Africa: Belgium Apologises for Kidnapping African Mixed-Race Children

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Belgium flag.

About 20,000 children born to Belgian settlers and African women in the 1940s and 1950s were forcibly taken to Belgium until the independence of each of its three colonies. Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel has apologised for these kidnappings and the subsequent treatment of these children.

The métis children (a person of mixed indigenous and European or American ancestry) born to Belgian settlers and women from Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda during colonial rule were kidnapped in terms of Belgium's racial segregation policy.

The director of the Belgian Association of Métis, Francois Milliex, who was brought to Belgium under this very policy, told Radio France Internationale Afrique, "These children posed a problem. To minimise the problem, they kidnapped these children, starting at the age of two, and placed them in boarding schools that were cut off from both the European and African world. So they were in a kind of cocoon to ensure they had relations with no one."

He also added that Belgium feared these children may incite a revolt once they came of age, as was the case in the Canadian Red River Rebellion of 1869 to 1870, and that they would demand equal privileges to Europeans.

"The presence of these métis children in the villages was also seen as a blow to the white race and so they decided to keep these children out of sight of the natives," explains Assumani Budagwa, the author of "Black-Whites, Métis - Belgium and the segregation of the Métis of the Belgian Congo and Ruanda".

The majority of these children were brought up in isolated Catholic institutions or orphanages by priests or nuns away from family and often away from their country of origin.

He explained that once the colonies began to seek independence, Catholic missions, especially in Ruanda-Urundi (which became Rwanda and Burundi), worried about the welfare of the children post-independence. "The Belgian government and the missionaries believed that these children would be subjected to major problems by the local population if they stayed on in these independent countries. And so they brought some 1 000 children... to be adopted, raised in boarding schools or to live amongst foster families."

Initially all métis children were granted Belgian nationality but this was later revoked, forcing many of them to engage with authorities to buy back their nationality. Those who could not afford it remained stateless.

Belgium's apology

In February, the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent advised in a preliminary report that Belgium should apologise for its colonial past. The group stated that the continued discrimination could be attributed to the failure of the country to come to terms with its past. "We urge the government to issue an apology for the atrocities committed during colonisation," the report stated.

It added: "There is clear evidence that racial discrimination is endemic in institutions in Belgium. The root causes of present-day human rights violations lie in the lack of recognition of the true scope of the violence and injustice of colonisation."

The Guardian newspaper reported that Prime Minister Charles Michel found the working groups findings "very strange". Despite this, he issued a formal apology during a plenary session at the Belgian Parliament in Brussels in the presence of some of the affected group.

"On behalf of the federal government, I recognise the targeted segregation and policy of forced abductions of the métis during the colonial rule over Belgian Congo and Ruanda-Urundi," he said.

"In the name of the federal government, I apologise to the métis from the period of Belgian colonisation and to their families for the injustices and suffering they went through."

He also expressed "compassion for the African mothers whose children were torn away from them" and concern for the emotional stresses the children experienced.

This apology is the first time that Belgium has taken any responsibility for the many atrocities it committed during its colonial rule of more than 80 years.

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