Belgium's immigration minister is refusing to grant humanitarian visas to a family in the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo despite being fined 4,000 euros ($4,438) a day for defying an appeal tribunal.
A lawyer for the family, Olivier Stein, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the Belgian tribunal ruled three times that visas should be granted to the two adults with children aged 5 and 8 living in one of Syria's most dangerous cities.
Immigration Minister Theo Francken, whose office supervises Belgium's visa authority, has been visited by a bailiff directed by the tribunal, demanding 1,000 euros per person for each day that visas are not delivered. The tally so far is more than 30,000 euros ($33,000). The bailiff could confiscate goods to pay the fines.
"We're going to use all possible legal means to fight this affair. This is going too far," Francken told state broadcaster RTBF on Tuesday.
Friends in the city of Namur have offered to lodge and feed the family. But Francken said their links with the would-be refugees are tenuous and that granting visas could set a precedent that would open the floodgates to other demands. He also believes the government and not courts should rule on visa policy.
Stein said the family is only interested in finding sanctuary.
"We offered him the opportunity to drop this, to just give us the visas and forget the money. But he refused. So he's the one putting himself in a position where he faces a fine or sanctions. He's making the Belgian taxpayer pay for not granting these visas," Stein said.
He rejected Francken's claim that the case might set a precedent.
"This is a family who can prove they are in immediate danger of being killed. This is a very special case. We have provided proof of that," Stein said.
Francken "can't cry about migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, then force people to put their lives in danger," Stein added.
The friends of the Syrian family say they are hopeful that things will turn out well, but they too insist that they aren't seeking money.
"We're not the ones who are asking for money. It's the Belgian justice system that set this amount," one friend said. She declined to be named out of concern for the security of both families, saying that hers had already received threats.
Aleppo is the main focal point of the conflict in Syria.
East Aleppo has been subjected to a ferocious campaign of aerial attacks by Russian and Syrian government warplanes, and hundreds of people have been killed in recent weeks, according to opposition activists and trapped residents. The U.N. estimates that 275,000 people are trapped in the city.
With no Belgian consular facilities in Syria, the father had to leave his family there to travel to Beirut to apply for the visas, Stein said.