Police deployed tear gas and water cannons as clashes involving 5,500 protesters broke out in Brussels on Sunday. A minority of the demonstrators became violent when they were asked to leave, and began throwing paving stones, street furniture and firecrackers at security forces. Riot police closed off wide streets in the city centre and confronted some protesters who had broken off from the initial gathering. The demonstrators were marching against a UN migration pact signed in Marrakech last week, which is aimed at fostering cooperation in migration, to ensure safe and orderly migration and uphold the rights of migrants around the world. Flemish right-wing parties had called the march, which took place in the part of the capital where major EU institutions are located.
The agreement has been criticised by conservative and far-right voices who say it threatens national sovereignty, by possibly leading to an increase in immigration. The Belgian right-wing party, N-VA, who are the biggest party in parliament, last week pulled its ministers from the ruling coalition after Prime Minister Charles Michel refused its demand that he not sign the UN pact. A large parliamentary majority in favour of Belgium’s support of the text was secured, including support from opposition socialist and green parties. Some protesters were calling for Mr Michel to resign, and accused politicians of ignoring the ‘will of the people.’ The U.S., who hasn’t signed the pact, has labelled it as ‘an effort by the UN to advance global governance at the expense of the sovereign right of states.’
The air is thick with tension, with demonstrators bearing slogans including ‘Our people first’ and ‘We have had enough, close the borders.’ The local authorities had initially banned the protest, for fear of violence erupting, however Belgium’s high court overturned the ban, citing the right to protest peacefully. Although peaceful protests can be an effective way at ensuring voices are heard, those which turn violent can threaten the peace and disrupt the peaceful exchange of opposing opinions. However, as the Belgium nationalist party has quit in protest at the signing of the UN migration pact, further protests could happen as there are no representatives left in parliament to represent the opinions of protesters.
The UN ‘Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration’ was agreed to in July, by all 193 UN members apart from the US. 164 members formally signed it at the meeting last Monday. A number of European states have refused to formally adopt the agreement, which is non-binding, including Italy, Austria, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. The pact aims to create a global approach to migration and was initially supported by all four parties in Belgium’s coalition.
With a record 21.3 million refugees globally, the UN began work on the pact after more than 1 million people arrived in Europe in 2015, many fleeing civil war in Syria and poverty in Africa. Other nations and rights organizations are remaining upbeat and feel that the pact can help the world better cope with the issue. Francesco Rocca from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) told Al Jazeera that it was a concern that important countries in terms of economic influence weren’t present to sign the pact. ‘The GCM is very clear as it has no interference in internal policies or laws but only preserving the dignity of human beings. Anyone who has good faith should have agreed to this pact.’ The pact is not legally binding, and according to the UN, seeks an international approach to migration, that ‘reaffirms the sovereign rights of states to determine their national migration policy’ and asserts the ‘fundamental’ importance of legal migration. Europe-wide tensions on migration are increasing, and there needs to be further discussion to balance what people of the country need with an approach to the rising number of refugees around the world, whilst always protecting the human rights of both groups of people.