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Centre for Education and International Development (CEID), IOE


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The perfect immigration policy? ‘Educate’ children of migrants to pull up the drawbridge

By CEID Blogger, on 4 October 2023

By Yousef Abdul Atti

Imagine you are sitting at home one day, inside a plot of land within the borders of the country you call home. The country where all your friends, your family, your memories lie. It is not really a flag, an anthem, it may not be a language, however there is a soul within the place you call home. But the inability to provide for your family’s economic needs is eating you up, the very same land that you call home, that is supposed to be a source of provision for you, is working against you. The lands that you once tended to with your very own hands, where you constructed your house, grew your garden, played with your friends are simply another tool in the arsenal of the unjust to oppress you. Your freedoms and those of your loved ones are slowly vanishing before your eyes. What do you do? You have no choice. You must leave the place that houses all your memories. You must embark on a difficult journey to find a new home.

If you are a migrant, a refugee, an asylum seeker, or a forcibly displaced person, you do not have to imagine. You live this reality. If you are Syrian, Venezuelan, Afghan, South Sudanese, or Burmese, countries from where 70% of the world’s forcibly displaced persons originate, chances are you do not have to imagine. Perhaps not all of your countrymen and women are migrants or displaced. Some may have become naturalized citizens in their host countries, providing for their families, helping their host communities, schooling their children. Others may even have ‘friends in high places’ or have reached those high places themselves. If you required their assistance, wouldn’t you expect your fellow nationals to understand? As migrants, should we not go together if we want to go far? Although it may seem too much to ask for assistance from others, wouldn’t you expect for them to at least not stand in your way, not be the reason why you cannot seek out a better future for you and your family?

The father of Sammy Mahdi was a political refugee from Iraq who was granted asylum in Belgium as he fled prosecution from the tyrannical regime of Saddam Hussein. His son, Mahdi, a ‘born-and-bred Brusselaar’ became, on October 1, 2020, the Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration. Calling himself ‘Barack Obama’, one of his first announced goals in office was to increase the percentage of deportations from Belgium; the 2020 figure of 18%, in Mahdi’s opinion, was too low in comparison to Germany’s 35%. In the wake of the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul in August 2021, six EU countries, including Belgium, cautioned against blocking deportations of Afghan asylum seekers. Out of the six countries, it was Mahdi who shored up the EU initiative against criticism by stating, ‘that regions of a country are not safe does not mean that each national of that country automatically is entitled to protection.’

It is no surprise that at the start of his posting, accusations surfaced that Mahdi was specifically targeting Iraqi refugees, prompting the Iraqi Minister of Immigration and Displacement to invite the Belgian ambassador for talks regarding the matter. What is interesting is that Mahdi invokes his migratory background in political speeches proclaiming that ‘migration always is emotion’ and he asserts that his father’s journey affected everyone, his family, his community, and even Iraq and Belgium.

So how come someone from a disadvantaged background ends up perpetuating the same structures that cause those disadvantages? Mahdi answers by affirming that he only wants to ‘represent…the Belgian community…based on a shared cultural background.’ He makes sure to note that he does not want to be another ‘Token Ali’. It is not entirely clear how Mahdi interprets this so-called shared cultural background.   Mahdi’s own education was directed and constructed in a specific manner. His father refused to teach him Arabic, and, according to Mahdi, raised him up to be anti-communitarian. Yet Mahdi apparently aligns himself with the same humanist values as his alma mater, Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUD), where he regularly shares his insights on migration, diversity and integration through social projects and guest speaking.

VUD is also the alma mater of the current prime minister of Belgium. Other alumni include Zuhal Demir, the daughter of Turkish migrants and former chair of integration in the Flemish government, and now the current  European Vice-President of climate; and Nadia Sminate, a Moroccan-Belgian and current member of the Belgian chamber of representatives, the Secretary of the Flemish Parliament, and the Mayor of Londerzeel. Sminate, who celebrated the dismantlement of Unia, a Belgian public institution ‘that fights discrimination and promotes equal opportunities’. She is a keen advocate for ‘Dutch integration’, saying ‘I see far too often people here who are given rights, but too little see the need to set obligations in return’ because they do not speak Dutch. However, what is most telling with regard to how just one educational institution, VUD, constructs the ‘desirable migrant’ is how Demir & Sminate, despite their ‘culturally alien’ origins, have now become authorities on the mentorship of migrants in their constituencies, creating more obstacles and removing opportunities for them. In fact, Sminate was the chair for the Resolution of the Radicalization Committee in 2021, which produced a proposal that was approved by Demir, who was Minister of Justice and Enforcement in the Flemish Government at the time.

Mahdi’s understanding of education appears to exert great influence on his policies. He notes that the difference in performance between students with and without an immigrant background in Belgium is one of the largest in the world, yet he comes to the conclusion that the solution is to educate all the citizens.

On 14 June 2022, The Brussels Labour Court found Mahdi guilty of violating the asylum seekers’ right to reception.

Mahdi’s response to the court order

On 27 June 2022 he was forced to step down as Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration in the Belgian Cabinet. Not because of his indictment by the Belgian Court, but because he was elected as president of the CD&V party, the same party that graduated the majority of prime ministers of Belgium and to which the first full president of the European Council belonged.

As these cases show, when done effectively, the education system can construct the desirable migrant subject, who in turn acts as a gatekeeper to other aspiring ‘desirables’.

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