Belgian deadlock leaves asylum seekers in snowy streets

A group of mostly Afghan young men gather under a makeshift shelter in front of the reception center for asylum seekers at Petit-Château in Brussels.

Among them, Abdulwahab, 28, says he has been sleeping on the sidewalk for two weeks.

  • Nine Afghans, two Syrians and a young Burkinabé were huddled together. Some said they had been sleeping outside for two weeks. (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

He fled Afghanistan three months ago, he said, leaving behind four children and a woman in the hope of bringing his family to Belgium.

“It was a good decision,” he said Thursday morning (December 2).

The first snow of the year had started to fall, mixed with freezing rain. At least one of the men, an 18-year-old, is said to have a fever.

Since there is no toilet, Abdulwahab says he eats less than usual. “It’s a real problem,” he says, noting that they rely on handouts from volunteers and local NGOs.

Nearby, a small group of men, standing on the sidewalk under a canopy for shelter, are told by the police to move away. They direct them towards the large brick wall of the Petit-Château to stand up in the rain.

Le Petit-Château is the first point of entry for people seeking international protection in Belgium and is managed by the national asylum agency Fedasil.

It can accommodate around 800 people, of which around 200 are supposed to be reserved only for emergencies.

Once a person is identified and registered, they are then transferred to a more permanent establishment elsewhere.

“More than 150 people are at the door every day, some days 250,” said a worker from Petit-Château, who requested anonymity.

“Belgium is not creating enough places to accommodate people,” she said, noting an occupancy rate of almost 100 percent in the country.

This lack of capacity means the entire system is backed up, leaving hundreds of people outside and exposed to the elements.

“We know that on some days there are only six places available in the whole country,” said Elias Van Dingenen of the Flemish NGO Vluchtelingenwerk. [Refugee Work].

Political mismanagement, floods in Wallonia, evacuations from Afghanistan and the Covid are all cited among the reasons for the current critical impasse.

Some 1,500 have been set aside for Covid quarantines and another 1,000 for victims of the July floods.

In mid-October, Fedasil employees at Petit-Château also went on strike because of poor working conditions.

On the same day, more than 125 people were refused entry, including minors and families with children.

The problem has since persisted, leaving mostly single men outside and homeless.

But the impending bottleneck had also been expected for months, asking questions about why people still sleep on the streets in wintry conditions.

“It’s something that they [Fedasil] that we have been talking about since May, that a capacity would be reached “, noted Van Dingenen.

Over the summer, Belgian Secretary of State for Migration and Asylum, Sammy Mahdi, announced plans for 5,400 additional so-called “buffer” places.

In a tweet at the end of November, Mahdi said that some 1,000 reception places had been created in the past month.

And centers have recently opened their doors in Lombardsijde, Oudergem, Geel and Lommel.

But he also refused proposals to use Brussels hotels as a temporary solution.

“A lot of work is done. I think the results are the most important part. And the results don’t follow ambition,” said Van Dingenen.

Asked about the reception crisis in Belgium, Mahdi’s spokesperson called it a “European problem” without going into details.

When asked if the 5,400 additional places announced over the summer had been met, she did not respond to EUobserver.

Belgium observed a 40% drop in arrivals to reception centers in 2020, mainly due to border closures.

At the end of the same year, it had just over 28,000 places in reception capacity with nearly 17,000 asylum applications filed.

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