Belgium's tough migrant minister 'Maggie' is rising political star

21st May 2014, Comments 0 comments

As divided Belgium heads into elections this weekend, one of the rare politicians to unite its Dutch-speaking north and French south is tough-talking Maggie De Block, its supersize immigration minister.

Few Belgians had heard of De Block a couple of years ago, but today she is the country's most popular politician, her name associated with an increasingly tough asylum-seeker policy.

It has not all been smooth sailing, however, with the folksy minister attacked both for her policies, judged by some as populist and uncaring, and physical appearance.

Softly spoken yet determined, she laughs off unkind comments.

"I know I am not a model -- but you have to see what's inside, not the packaging," the 50-year-old from northern Dutch-speaking Flanders once told Belgium's Le Soir newspaper.

Indications are that Belgian voters are doing just that, with her "tough-but-fair" comments on asylum-seekers and common sense support for Belgian unity winning support across the linguistic divide slicing the country in two.

Her ability to transcend those often bitter divisions in a country that has no national parties means she is seen even as prime ministerial material.

While she does not dwell on how cartoonists portray her, De Block says overweight male politicians -- she notably cites former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl -- do not face the same ridicule.

De Block was also mocked shortly after taking on the job of Secretary of State for Immigration and Asylum in 2011, when she said she did not know much about her portfolio responsibilities and that she was given the job "to her great astonishment."

But from a tentative start, she has become both a valued member of the ruling coalition led by Socialist Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo, and an asset to her own party, the Open Flemish Liberals and Democrats (Open VLD).

- 'Truth-talking' -

A doctor by background, De Block won a seat in the federal parliament in 1999 after winning the support of former liberal premier Guy Verhofstadt.

Handed the politically sensitive immigration portfolio in the Di Rupo government, she soon made her mark by using what she called "truth-talking" to address the public administration's inability to cope with huge numbers of asylum-seekers.

De Block says she inherited a department struggling under the weight of applications, with the Belgian state forced to house many asylum-seekers in hotels.

Under her watch, the annual number of requests fell almost 50 percent from 27,000 to 15,000, with authorities processing files more quickly.

Meanwhile she ensured expulsion orders were carried out without delay, including those involving the very controversial deportation of unsuccessful asylum-seekers from war-torn Afghanistan.

And when potential deportees responded with hunger strikes, the minister remained unmoved, saying she would not be influenced by "blackmail."

This intransigence put De Block on a collision course with human rights advocates, and just this week specialist HIV doctors accused her of sentencing HIV-positive deportees to a certain death from lack of treatment in their homelands.

Yet her stance has made her popular with voters while she has defended her decisions on the grounds she needed to be "human" but also "correct and consistent" in exercising her executive responsibilities.

She points out that Belgium has granted asylum to 95 percent of all Syrian applicants, while remaining tough on those she argues have applied for asylum for economic, rather than political reasons.

Rightly or wrongly, the Belgian media have warmed to her -- she recently participated in a handbag-throwing competition, much to the delight of those covering her campaign.

As for the future, De Block says she advocates "a strong Flanders, in a strong Belgium, in a strong Europe," and says splitting the country along language lines as advocated by Flemish separatists "will not improve our welfare."

© 2014 AFP

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