The apology is the first time that Belgium has recognized any responsibility for what historians say was the immense harm the country inflicted on the Central African nations, which it colonized for eight decades. Prime Minister Charles Michel offered the apology on Thursday afternoon in front of a plenary session of Parliament, which was attended by dozens of people of mixed race in the visitors gallery.
“Throughout Belgian colonial Africa, a system of targeted segregation of métis and their families was maintained by the Belgian state and acts were committed that violated the fundamental rights of peoples,” he said, using the term for mixed-race people.
“This is why, in the name of the federal government, I recognize the targeted segregation of which métis people were victims” under Belgian colonial rule in Africa, and “the ensuing policy of forced kidnapping” after independence, he added.
“In the name of the federal government,” Mr. Michel said, “I present our apologies to the métis stemming from the Belgian colonial era and to their families for the injustices and the suffering inflicted upon them.”
“I also wish to express our compassion for the African mothers, from whom the children were taken,” he said.
The prime minister said that the Belgian government would make resources available to finance additional research on the issue, open up its colonial archives to métis people and offer administrative help to those seeking to gain access to their official records and seeking Belgian nationality.
Over the past year, Belgium has taken a number of steps to reassess its colonial past. The apologies also come at a time when politicians across Europe are under pressure from a growing African diaspora and a younger generation that wishes to shed a new light on colonial history in order to tackle latent racism and discrimination in European society.
Some experts on colonial history noted that Belgium’s apology came late — nearly 60 years after the three countries gained independence.
Racial segregation was a pillar of Belgian colonial rule, historians say. Until the late 1950s, the colonial authorities discouraged interracial romance and banned interracial marriage before the Catholic Church.
Many white Belgian men, nevertheless, married black Congolese women according to local customs, producing children sometimes called métis. But in the eyes of Belgium, these children undermined official segregation policies and blemished the white race’s prestige, official documents from that time show.
Fearing a repeat of the Red River Rebellion in Canada in 1869-1870, when métis people revolted and overthrew the local government, the Belgian authorities ordered métis children in Congo to be separated from their families, and from the black population as a whole.
An estimated 10,000 to 20,000 children were segregated from their parents — most often from single African mothers — and placed in orphanages and schools predominantly run by the Catholic Church, historians said.
“Children born out of parents of mixed color during colonial times were always considered as a threat to the colonial enterprise, to profits and to the prestige and the domination of the white race,” said Assumani Budagwa, 65, a Belgian engineer and amateur historian who was born in colonial Congo and whose family experienced the separation of mixed-race children.
Mr. Budagwa was a co-author of a Parliamentary resolution that was unanimously adopted last year urging the government to apologize and recognizing Belgium’s misdeeds regarding the mixed-race children with the complicity of the Roman Catholic Church.
The resolution also demanded that the government open up its colonial archives and grant administrative help to hundreds of people in Congo and in Belgium who still do not possess their official birth certificates, and to those who wish to reconstitute their true family history.
Around the time when Belgium’s colonies gained independence, in the early 1960s, thousands of métis children were taken from Burundi, Congo and Rwanda to Belgium, where they were either adopted by white parents or raised in Belgian boarding schools. Many are still alive today.
The Catholic Church apologized in 2017 for its “participation” in the kidnapping and segregation of métis children and in the banning of mixed-race marriages. In a letter, the Belgian bishops stated: “Many never knew their mother or their father, and many mothers never saw their children again. For a long time, they couldn’t fully exercise their civic rights, and a large number later found itself on the margins of Belgian society in insecurity and hardship.”
The letter said, “We present our apologies to those people for the part taken by the Catholic Church in these deeds.”
Métis de Belgique, a Belgian group representing mixed-race people affected by the segregation, along with their descendants, counts a few hundred active members and fights for their right to obtain Belgian nationality, which in some cases still has not been granted, and to gain access to their families’ colonial records.
While some historians say Belgium’s apology was not sufficient, Mr. Budagwa, co-author of the resolution that led to Thursday’s official apology, was more optimistic.
“Peoples rarely and with great difficulty recognize their errors and their responsibility in historical crimes,” he said, calling the prime minister’s declaration both historic — because it was done in the name of the Belgian people — and symbolic, because it “doesn’t efface the aftermath of the colonization.”
He added, “And it is also, above all, human.”