The winter months in Belgium are far from over. Among the homeless sleeping in makeshift shelters in Brussels’ city centre are the asylum seekers who have come to this divided nation. Their hopes of receiving a fair trial, a hearing, and perhaps even a place to stay, have often been denied. Many have ended up on the street. In November 2010, the United Nations High-Commission for Refugees slammed Belgium for its failure to house asylum seekers. That same month, dozens were evicted from the North train station in Brussels. How is this possible?
Boy from Kosovo at North Station in Brussels
At North station today, a boy from Kosovo, no older than 10, spends hours on a mattress looking out a window and onto a square where the lives of the busy pass him by. His father, sitting next to him, has been panhandling so that they can use the train station’s paying toilet facilities. There they remain, along with two dozen other asylum seekers, and have remained for weeks. When finally the Belgian police were ordered to evict them from the premises, the asylum seekers were at least given notice - but no housing or shelter alternative. On 28 November 2010, most had fled before the police were due to arrive the following morning. Families with small children, however, were allowed to remain.
Michel Ruminiga, a Rwandan journalist was among those forced to leave. He had fled Rwanda to seek asylum for articles he had written condemning the government. His life, he said, was threatened at home, his computer seized by the Rwandan police. Ernest Sagaga, the Human Rights and Communications Officer at the International Federation of Journalists in Brussels is in contact with Michel. “His story adds up,” says Mr Sagaga of Michel. Today he’s homeless.
“The influx of asylum seekers in Belgium has been very high these last few months. Between 2009 and 2010 demands increased by 20 %. In the first ten months already 21,000 persons asked for asylum. The service responsible for the treatment of the demands has a case overload. Therefore the reception capacity is under pressure. Since 2009, the federal government has gradually increased reception capacity from 16,000 places to 20,000 and has recently decided to create another 4,000 extra places in order to tackle this asylum,” Philippe Courard, Belgium’s Secretary of State for Social Integration and the Fight Against Poverty, wrote me in an email.
But Mr Courard, who is under intense pressure to find a solution, is only telling us part of the story. The faces of the desperate panhandling in the dead of winter have disturbed the nation. Belgium is suffering from high unemployment and a non-functioning federal government. Political fights between the Flemish and Walloons also risk splitting the country in two. The Prime Minister quit last April and now has an obscure ‘caretaker’ position. In the absence of constructive decision making and planning, the plight of asylum seekers has only heightened. There has indeed been an increase of asylum seekers, but a surge - no. The ‘surge’, the ‘flood,’ or other similar wording is an appearance-form secured by a lethal combination of gross government negligence, lack of decision-making, institutional in-fighting, plus a bad press.
A few hours after their eviction from the train station, Michel Ruminiga and other asylum seekers, were led to a squat by CRER, a volunteer organisation run by concerned citizens. The squat was in what had once been Belgium’s national post-office. Its massive space spans several floors and curious objects like typewriters and office equipment from the 1980s still remain where they were abandoned. But without electricity there is no heat. Nor is there any water. Michel had managed to find some boxes in a room off the hallway. A small window near the ceiling allowed in a shaft of light in the otherwise dark obscurity. “My bed,” he said, his breath billowing into that single stream of light. Curiously, on the floor above, the works of local artists have been showcased in neat rows: professional installations, with freshly painted white walls and glass frames. As the recently-evicted asylum seekers checked out their new premises, commenting on the merits of the artworks in passing, we might have been in a surreal museum. Written in large block black letters across one white wall was the phrase ‘Show me, don’t tell me.’
Afghan asylum seekers find new shelter
The men would huddle here for the night until something better showed up. “It’s cold here,” says Michel. In the hall, boys from Afghanistan laid their bedding down next to a white wall plastered with colourful photos. Further along, a man from Guinea Bissau said he didn’t blame the Belgian authorities for his plight and empathized with the decision to evict them from the train station. Later on that evening, one of the CRER volunteers had found another space – with heat. They all left, grateful.
