In Belgium, migrants have been strongly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic -- not only did they face difficulties in filing their asylum applications, the government has also imposed stricter regulations for accessing accommodation. Conditions for migrants have become extremely precarious, says the director of the NGO Ciré.
In January, the Belgian migration minister Maggie de Block announced the tightening of the rules governing the provision of accommodation for asylum seekers in Belgium. The measure put an end to the unconditional reception of two categories of people: those who have been granted refugee status in another European state and those who apply for asylum in Belgium but have already registered in another EU country and would therefore by obliged to be return under the Dublin regulation.
More than eight months after the announcement and at a time when Belgium is still dealing with the coronavirus crisis, what is the situation for asylum seekers in the country? InfoMigrants spoke with Sotieta Ngo, director of Ciré (Coordination and Initiatives for Refugees and Foreigners) to find out.
InfoMigrants: In January, Belgian Minister of Asylum and Migration Maggie de Block wanted to limit access to accommodation for certain categories of migrants. Where are we today?
Sotieta Ngo: Along with other non-profit organizations, we challenged the guidelines issued by Maggie de Block. In May, a preliminary opinion by the Council of State ruled in our favor.
On Friday, September 11, three days before the scheduled hearing, the state withdrew its instructions, presumably to avoid losing in court. The minister had therefore put in place a measure that she knew was illegal. Depriving a certain category of people of access to accommodation must be done within a legal framework, but that was not the case. This is a small victory, but we remain concerned because the government is working on changing the law. It wants to modify and adapt the legislation in order to limit unconditional accommodation.
IM: What were the consequences of these instructions for the asylum seekers?
SN: For several months, hundreds of people were left out in the cold and not taken care of by the government. There was no room for them in the Fedasil [centers dedicated to the care of asylum seekers] accommodation network. Formerly Dublined exiles (those who under the Dublin regulation were registered in another EU country but have come to Belgium to seek asylum, ed. note) and statutory refugees were left on the streets in a situation of extreme precariousness, which was aggravated by the Covid pandemic.
It is the aid associations, in particular Citizen Platform, that have taken over. That is not acceptable, it is not up to citizens to make up for the shortcomings of the government.
IM: With the COVID-19 health crisis, were asylum claims able to be filed? And did the applicants have access to care?
SN: Here again, the government's methods are unacceptable. At the beginning of the health crisis in March, the Office for Foreigners [which falls under the Belgian Ministry of the Interior] was closed, so no asylum applications could be registered. At the beginning of April, the filing of asylum applications resumed, but only electronically. Foreigners must now fill out an online form to submit their applications. While waiting for the summons, which can take several weeks, the applicants are not housed and have no option but to live on the street. Among these exiles are families and sick or elderly people.
However, a request for protection gives one the right to accommodation. Once again, we had to take legal action, and we are waiting for the decision. More than 1,000 individual proceedings against the government have been filed since the beginning of the health crisis, half of which are related to the non-respect of the right to housing. All of them have been won by the claimants.
IM: Why do you think the government is doing this?
SN: If there is a goal, it is to dissuade exiles from coming to Belgium. The government is hiding behind the health crisis, and tacitly admitting that taking care of asylum seekers is not a priority.
In this time of turmoil from coronavirus, the rights of migrants are not worth much. We tirelessly repeat that the violations of the rights of foreigners must stop. Belgium is failing in its obligations, at the level of Belgian law but also of the Geneva Convention. This is not worthy of a state governed by the rule of law.