26th Jan 2021

Belgian expulsion orders of EU nationals lowest in years

  • Some 66 percent of the foreign population in Belgium are EU nationals (Photo: Alice Latta)

Belgium revoked the residency rights of 600 EU nationals last year, in what have been described as de facto "expulsion orders".

The figure represented a steep drop from previous years, which peaked at over 2,700 in 2013.

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The orders applied to people who had lived more than three months, but less than five years, in Belgium and were considered a state-burden for not having enough or any income to sustain themselves.

With no right of residency, people cannot access social services like housing or unemployment benefits.

"There is no forceful removal from the territory of an EU citizen, except when we talk about criminals," Jean-Michel Lafleur, a professor of ethnic and migration studies at the University of Liège in Belgium, told EUobserver on Friday (4 December).

Such orders are legal under a 2004 EU citizenship law, although Belgium abused the system in the past.

Lafleur, along with fellow Liège University researcher Daniela Vintila co-authored, a three-volume study that looked at welfare services accessed by EU and non-EU migrants in their countries of residence.

They noted that some 66 percent of foreigners living in Belgium were EU nationals.

Of those, French and Italian residents were the most prevalent, with 18 percent each, followed by Romanians (9 percent) and Poles (8 percent).

The residency withdrawals cited by Lafleur were taken from Belgian state figures, which tabulated 16,563 such orders between 2008 and 2019.

According to Belgium, Romanians and Bulgarians had their residency rights removed the most often.

But Italian and Dutch nationals also figured highly, coming in third place over the years.

Almost every member state applies sanction regimes such as the one in Belgium.

The exceptions are Croatia, the Czech Republic, Italy, Latvia, Portugal, and Romania.

But for its part, Belgium ran into trouble in 2011 for applying EU rules too broadly.

Reports started to emerge of EU nationals receiving expulsion orders for having demanded help over hospital or utility bills.

Others, who worked at schools and hospitals in social-services work programmes, were also told to exit the country.

"There were cases where the police were harassing people, telling them they have to leave," said Lafleur.

At the time, Maggie De Block was Belgium's secretary of state for migration.

She accused EU nationals of "welfare abuse".

But critics said her policies were, in fact, designed to stem migration of what De Block's government considered to be "undesirable EU citizens."

Freedom of movement is a cornerstone of the EU treaty.

And its guardian, the European Commission, weighed in with infringement proceedings against Belgium over the matter in 2013.

This may explain, in part, why the Belgian expulsion orders dropped to 600 in 2019.

But Liège University's Lafleur also evoked the chilling effect of past policies.

"People self-select and decide not to use welfare when they can because they want to make sure they don't lose their right to reside in Belgium," he told EUobserver.

And some of those now living on the streets in Brussels might well be EU nationals who have had their residency rights revoked, Lafleur said.

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