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Mechelen city councillor suspected of selling visas to refugees
A city councillor in Mechelen has been arrested on charges of human trafficking and extortion in connection with selling humanitarian visas to refugees. The explosive accusations against Melikan Kucam (N-VA) were confirmed by the public prosecutor on a special edition of the investigative news programme Pano.
Humanitarian visas are granted to people fleeing the most extreme conflict situations and all are approved by the migration state secretary. Often they are granted through the help of organisations, such as the Rome-based Sant’Egidio, which has chapters in 70 countries around the world, including Belgium.
About 150 people have received humanitarian-based visas to relocate to Belgium through a co-operation among Sant-Egidio, Caritas International and local religious organisations. According to Pierter Wieërs of the local chapter of Sant-Egidio, this usually entails getting families out of heavily bombarded conflict zones, such as Aleppo. “These are people who have had to leave literally everything behind or with serious health problems.”
The organisation and its partners interview potential candidates, assess who is the most in need and then submit a request for a humanitarian visa to the government. No money is exchanged in the process.
But while Sant-Egidio has supported 150 successful humanitarian visa applications, many more are approved in Belgium, and the number increases every year. In 2017, 2,360 humanitarian visas were approved, while in 2016 the number was 1,182, and in 2015, it was 843.
This is because of the policies of Theo Francken, the migration secretary before N-VA walked out of the federal government last month. He emphasised the importance of humanitarian visas, particularly for persecuted Christians in Muslim countries.
The city of Mechelen is home to some 3,000 Christians from the Middle East. Following a tip, Pano uncovered a structured process of exchanging money for humanitarian visas. “Everyone knows about it,” an anonymous source told Pano, “but nobody wants to do anything about it.”
Pano eventually discovered that Antwerp’s public prosecutor was already investigating the situation. Together they released the results yesterday evening: city councillor Kucam was the key figure behind the scheme.
Formerly a CD&V politician, Kucam (pictured above) is now a member of N-VA. Previously an accountant, he now sits on Mechelen’s city council and is also the chair of a social housing assocation. He originally comes from Syria, which made it easier for him to set up a syndicate of people to take part in the visa scheme.
Some of the refugees who paid for the residency permits had no idea they were involved in an illegal activity. They thought they were paying fees associated with the paperwork. Others were well aware they were using a back-door to getting family safely out of Syria.
According to witnesses, they paid anywhere from €2,000 to more than €10,000, depending on their means or supply and demand. One witness said that there were even bidding wars, families offering higher and higher sums in order to “get on the list”.
Foreigners who threatened to report the scheme to the authorities were threatened with deportation. “Melikan Kucam is the key figure in this system,” said an anonymous source. “He abuses the church, the community and also the refugees for his own profit.”
Many witnesses confirmed that Kucam was at the head of the syndicate. “He simply abuses his position and his power,” said a city worker. “He is well known in the community; he has a certain status.”
Kucam and Francken were friends, though there is no evidence that Francken knew anything about the scheme. “I am shocked and very upset,” he told Pano. “It’s such a beautiful initiative, to help Christians flee the IS, and that is what we did, with the full consensus of the government.”
Should the allegations against Kucam be proven, “then I have no words for this, I would feel completely used,” said Francken. He said he “could not even imagine” that anyone in his cabinet was involved in the scheme. “I trust my people 100%.”
Photo: Melikan Kucam/Facebook