A rare moment of joy
Inside her small office in Belgium’s Parliament, Zoe Genot a Belgian federal deputy from the Green party expresses her discontent. She has, spread across her desk in her office, sheets of numbers and documents that attempt to explain the crisis. But it’s her trembling voice that discloses the frayed atmosphere. “The political climate is detestable,” she says looking up from the numbers. “People are led to believe that there is a large influx of asylum seekers. It’s xenophobic.” She is not alone in her views.
Stopped at the airport
Earlier that same month 57-year old Fadily Iljazi and his wife, 56 year-old Mazes Iljazi, arrived at Brussels Airport in Belgium. This was their first time outside Macedonia. And they had come to visit their son Mehmad. The visa restrictions imposed upon Macedonia had finally been lifted in December 2009. Getting to Belgium would no longer require having to go through lengthy and expensive administrative procedures. They now had every right to stay at least 90 days before having to return home. Things were meant to be easier. But in February, around 400 asylum seekers from Macedonia arrived all at once. Another 100 showed up in October, setting Belgian authorities on edge.
Moments after the coupled arrived at the airport, they were detained by Belgium’s Office of Immigration and escorted by the police to the international zone - a prison-like centre known as 127bis. To enter the country, the couple was supposed to have at least 2052 Euros. They had 2000 Euros. Their son immediately offered to make up the 52 Euros difference. But the authorities refused, on the grounds that the couple had no return tickets, even though this is not legally required. The son immediately purchased them. Still, the authorities refused. Five days later, still held at the airport, the couple filed a case against the Belgian state.
‘The couple were just coming to visit their son who is getting married. It was their first visit to Belgium, indeed, it was the first time they had flown,’ their Belgian lawyer, Mrs Drita Dushaj, told me.
Belgium has been without a federal government for over 200 days - a record. When the Prime Minister left office in April, the chain of command and decision-making over the plight of asylum seekers came to an abrupt end. Before his resignation, not enough was being done to support asylum seekers, or institutions struggling under heavy mandates and inadequate staffing. By the time the Prime Minister quit, the asylum crisis was reaching its peak.
“The situation today is so crazy that Fedasil can no longer prioritize families with small children. These families and their small children find themselves in the streets or in train stations. Children, unaccompanied, are in hotels without supervisions,” says Malou Gay, Director of the Belgian refugee welfare NGO, Coordination et Initiatives pour et avec les Refugies et Etrangeres (CIRÉ).
Fedasil is Belgium’s Federal Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers. The Agency is responsible for housing asylum seekers during their procedure. The asylum seekers are sent to Fedasil after first being processed at the Aliens Office. The Aliens Office register the asylum seeker, and it is the Commissioner for Refugees and Stateless Persons (CGRA) who is in charge of examining the application. CGRA decides whether to grant refugee or subsidiary protection status. If the application is rejected, then the asylum seeker can appeal to the Aliens Litigation Office. Under funded, 50 employees at the CGRA quit in the past year. They were not replaced, thus adding to the backlog of case files. The CGRA, had by December, finally received extra funding and are currently hiring new staff.
The origin of Belgium’s asylum fiasco is linked to a decision to amend the asylum procedure. Prior to June 2007, asylum seekers went through a two-step process. During the first phase of the procedure they stayed at the reception centre. But during the second phase, they were housed in any number of towns or cities, each receiving 900 Euros a month. The amendment, however, essentially put an end to the 900 Euro stipend. The decision was popular despite the significant increase in costs. Few could tolerate the idea of asylum seekers receiving a monthly check while unemployed Belgians were entitled to the same, less or even nothing. And politicians were not ready to argue differently. Instead, asylum seekers are now only entitled to housing, food, and social assistance, and the entire process takes place at the reception centre.
