Wednesday

19th Jan 2022

Belgian impasse leaves asylum seekers on snowy streets

  • Young Afghan asylum seekers huddle behind the makeshift shelter in front of Le Petit-Château, an asylum reception centre in Brussels (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)
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A group of young mainly Afghan men huddle together underneath a makeshift shelter in front of the Petit-Château asylum reception centre in Brussels.

Among them is 28-year old Abdulwahab, who says he's been sleeping on the pavement for the past two weeks.

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  • Nine Afghans, two Syrians and a young man from Burkina Faso were huddled together. Some said they had been sleeping outside for two weeks. (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

He fled Afghanistan three months ago, he said, leaving behind four children and a wife in the hope of bringing his family to Belgium.

"It was a good decision," he says, on the morning of Thursday (2 December).

The first snow of the year had started to fall, mixed in with frigid rain. At least one of the men, an 18-year old, is said to be sick with fever.

Given there is no toilet, Abdulwahab says he eats less than usual. "It's a real problem," he says, noting they rely on handouts from volunteers and local NGOs.

Nearby, a small group of men, standing on the sidewalk underneath an awning for shelter, are told by the police to move away. They direct them towards the large brick wall of the Petit-Château to stand in the rain.

The Petit-Château is the first point of entry for people seeking international protection in Belgium and is managed by the state asylum agency, Fedasil.

It can accommodate around 800 people, of which some 200 are only supposed to be reserved for emergency situations.

Once someone is identified and registered, they are then transferred to a more permanent facility elsewhere.

"More than 150 people are at the door everyday, some days 250," said a worker at Petit-Château, who requested not to be named.

"Belgium is not creating enough places to host people," she said, noting an almost 100-percent occupation capacity rate in the country.

This lack of capacity means the entire system is backed up, leaving hundreds of people outside and exposed to the elements.

"We know that on certain days there are only six spaces available in the entire country," said Elias Van Dingenen of the Flemish NGO, Vluchtelingenwerk [Refugee Work].

Political mismanagement, floods in Wallonia, evacuations from Afghanistan, and Covid are all cited as among the reasons for the current critical impasse.

Some 1,500 have been set aside for Covid quarantines and another 1,000 for the July flood victims.

In mid-October, Fedasil employees at the Petit-Château also staged a strike over poor working conditions.

The same day more than 125 people were refused entry, including minors and families with children.

The issue has since persisted, leaving mostly single males outside and homeless.

But the impending bottleneck had also been foreseen for months, posing questions on why people are still sleeping in the streets in winter conditions.

"This has been something that they [Fedasil] have been talking about since May, that a capacity would be reached," noted Van Dingenen.

Over the summer, Belgium's state secretary of migration and asylum, Sammy Mahdi, announced plans for an additional 5,400 so-called "buffer" places.

In a late November tweet, Mahdi said some 1,000 reception places had been created over the past month.

And centres reportedly recently opened up in Lombardsijde, Oudergem, Geel and Lommel.

But he also refused proposals to use Brussels hotels as a temporary solution.

"A lot of work is being done. I think the results are the most important part. And the results are not following the ambition," said Van Dingenen.

Asked for a comment on Belgium's reception crisis, Mahdi's spokesperson described it as "a European problem" without going into detail.

Asked if the 5,400 extra spaces announced over the summer had been reached, she did not respond to EUobserver.

Belgium observed a 40-percent drop in arrivals in reception facilities in 2020, mostly as a result of border closures.

At the end of the same year, it counted just over 28,000 spaces in reception capacity with almost 17,000 asylum applications lodged.

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