UN experts have urged the Belgian Government to develop an inclusive national vision and action to address risks posed by foreign fighters at federal, regional and local levels.
Experts from the UN Working Group on the use of mercenaries visited Belgium last week to gather data on the activities of foreign fighters going from the country to conflict zones abroad.
This was carried out as part of a comprehensive study on foreign fighters and their impact on human rights, including on possible links to ‘mercenarism’.
UN Working Group on the use of mercenaries head human rights expert Elzbieta Karska said: "The number of Belgian foreign fighters is reportedly the highest in Europe per capita among those travelling to join conflicts abroad, such as in Syria and Iraq.
"The need to tackle this problem through robust collective efforts which engages all sectors of Belgian society is critical in finding solutions to this phenomenon."
According to the UN figures, approximately 207 Belgians are in Syria, including 77 casualties, 128 returnees, and 62 persons who failed to reach Iraq or have been brought back, with 46 of them prosecuted, all associated with the group Sharia4Belgium.
Extensive informal networks of friends, family, and social media are reportedly playing a key role in the recruitment, with contacts in Syria paid on the basis of the number of persons they recruit and whether the recruits subsequently marry.
Karska noted: "The profiles of foreign fighters are varied, with an average age around 23 years and decreasing. Women are also increasingly leaving."
While praising a number of initiatives that have been undertaken by Belgium to tackle these issues, the group also recommended strengthening the national vision and strategic plan, as well as adoption of a human rights based approach, with particular attention paid to the inclusion of especially affected communities.
The group is slated to present their first report on the issue of foreign fighters to the UN General Assembly on 2 November.
In addition, the group will present a comprehensive report on its visit to Belgium to the Human Rights Council in 2016.
Image: A general view of the Human Rights Council in session. Photo: courtesy of Jean-Marc Ferré.