Luc Walleyn Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Humanitarian Law: Conversation with Luc Walleyn, Human Rights Lawyer; April 16, 2003, by Harry Kreisler

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Being a Lawyer

Before we talk about your work in international and immigration law, let's talk a little about being a lawyer, being somebody who does this kind of local and international law. What do you see as the skills, the prerequisites, for being able to do this work?

It's very important to have, first of all, a good contact with the clients. A lot of people have a lot of legal problems, even problems that they don't immediately analyze as legal problems, but just the problems of life. It's very important that you can see what the problems are really, and have a good contact with them and then help them to solve these problems. Very often there is a solution if you do your job in a good way.

So on the one hand, you need a broader picture of the context in which the person who comes to you is situated. On the other hand, you have to be able to communicate with them, because they may not know how to ask the right questions or understand their own situation.

Yes, that's right. A lot of our job is just consultation. Even without having a case in the courts, I have a lot of people just coming to have a talk on the problems they are facing and to see how these problems could be solved legally. Especially for migrants, a lot of people are in a situation without documents, for instance, even if in fact they could be in a condition to get regular rights or to get access to things. Sometimes it's not possible. But sometimes it is.

Has the make-up of this immigrant population changed considerably in the twenty-plus years since you've been practicing? Now they are from Turkey and Morocco, and so on; is that a change that you witnessed as you've been doing this work? Before were they other nationalities?

There is a change in the origins of the people, but there's also a change in these communities themselves -- very important. When I started as a lawyer in Brussels, the people from the first generation were workers, and a lot of them even couldn't speak French or Dutch, and were in a very difficult position. Today, you have a new generation. Some people from this first generation, well, they could make it. For instance, in the local administration of the part of Brussels where I'm living, an important part of the representatives in the local council are people issued from these communities. A lot of them are Belgian now, and I could witness, indeed, that transformation of a whole population.

Is the second and third generation more sensitive to their rights as they come to you in a way that previously was not the case?

The problem is, you have a kind of double evolution, because a part of the community, indeed, can quite seize the way they can get in the system, make business, buy houses, etc. And then you have another part, mainly young people, who fall out of the system, confronted with drugs, confronted with criminal behavior, etc. And that's a very important problem. These people feel themselves discriminated. But on the other hand, there is really no self-organization to get out of that, and it's a very important problem.

What percentage of the population of Brussels is this population that you're dealing with? Is it a small percentage or is it large?

It's a quite important population. From the Brussels population as a whole, probably one-third is from foreign origin. And in some areas, like the area where I'm living, it's half of the population.

In terms of the part of your work that deals with immigration law, is it fair to say that it's the work of defining their rights as citizens of Belgium, what they are entitled to, or will be entitled to as they become citizens? Or are they in a special category of people who really aren't citizens, don't plan to be, and are just there?

A lot of these people are citizens, and, in theory, they have all the same rights as the others. But they are still in an economic category where they do not have access, in practice, to the same educational possibilities, or to get jobs, etc. And you have, also, some racism in the Belgium population -- [especially] in the labor market. It is, indeed, a big problem.

Racism?

Yes. Because a lot of employers prefer to engage people of Belgian origin, and even perhaps to engage people [who are] new migrants rather than young people who've grown up in the streets in that kind of environment.

Give us an example of an important case related to these immigration matters. Let's just talk about immigration now in terms of securing rights for people. I'm curious as to how the people come to you and what a particular case would look like. Do the results have national implications for the country, so that by solving one person's plight, you reach a broader category of citizens?

An important case that I was handling was a case of an African girl who wasn't an asylum seeker (because a lot of cases are asylum cases), and she was expelled because they didn't believe her story. There were a lot of attempts to organize this deportation, because she was resisting.

Would she have been endangered if she had gone back to her own country, was that the argument?

She was pretending that she was forced to marry an older man. She really didn't want to go back, so she resisted to deportation. Finally, the police people put a pillow on her face and killed her doing so. So I was contacted by the Human Right League in Belgium, and of course, we lodged a complaint. There was an investigation anyway, but it was not easy to have police prosecuted for that. They are still not convicted. The initial intention of the prosecutor was just to prosecute the two men who were beside her, who put the pillow. But they were executing orders, and the officers were also there. So we tried to enlarge the debate and even a minister had to resign because of it. It started the debate on immigration policy and deportation policy.

In cases like this, is the media important for you as part of the side of the work that you're doing to call public attention to the problem before the court?

Very often the media is important, indeed. Of course, there are a lot of cases that are important and that don't have this media attention. And also in such cases you can sometimes succeed. But in some cases, indeed, it can be vital to have support from public opinion. And if you need that, you need the media.

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