Brussels attack leads to call for tougher action on failed asylum seekers

Belgian authorities never executed expulsion order against ISIS-influenced gunman who killed two Swedes

From left, Belgium Prime Minister Alexander De Croo and his Swedish counterpart Ulf Kristersson hold wreaths near the scene of a fatal shooting in Brussels. AFP
Powered by automated translation

Swedish and Belgian leaders on Wednesday called for "additional tools" to send illegal immigrants back to their countries of origin, as they commemorated the death of two Swedish football fans in Brussels believed to have been killed by a failed asylum seeker from Tunisia.

"We need to protect our European borders," said Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson.

The suspect, named as Abdelsalam Lassoued, had served a prison sentence in Sweden from 2012 to 2014. In 2016, an unidentified foreign country told Belgium he wanted to fight for ISIS in a "conflict zone" but authorities failed to act. His asylum request was rejected and he was asked to leave Belgium in 2020.

Lassoued continued living in Belgium, however, with his wife and children, in part due to a lack of communication between Belgium's asylum office and the city in which he lived, said Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo. In a video broadcast after he gunned down the two Swedes, he said he was inspired by ISIS. On Tuesday, the terrorist group claimed responsibility for the shooting.

"This person had indeed received an order to leave the territory, then went underwater," said Mr De Croo. "We need, as member states [of the European Union] additional tools, additional possibilities to do that. It is quite clear that just gently asking is not enough."

Mr De Croo called on "better agreements" with countries of origin due to returns proving "extremely complicated".

"We need more conditionality," he said.

Standing beside him at a press conference on Wednesday, Mr Kristersson said information needed to be shared between EU countries in a better way.

"The fact that this suspected person was in prison in Sweden – that kind of information could have been useful for the assessment made in Belgium," he said.

Earlier, the two leaders visited Place Sainctelette in Brussels where the attack occurred. Belgian police on Tuesday shot dead Lassoued, 45, in the neighbourhood of Schaerbeek after an overnight manhunt.

Belgian politicians have sharply criticised the government for failing to expel him despite numerous past reports of his extremist views. Questioned by reporters on such criticism, Mr Kristersson said: "I don't blame Belgium at all.

"We have exactly the same problem in Sweden. Very many people are declined asylum but refuse to leave the country."

He described Monday's shooting as a "terrorist attack aimed at Sweden and Swedish citizens just because of being Swedish".

There is widespread belief the attacker was motivated by controversial Quran burnings in Sweden but investigators have not ruled out the recent Israel-Hamas war as a potential trigger.

Residents in Schaerbeek, where the attacker lived with his family, were left reeling by the attack, which some described to The National as "disgusting".

The two football fans killed were men in their 60s and 70s, respectively, Sweden's Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom told The National. A third Swede in his 70s was injured and is in hospital.

EU countries have improved the sharing of information in the past month, said Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, the bloc's executive arm, who participated in the press conference alongside Mr Kristersson and Mr De Croo.

"As far as I understand, the terrorist had several asylum applications in different member states," she said. "This has already changed in the last month. We now have a mutual recognition of return decisions."

She too called for improved communications with countries of origin and for the acceleration of the EU's new migration and asylum deal, which has been under negotiation since 2020.

Yet attempts at agreements with countries such as Tunisia have failed to bear fruit, with the EU and Tunis currently involved in an acrimonious dispute over a deal signed this summer.

Tunisia recently took the unprecedented step of returning aid money to the EU, claiming it was not interested in "charity".

"We are willing to invest in their educational system and in also in their infrastructure, but in turn, these countries have to take responsibility for their own citizens and this means – take them back," said Ms von der Leyen.

Updated: October 18, 2023, 11:30 AM