A civil society group has helped 244 Christians — most of them children and their families — escape war-torn Syria in recent months to Belgium via Lebanon.
Speaking at a press conference Wednesday, a spokesman for the group, which was aided by the Belgian government, said that the covert operation had begun in May and ended on July 4.
Belgian psychiatrist Peter Adriaenssens, one of the driving forces behind the initiative, said that the initiative had been launched after the citizens' group alerted the Belgian government to the plight of Christians and Yazidis living in Aleppo.
Katrien Jansseune, a spokesperson for the Belgian immigration department, told VICE News that her office had received "a cry for help" from the citizens' action group. "We led our own investigation and were able to assess the seriousness of the situation," she said. "The city's Christians only had one option to escape the city — to get to Lebanon."
The operation had remained secret "for safety reasons" according to former Belgian diplomat Mark Geleyn, who said that the Christian community in Aleppo was "being terrorized by groups like al Nusra and the Islamic State, because of their religious beliefs."
The families fled Aleppo for Lebanon between May and July. Once they had arrived in Beirut, the Belgian embassy provided them with refugee visas, so they could continue on to Belgium. The Belgian embassy in Beirut did not answer requests from VICE News for comment.
"We don't want to dwell on how these people arrived in Lebanon," Tine Van Valckenborgh, the head of communications for Belgium's refugee agency (CGRA) told VICE News Wednesday. She noted that the Syrian refugees had traveled to Belgium "at their own expense."
Van Valckenborgh also highlighted the "exceptional" nature of the operation, which she described as "the government" operating "outside the traditional channels."
For this particular operation, she explained, the CGRA did not screen applicants, as is customary. "We will now check whether in fact these people qualify for refugee status," she said, adding that, "the majority of claims would probably be accepted."
The refugees were selected in Syria by the Belgian group's contacts. In selecting them, Adriaenssens said that priority had been given "to young people, traveling with their parents and sometimes, their grand-parents," in order to "allow them to go back to school or to go to college, so that, when they return to Syria, they can help the country get back on its feet."
Jansseune told VICE News that similar operations might be carried out in the future, but that any resettlement actions would be considered "on a case-by-case basis."
In 2014, Belgium welcomed 150 refugees through its UNHCR-sponsored resettlement program. Through the program, refugees are provided with the necessary visas to leave their country, and are given housing and support once in Belgium.
Since the start of the Syrian civil war over four years ago, the country has granted asylum to some 5,500 Syrian refugees of all faiths.
Belgian daily Le Soir has reported that 160,000 Christians lived in Aleppo before the start of the civil war in March 2011. Only 50,000 remain in the city today.
According to the UNHCR, more than 4 million Syrians have now fled war and persecution to seek refuge in neighboring countries, making the Syrian conflict "the UN refugee agency's worst crisis for almost a quarter of a century."
Follow Pierre-Louis Caron on Twitter: @pierrelouis_c