mass immigration, with all of its burdensome consequences.” He then went on to call Somers a “political arsonist, who wants to criminalise all forms of protest”.

If we give in to this pressure, it’s like surrendering. We cannot let that happen.

- Migration secretary Maggie De Block

“Shameless,” Somers replied. “Our western values are in dispute, our way of life is being threatened. By people like you. People who have done nothing with their political careers other than sew hate, ramp up fear and turn people against each other. When people in Flanders ask why no one wants to work with your party, you have given that answer here today.”

Meanwhile, some comments on social media were so shocking and threatening that police are investigating them as possible hate crimes.

De Block announced at the weekend that the building was still destined to become an asylum centre. It can no longer open next month, but she hopes it will be ready by January.

“If we give in to this pressure, it’s like surrendering,” she said on the news programme De Zevende Dag. “We cannot let that happen. You don’t set someone’s house on fire. We can have a difference of opinion, you can say that you don’t want anything to do with these people. But you cannot burn their house down. It stops here and now.”

Photo: Virginie Lefour/BELGA