5th Dec 2023

Asylum seekers sleeping rough in Brussels continues to mount

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The number of tents of asylum seekers sleeping rough along the canal in the city centre of Brussels continues to mount.

A week ago, the Flemish Refugee Action, a Brussels-based NGO, counted 60. On Thursday (23 February), EUobserver counted around 122.

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  • Moldovan Valeri Greuten says he was exploited by a Polish firm and is now homeless (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

The increase comes as authorities shut down a squat used by asylum seekers, forcing more onto the street. At least one person was found dead.

For the some 200 people sleeping rough, the lack of reception for asylum seekers in Belgium is a crisis years in the making.

Mehari, a 43-year old from Eritrea, has been on the street since last September. "We are all still in the street," he says.

EUobserver won't publish his last name given the possible repercussions his family may face back home.

"I don't know what to do," says 46-year old Valeri Greuten, a construction worker from Moldova who said he had been exploited by a Polish firm in Belgium.

He says he arrived in Belgium last October to work but was never paid, and made homeless in January. With no money and no way home, he is relying on charity to get by.

Sameer, not his real name, is a 37-year old from Afghanistan. He says he is a former soldier who fought against the Taliban and shows this reporter pictures of himself in army gear with Western soldiers.

"I fought the Taliban for 10 years. Yesterday, we worked shoulder-to-shoulder with the world. We didn't just fight for Afghanistan," he said. Sameer has been sleeping in a tent for the past 20 days, he says.

All are relying on charity from volunteers and NGOs and all are camped out in front of the Petit-Château, the first point of entry for people seeking international protection in Belgium.

Managed by the state asylum agency, Fedasil, the Petit-Château is hosting some 800 women and children as a first priority.

The state is all but absent for the homeless as Belgian authorities grapple with a reception crisis that has so far eluded past and current ministers.

Fines and court threats

Belgium is now facing possible sanctions from the European Commission over issues dealing with how it applies EU laws on reception. More recently, a court in the Netherlands refused to transfer an asylum seeker to Belgium due to the lack of housing.

Other legal tangles and domestic court rulings have already led to fines against the government for failing to uphold the legal guaranteed right to provide reception for asylum seekers.

Some have challenged the state and won. With still no place to stay, the courts have ordered the government to pay them up to €250 a day. But those daily fines have gone unpaid and now Belgian authorities have threatened to seize government assets and hold a public auction.

This includes office supplies belonging to the cabinet of Nicole de Moor, the Belgian state secretary in charge of asylum. Earlier this month, De Moor told Belgian media the fines will go unpaid, amid claims it would entice other asylum seekers.

And she blames other EU states for allowing over 14,500 asylum seekers, registered elsewhere, to come to Belgium to then lodge their claims. Some 3,000 are currently waiting for a reception spot, which can take four months or more.

Last year, Fedasil itself was ordered to pay €5,000 a day in fines for failing to provide reception. That has now increased to €10,000.

"Fedasil didn't respect that right for a single day in the all of 2022 and didn't pay the fines," said Thomas Willekens of Flemish Refugee Action.

Willekens says Belgium's reception bottleneck could be eased by 25 percent if the state gave Afghans a temporary residence permit. Many Afghans won't get asylum, he said. But because they can't be sent back to Afghanistan, they end up applying for asylum again.

Other solutions include a pre-existing Belgian partition plan to relocate asylum seekers throughout Belgium's 581 municipalities. But local governments have resisted the move and De Moor refuses to impose it.

Yet another idea is to send people to hotels and military barracks. But that too has been rejected. "The government is not willing to open up hotels because of the 'pull factor'," said Willekens.

Absent state

The impasse means many are relying on the good will of volunteers and civil society.

Earlier this week they managed to find a shelter to house 140 homeless asylum seeker in the Brussels neighbourhood of Anderlecht.

The first 45 were slated to be moved into the new location on Thursday. The new installation is more than a shelter. It is also a fixed address.

Without an address, even people who have obtained asylum have found themselves on the street. Belgium requires a fixed address in order to get a residence permit at the municipality. But getting an address is not simple.

Estate agencies require a two month deposit in an account before handing over keys to an apartment. But a bank also requires an address to open an account. Willekens described it as a "vicious circle".

Intense asylum pressure

The state, for its part, says they are working on a solution but admits it won't be swift. Bart Tierens is spokesperson for Belgian state secretary de Moor.

In an email, he said Belgium is under intense pressure. He said a record 100,000 people sought protection in Belgium last year and that 36,871 people applied for international protection, 40 percent more than in 2021.

This comes on top of 63,356 Ukrainians who applied for temporary protection, he said. "To accommodate asylum seekers, 9,000 new reception places have been created since September 2021," he said, noting that the total capacity is 34,000.

Tierens said new places will be added this month and in the coming months. Their plan, he said, centres around three structural reforms.

This includes overhauling Belgium's 40-year old migration code, creating a single migration service, and reaching an agreement on EU-wide migration reforms.

"We are ready to do our part, but we expect the other European countries to do the same," he said.

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