But the stipend had unexpected benefits because the asylum seekers were semi-autonomous and better integrated. The state didn’t need to expend resources and time on housing and food. Instead, the institutions were able to focus their energy on investigating the claims and processing the applicants quickly. The system had worked relatively well. The minute the amendments came in, Belgium’s institutions suddenly had to house tens of thousands of people. How do you then integrate those who have been granted asylum after having spent so long isolated from the rest of society? In 2007, and for the first time ever, reception centres reached 90% capacity. Fedasil was expending most of its energy trying to house the applicants. Without proper funding or staff, a backlog began to appear at the CGRA. From being non-existent in 2006, this jumped to 2,800 in 2007, then nearly doubled to 4,200 in 2009. In the first seven months of 2010, the number of backlogs surpassed 10,000. By 2008, people were already ending up in the streets.
Last year, around a 1,000 were sent to hotels, including non-accompanied minors. Some of those, including the children, have been there for almost a year. Their contact with the state is essentially nil. They receive no legal counsel nor any medical check-ups or psychological support. Traumatised by events in their respective pasts, spending months alone between four walls of a dilapidated hotel room, must have its impact on any child or adult. Then there are the stories of eight asylum seekers, in some hotels, sharing a single room for months on end.
Realizing that the situation was slipping out of control, the state started to find and build new reception centres to house new arrivals. But this was not without controversy. Towns do not want asylum seekers nearby; an added headache that has yet to be fully resolved. Finally, the state reluctantly provided additional funding and support to the institutions. Over the new year, Fedasil and its partners were able to open emergency reception centres that could house 2,500 people. This should, in theory, enable the services to house all new arrivals. But these emergency centres do not provide any social or legal assistance. That’s reserved for those housed in the official reception centres - which are full.
All this grief was compounded by a political dispute between the Ministry for Migration and Asylum and the Ministry of Social Integration in 2009 over granting amnesty to undocumented migrants. The ministries were unable to agree on the criteria and so the decision was delayed. A false rumour quickly spread that applying for asylum would somehow increase the chances of undocumented workers of receiving residence permits. However, this was simply not true. As a result, many made multiple requests, thus placing additional pressure on the system and adding to the backlog. Others, who were already at the reception centres, thought asylum would be granted once the ministries delivered a decision. As result, many extended their stay at reception, forcing new arrivals to look elsewhere. The whole scenario led to four possible outcomes. One, the asylum seeker got lucky and managed to find a slot at the reception centre. Two, the asylum seeker became homeless. Three, the asylum seeker was sent to a hotel. Four, the asylum seeker sued Fedasil and received 250 Euros per day for every day Fedasil fails to house and provide legal counsel. This was eventually increased to 500 Euros per day. When this occurred, Belgians were outraged.
By April 2010, Fedasil’s director Isabelle Küntziger quit, soon followed by the agency’s adjunct-director. Fedasil employees threatened to go on strike (which they did in November). The agency was fined over 200,000 Euros for not having properly housed asylum seekers. Then in October 2010 a Congolese asylum seeker sued Fedasil for 15,500 Euros because his right to housing had been denied. Fedasil did not pay the man but instead several of its assets were frozen. The story made the headlines in a popular weekly, falsely claiming that Fedasil gave the man four Peugeots and 15 computers.
“In this specific case, it has not yet come to an actual possession,” says Philip Courard. “A‘conservatory seizure’ has taken place, in which the debtor’s assets are frozen. Therefore, Fedasil’s goods have not been repossessed. It is, however, correct that the court can impose penalty payments for asylum seekers who were not provided with shelter,” he told me in an email. In an interview with La Libre, Mr Courard says he received letters insulting him when the story hit the headlines. “It incites racism,” he told La Libre. Mr Courard says they are currently building more centres to house an additional 4,000 people.
But these will be reserved for new arrivals, not the 7,000 who find themselves in the streets or others who are still holed up in hotels. They’ll just have to wait and hope that concerned citizens and NGOs, like those at CRER and CIRE, will continue to show some humanity in a system hopelessly corrupted by politicking and bad decision-making.