4th Dec 2023

Belgium taking over EU helm as it ignores asylum court rulings

  • Belgium's migration minister Nicole de Moor (left, with EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson) is pinning her hopes on the EU's overhaul on asylum to help solve its own problems at home (Photo: European Union)
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While Belgium is set to take over the EU Council presidency in January to usher in a possible Europe-wide asylum reform, its own government has ignored thousands of court decisions favouring asylum seekers at home.

"By failing to act significantly on the rulings, the [Belgian] government has shown not only a shocking disregard for the rights of asylum seekers, but also for the rule of law," criticised Amnesty International earlier this week.

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In August, the Belgian state also pressed ahead with a controversial policy to deny shelter to single male asylum seekers.

Many are forced to live in the streets for weeks or even months at time — an issue that has persisted for years in Belgium.

Some 200 tents appeared earlier this year along the canal in central Brussels, across from the federal asylum reception centre.

Although those tents are now gone, Amnesty has described Belgium's asylum reception crisis as a self-inflicted wound, noting some 2,600 are still waiting to be housed.

And it said Belgium has failed to follow through on over 8,000 court rulings, including some handed out by the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights.

The Flemish Refugee Action, an NGO, says it has counted more than 10,000 cases between September 2021 and October 2022 where the state refused to house an asylum seeker.

But Belgium's migration minister Nicole de Moor, a Christian Democrat, has laid the blame elsewhere.

"It is the lack of a functioning [EU] migration system that is the problem and I can even put it stronger than that. It is the lack of a sufficient functioning migration system that is a threat," she said at an event earlier this year.

"If we take a look at the statistics in Belgium, half of our asylum applications are [made] by people who have a status elsewhere in the [European] union," she also said, noting that the other half have never been registered.

Her office has since announced plans to create approximately 6,600 additional reception places, for a total of around 34,000 spaces. And she is trying to create another 2,000 as part of a plan for this winter.

But de Moor has also taken a hard line on sending rejected asylum seekers back to their home countries, following a terror attack last month by an undocumented migrant from Tunisia who shot dead two Swedes in Brussels.

"Collective regularisation is absolutely not the solution. Anyone who is ordered to leave the territory must return," de Moor recently told Belgian media.

But that individual was also a wanted criminal in Tunisia, which had demanded his extradition from Belgium last year. He was shot dead by Belgian police the morning after his killings.

Belgian authorities never followed through on the extradition, leading to the resignation of its justice minister (who had also been caught up in a separate alcohol-induced scandal coined as 'Pipigate').

De Moor has also refused to pay fines for the state's failure to comply with court rulings, reportedly now amounting to over €330m.

At the same time, she is advocating for an EU-wide agreement on reforms that seek to overhaul the union's asylum and migration legal framework.

When the Belgian EU presidency takes over in January, de Moor will be presiding over meetings dealing with asylum at the council, representing member states.

"The EU migration pact is a revolution. I want to get that pact over the line," said de Moor, who has also thrown her support behind a controversial EU anti-migration agreement signed over the summer with Tunisia.

Such positions ring alarms to others fighting for the rights of undocumented migrants in Brussels — some of whom have now spent more than 10 years in Belgium.

"We know that there are a lot of undocumented migrants on the street and others who will be in the coming days," Serge Bagamboula of the Coordination of Undocumented Migrants in Belgium, a network that helps support people without a legal status, told EUobserver.

Bagamboula said Brussels has numerous empty buildings where people could be placed ahead of the coming winter months. But getting them is also proving difficult.

Last month, some 40 people were kicked out of an empty building near the European Commission headquarters in Brussels. Another 90 were recently told to leave the former Yugoslav embassy, also in Brussels.

"Housing is a local question, while obtaining a legal status is a federal question. On the federal level, not a single party wants to engage," said Bagamboula, noting that many work and contribute to Belgian society.

A recent study by Vrije Universiteit Brussel, a Flemish university, estimates that there are around 112,000 undocumented migrants in Belgium.

Asylum seekers sleeping rough in Brussels continues to mount

The number of tents of asylum seekers sleeping rough along the canal in the centre of Brussels continues to mount. Over a week ago, the Flemish Refugee Action, a Brussels-based NGO, counted 60. On Thursday (23 February), EUobserver counted 122.

Belgian impasse leaves asylum seekers on snowy streets

Asylum seekers have been sleeping in the streets, some for weeks, in the Belgian capital Brussels - as the government grapples over the lack of capacity to accommodate them despite months of debate over the issue.

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