BRUSSELS (AP) — Abdesalem Lassoued had been denied residency in four European countries by the time he chased two Swedish men into a building in Brussels this week and gunned them down at close range with a semiautomatic rifle.
The 45-year-old Tunisian arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa in a smuggler’s boat in 2011. He spent jail time in Sweden and was refused entry to Norway. At one point Italy flagged him as a security threat. Two years ago, Belgium rejected his asylum claim and he disappeared off the map.
Until Monday night, that is, when he killed the two Swedes, wounded a third and forced the lockdown of more than 35,000 people in a soccer stadium where they had gathered to watch Belgium play Sweden. In a video posted online, he claimed to be inspired by the Islamic State group.
Within days he has become the new face of the European Union’s campaign to toughen border controls, rapidly deport people and allow the police and security agencies to exchange information more efficiently.
“It’s important that those individuals that could be a security threat to our citizens, to our Union, have to be returned forcefully, immediately,” EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson told reporters on Thursday, as EU interior ministers met in Luxembourg.
Only around one in four people whose asylum applications are denied ever leave or are deported from the 27-nation bloc. Often the countries they come from, including Tunisia, are reluctant to take them back.
With EU countries constantly bickering over how to manage migration – their differences lie at the heart of one of the bloc’s biggest political crises – the European Commission has sought to outsource the challenge.
The EU’s executive branch has helped to seal deals with Turkey and Tunisia to persuade these countries to stop people from the Middle East or Africa – not to mention their own nationals – from trying to enter Europe, as they did in large numbers in 2015.
About 25 countries that people leave or transit to get to Europe are of concern. Egypt is the next country on the list. The commission is already helping to locate and pay for new boats for the Egyptian coastguard.
Belgium’s top migration official, Nicole de Moor, said that countries refusing to take back their nationals must be made to cooperate.
“The terrorist that committed an attack in Brussels on Monday had asked for asylum in four different European countries, and every time he was rejected because he did not qualify for protection,” de Moor said.
The EU does have coercive tools at its disposal. The commission has used visas as a lever, making it harder, more time-consuming and costly for the citizens of migration source countries to gain entry to Europe’s ID check-free zone – the 27-country space known as the Schengen area.
Thanks to this, Johansson said, the EU now has “much better cooperation” on deportation with Iraq, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Senegal.
The shooter Lassoued’s case was also marked by other failures. He applied for asylum in Belgium in 2019. His application was rejected a year later, and a deportation order was issued in 2021. Officials said this week that he couldn’t be found, as they had no address for him.
Within a few hours, admittedly with public help, prosecutors conceded, the authorities had discovered where he lived. He was shot dead by police at a café nearby the following morning when they tried to arrest him.
“It turns out that the individual had been convicted and had served time in a Swedish prison, which was unknown to our police and judiciary,” Belgian Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden told reporters.
“We need to improve the information exchange on these kinds of things. The man apparently arrived in Italy in 2011 (and) wandered around Europe for 12 years,” she said. Migration services and the police must share information, she said, “to ensure that this cannot happen.”
The clamor for tougher laws and better intelligence sharing are fresh, but the problem is not new. Lassoued’s case resembles that of another Tunisian man, Anis Amri, who drove a truck into a Christmas market in Berlin in 2016, killing 12 people and injuring 56 others.
German authorities tried to deport Amri after his asylum application was rejected but were unable to because he lacked valid identity papers. Tunisia had denied that he was a citizen.
On Tuesday, after leading security talks throughout the night while the hunt for Lassoued went on, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo loosened his tie from around his collar as he answered a reporter’s thorny question about the failings of Belgium’s police, justice and migration services.
“An order to leave the territory must become more binding that it is now,” De Croo conceded. “We have to respect the decisions that we take.”
Colleen Barry in Milan contributed to this report.
Follow AP’s coverage of global migration at https://apnews.com/hub/migration