Several Belgian organisations have initiated legal proceedings against the Belgian state over the lack of  immediate provision of shelter to applicants for international protection. Due to prolonged COVID-19 measures access to the asylum procedure and reception system has been restricted, leaving men, women and children destitute.

Following the COVID-19 outbreak access to the asylum procedure was temporarily suspended. No emergency shelter was provided by the government. In April 2020 access to the asylum procedure was resumed, however, limited. Since then all applicants that want to register an application for international protection are obliged to make an appointment by using an online form (available only in Dutch or French). The completion of the online appointment form does not guarantee swift access to the procedure. It often takes weeks before people are invited for the appointment. Several stakeholders highlighted that the online registration system lacked sufficient consideration of aspects such as technological problems, language barriers, and digital illiteracy.

Completing the online form does not lead to access to the reception system. As the asylum authorities do not consider a person as an applicant for international protection until the actual appointment with registration takes place. Awaiting registration those persons, including families with children, have to look for their own accommodation, and are often left destitute.

In dozens of individual cases the courts already ruled that as applicants for international protection, they have the right to reception enabling them to lead a life that is in accordance with basic human dignity. The courts further stressed that having to survive on the street, during a pandemic, makes applicants vulnerable to infection, and in turn they could also endanger others. The courts further stated that the responsibility and consequences of the administrative backlog of the Immigration Office cannot be transferred to the applicants of international protection affecting their entitlement to reception.

Despite many court rulings in individual cases, the measure are still in place. The organisations therefore initiated a collective legal proceeding against the Belgian State. By refusing such access the Belgian state violates its own national law (the Reception Act) as well the EU Reception Directive, that provides that member states shall ensure that material reception conditions are available to applicants when they make their application for international protection. These material reception conditions should provide an adequate standard of living for applicants, which guarantees their subsistence and protects their physical and mental health. The organisations ask the state to provide material assistance from the day the online form has been submitted.

This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin . You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.