Cells without windows, showers that can’t be used, poor safety standards and random medical check-ups: Belgium's new detention center for irregular migrants is coming under increasing fire for the "inhuman" conditions people are forced to endure while staying there. Four police unions have now called for a strike action demanding the controversial center to be closed down.
"At 127 bis [the nickname for the center located in the Brussels’ suburb of Steenokkerzeel], human rights are not respected. The situation is catastrophic," Thierry Belin, the national secretary of the Belgian police union SNPS, told InfoMigrants.
Any irregular migrant caught on Belgian soil is sent to the Steenokkerzeel facility and is held there while police process their files, take their fingerprints and conduct checks in the Belgian database. The Belgian Immigration Office then has 24 hours to decide whether the migrant in question is free to go or should be kept in detention while awaiting deportation to his or her country of origin, or the European country where he or she first set foot.
Since the center opened in September, the facility has come under fire over the poor conditions migrants are forced to live in while being held there. In an extremely rare move, the Belgian police force has now openly criticized the state of the center, with four police unions threatening to go on strike between 12-22 October to protest their working conditions at the center and the substandard living conditions the migrants are exposed to.
"The government is acting outside of the law, we’re no longer working for a state that respects the rule of law, but in a state that tramples on human rights," Thierry Belin said.
Safety standards disrespected
According to the officers working there, the building that houses single men – families are held in another part of the center – is less than substandard and not in line with safety standards: Fire hazards, asbestos, risk of electrocution… "We found a fire extinguisher that had expired years ago," Thierry Belin explained. "Yesterday, while we were carrying out a fire drill, it took one of the officers some three minutes to open the door to one of the cells. If there had really been a fire, the person locked in there would have been dead."
The unions also denounce the fact that several of the cells aren’t fit to house people: some lack windows, others daylight, and many lack video surveillance or ways for the detained person to contact the guards in the case of an emergency. Electrical wires hang loose in many of the cells.
The officers working there fear a heightened risk of suicides, accidents and fights because they won’t be able to intervene in time, reaching a scene of emergency only when it’s "too late". "It’s inhuman! And if something serious happens, the officers will be the ones who are responsible," Thierry Belin said.
No showers or medical check-ups
There are also reports of serious sanitary problems: Migrants don’t have access to showers and everyone shares the same toilets (women, men, children and police staff).
Domonique Emould, a spokesman for the Belgian Immigration Office, said the accusations were "a total exaggeration".
“The toilets are separated and no one stays in the centre for several days without being able to wash themselves,” she told InfoMigrants.
But according to Vincent Gilles, secretary general of the police union SLFP, "the showers are inaccessible due to the presence of Salmonella. We don’t know when this problem will be solved". Mehdi Kassou, who works for a citizen platform aimed at helping migrants in Brussels, confirmed the latter. "Migrants who’ve been at the center have told me that they had no access to water points while staying there."
Officers working at the center have also pointed to other areas of concern: the lack of medical check-ups. When the migrants arrive at "127 bis", they don’t automatically get to see the facility’s house doctor. "These people arrive in terrible sanitary conditions," Thierry Belin of the SNPS said. "They only get looked at by the doctor if they show any outward sign of disease." There have been several reported cases of scabies and tuberculosis at the center.
The SLPF union has called for the centre to be shut down. "This centre was opened in a hurry and we can now see the results of that," Vincent Gilles said. "We demand its closure!"
Mehdi Kassou said he can’t see how the centre can stay open. "We knew this would happen! The authorities opened up this place, in a dilapidated building, in the course of just seven days, without checking that it met any kind of safety standard."