Belgium’s decision to temporarily suspend the provision of shelter to asylum-seeking single men has been met by criticism and legal challenges. The minister-president of Wallonia, Elio Di Rupo proposed to relax regulations on residence permits in in order to allow undocumented people and international protection applicants with skills to fill the shortage in the job market.

Belgium announced on 29 August a temporary suspension of shelter to single male asylum seekers as instructed by Belgian State Secretary for Asylum and Migration, Nicole de Moor amid the ongoing reception crisis. “I do not want to lag behind the facts, and I am therefore making the decision now to reserve all available places for families with children. The high number of asylum seekers who came to our country in the past two years continues to weigh on the reception network. We continue to open new centers, but everyone has seen in the past year how difficult it is to create shelters. I absolutely want to prevent children from ending up on the street”, de Moor said. From a legal standpoint, Belgium has an obligation to provide shelter and protection to asylum seekers and refugees on its territory under national, EU and international law.

The move has sparked legal and moral criticism. The Brussels government, who had to accommodate asylum seekers in a hotel after they had sought refuge in squats and tents along the canals last year, fears that a similar situation might arise again. Alain Maron, Minister of the Government of the Brussels-Capital Region, confirmed that the decision “would lead to an increase in homelessness within Brussels” and urged the federal government to “fulfil its national and international responsibilities”. Deputy Prime Minister, Petra De Sutter (Green) also called on the Secretary to “urgently” withdraw her decision. Kati Verstrepen, the president of the League for Human Rights, underlined that De Moor emphasizing that the  reception crisis has existed for long time “doesn’t make it any less serious”. Green Politician, Celia Groothedde, and Political theorist, Dirk Verhofstadt, in an op-ed described the decision as “a violation of Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex”. “The argument that this would only be a temporary measure is absurd”, they said, adding “That means that people are aware of the illegality of the measure, but still accept and accept it for a short or long period of time, a flagrant undermining of the rule of law”.

The Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner Dunja Mijatović said that “the lack of accommodation has serious consequences for the human rights of people applying for asylum in Belgium, including from the perspective of their right to health” and called on the Belgian authorities to “implement swift measures and durable solutions to address structural shortcomings in the asylum system in Belgium and ensure that accommodation is available for all those seeking international protection, including single men”. The European Commission said that it will contact the Belgian authorities to inquire about the matter. EU Spokesperson for Home Affairs, Migration and Internal Security, Anita Hipper in a press briefing acknowledged that the reception situation in Belgium is “difficult” and said that the Commission was “in close contact with the Belgian authorities and continues to support them”. Tina Claus, the director of ECRE member, Flemish Refugee Action, in an open letter to the state secretary, wrote: “As a mother, I understand the deep concern for children who should be sleeping on the street. But men are people too. They are husbands, fathers or brothers. And for them, too, you have repeatedly stated that every effort is being made to resolve the reception shortage.” Claus announced the organisation’s decision to withdraw as an emergency shelter partner, explaining “We can no longer participate in an emergency shelter system that excludes men and undermines basic values and human dignity. We cannot in good conscience provide our aid knowing that we are thus becoming complicit in inhuman policy choices”.

In defense of the decision, de Moor said: “We created 9,000 extra places last year. The hard reality remains that Fedasil, the Federal Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers, struggles every day to provide enough space for families and children. I cannot accept that we would see children in a cardboard box”. She pointed out that there are 2000 single men on the waiting list for reception but underlined that children also arrive on a daily basis with or without parents. “As a mother of two, I’m absolutely determined to prevent children from ending up on the streets and having to sleep there”, she added. While, the State Secretary acknowledges that everyone has the right to reception, she stated “But I find it difficult to hear again and again that our country is not meeting its obligations. If all the countries of Europe did their share of the effort, we wouldn’t be in this situation”, adding she doesn’t foresee creating extra reception facilities as it was “difficult” to open shelters in 2022. De Moor doesn’t deny that the decision might lead to people finding refuge in squats, tents or streets. The cooperation with Brussels government is “very good” and “I will continue to work with them”, she said to respond to concerns related to increased homelessness.

The Flemish public broadcaster VRT interviewed single men left without reception who said that the government has not registered members of this group on the waiting list for a while. A Guinean asylum seeker who has been bivouacking for three months using a mattress put on wooden pallets near the entrance to the Immigration Office in Brussels, together with two other asylum seekers from West Africa, described the decision as “inhumane”. “I’m out of hope, but there’s nothing else we can do. Now that winter is coming, I’m scared, because I suffer from rheumatism…The Belgian government should provide shelter for everyone seeking asylum”, the Guinean asylum seeker said. Another asylum seeker said that it is “difficult” to find accommodation. “We have been given a telephone number here where we can go for a place to sleep,” he said, adding that there was no response on the line.

Brussels Court once again ruled on 29 June that Belgium violates the Civil Code by not guaranteeing asylum seekers’ rights to seek asylum and receive reception and by failing to enforce judicial decisions. The judgement concerns a collective complaint by several organisations claiming that since the end of the summer of 2021, the reception network of the Federal Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers (Fedasil) has been saturated preventing them from allocating reception places to applicants for international protection. “Moreover, as of October 2021, the Belgian authorities were no longer able to systematically register asylum applications when applicants were present at the Migration Office. As registration is a prerequisite for reception, people had to sleep on the streets. From November 2021, the applicants attempted to secure their right to reception in court, but the situation continued to deteriorate”, states ECRE Weekly Legal Update (EWLU). The Belgian government has been convicted thousands of times over not providing reception for asylum seekers, but de Moor has always refused to pay the penalties.

The minister-president of Wallonia, Elio Di Rupo, and Walloon Employment Minister, Christie Morreale, wrote to the Prime Minister, Alexander De Croo, calling for the relaxation of rules on residence permits for undocumented people who have skills that cannot currently be found on the job market, following pressure from trade unions and employers demanding the facilitation of access to the job market for undocumented people and refugees. “It seems desirable to us that federal regulations allow applicants for international protection and undocumented persons, to apply to the Regions for a work permit (translated)”, reads the letter. According to Le Soir, “Within 15 years, according to demographic projections, Wallonia will have to run its economy with 50,000 fewer active workers than today. This is potentially a major problem on the horizon for companies in the south of the country”. The proposal was described as an “excellent initiative” by the Ecolo party. “We can no longer accept such a harsh asylum policy that is blind to economic challenges. The federal government must react, and we will be questioning the government,” wrote Gille Van den Burre, head of the Ecolo group in the Chamber of Deputies on Twitter. De Croo responded to the call of action saying: “I think that the absolute priority is to activate our unemployed. Let’s activate our unemployed first and then see if we need other sources of labour”. The state secretary, De Moor, who is planning three additional detention centers and a departure center to increase the capacity to 1145 places, defined the proposal as “a recipe of the past” as it “amounts to regularization on the basis of work”. A migration policy must be consistent”, she said, adding that “Those who can stay must have the chance to be activated on the labor market. Those who do not receive a right of residence must return home”.

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