4 December 2015

In the past week, many asylum seekers in Belgium were prevented access to asylum procedures, including unaccompanied children and families. According to NGOs, certain measures have specifically targeted Afghan asylum seekers. In addition, hundreds of asylum seekers had no choice but to sleep in the street for several days, as emergency pre-reception facilities, where asylum seekers have been accommodated before the registration of their asylum application, are full. Thanks to citizens’ solidarity, some of them could find shelter in churches and private accommodation.

Since September, the Belgian Immigration Office registers only 250 asylum application a day. Those unable to be registered are given an appointment to present themselves on another date; although these delayed appointments often exceed two weeks. This is in clear violation of the EU Directive on asylum procedures  that states that asylum applications should be registered within three days, or maximum ten in case of high influx.

In the week of 21 November the situation was particularly dire:  following the 21 November terror alert, the Belgian immigration office was closed on Monday. As a consequence, no one was registered. On Tuesday, all Afghan asylum seekers who were queuing to apply for asylum, were prevented from doing so. On Wednesday, only children and families were registered. Thus, during that week many asylum seekers could not lodge their application, many failing to get an appointment to register on another day.

This week the situation continued to be extremely difficult, with many asylum seekers forced to sleep rough. ‘The government can no longer hide behind the higher influx of asylum seekers,’ says Els Keytsman, director of the Flemish Refugee Action. ‘Belgium is depriving people from their fundamental right to seek asylum. The Immigration Office must organise itself professionally and register all asylum seekers. Asylum seekers need to receive qualitative reception from day one.’ In light of the current situation, UNHCR further stressed that Belgium is in violation of European law.

The NGO also questions if the chaos is due to the failure of the state to organise itself or if deterrence is a specific aim. In the past three months the Belgian Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration has sent three different letters to asylum seekers, the last one directly addressed to Afghans, warning them about challenges they would face if they seek asylum in Belgium and encouraging them to voluntarily return to their country of origin. The Flemish Refugee Action highlights that these letters contain misleading information; the tone and language used by the government reveals its intention to deter asylum seekers and convince them not to come to Belgium.

Despite all these challenges, a group of Belgian lawyers reassured asylum seekers not to get discouraged. “Ne vous découragez pas”, they stated, reiterating that Belgium must ensure access to international protection to each person seeking asylum, according to international law.

Support for refugees comes also from the ‘Community Support for Refugees in Belgium’, a group actively engaged in helping refugees during their arrival. They wrote a letter to the Belgian Prime Minister calling on the government to stop relying on private citizens to make up for its failures and to take urgent steps to alleviate this desperate situation.

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This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin of 4 December 2015. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.