Belgian migrant aid associations have raised the alarm over a lack of government measures to protect migrants from an outbreak of the coronavirus. The groups also say that migrants' rights are being violated.
In Belgium, the current health crisis has put a spotlight on the plight of migrants in the country, aid groups say.
"With this crisis, associations are trying to repair the political choices that led to the exclusion of migrants," Sotieta Ngo, director of the Belgian association Ciré, told InfoMigrants.
The citizen platform In Support of Refugees shares this view: "The authorities have marginalized a whole section of the population," spokesman Mehdi Kassou said. "Nothing has been done at the federal level to protect migrants. Since the beginning of the coronavirus epidemic, Maggie De Block (Minister of Social Affairs, Public Health, Asylum and Migration, editor's note) has remained silent on matters of asylum."
Impossible to apply for asylum
Brussels has taken steps, but they are considered "scandalous" by NGOs. On March 18, the first day of the government's containment measures, the authorities closed the Office for Foreigners, the place where asylum applications are lodged. It is therefore -- for the time being -- no longer possible to apply for asylum in Belgium.
Thus, new asylum seekers can no longer receive government support under the national reception system, which includes housing, medical care and financial assistance. They find themselves effectively homeless and undocumented.
Another subject of tension is the non-renewal of residence permits for foreigners. Several countries affected by the coronavirus, such as France, have extended residence permits for three months, but in Belgium, foreigners must apply by email and substantiate their reasons. The measure is considered "incomprehensible" by NGOs.
Closed centers at 50 percent occupancy
NGOs are also concerned about closed centers, which are comparable to the administrative detention centers (CRAs) in France. These facilities are invariably occupied by migrants pending deportation. "The closed centers are 50% occupied by foreigners who have been released from prison. The others have been released but with an order to leave the country within 30 days. Even if they wanted to, it's impossible, the borders are closed," Sotieta Ngo said, adding that the right of NGOs to visit the centers has been suspended. "We don't know what's going on there and if sanitary measures are being observed."
In addition, migrants let out of these closed centers have been "released into the wild". As a result, many of them took refuge in the vicinity of the Parc Maximilien, a gathering place for migrants in Brussels.
A thousand migrants sheltered by NGOs
NGOs, with the help of the provinces, knew they had to adapt their strategies. The Citizens' Platform, which manages the accommodation of migrants on the streets, increased its reception capacities.
The Citizens' Platform center at Porte d'Ulysse in the suburbs of Brussels is now open 24 hours a day and is running at full capacity with 305 migrants. "In the dormitories, the beds have been spaced more than a meter apart to respect distancing measures," Kassou said. "We have also created spaces dedicated to people with coronavirus symptoms before referring them to the Samu or the Red Cross," he added.
The Platform has also established a network by sheltering 200 migrants in hotels in the Belgian capital and another 250 in private homes. In the provinces, unoccupied buildings or houses have been requisitioned to shelter the migrants and allow them to confine themselves. More than 250 people were lodged in this manner.
One thousand people are accommodated with the help of Citizens' Platform and the provinces. However, on Monday morning, about a hundred migrants were still stranded outside on the outskirts of Maximilien Park without accommodation, Kassou told InfoMigrants.
••• ➤ Practical information
- Food distributions on the outskirts of Maximilian Park continue at lunchtime and in the evening.
- The Humanitarian Hub located in the Gare du Nord remains open, and its medical capacities have been enhanced.