Fears continue to grow for the health of hundreds of undocumented migrants in Belgium who have stepped up a hunger strike aimed at getting the authorities to let them stay. The migrants have been refusing to eat for two months.
Around 450 men – mainly from Morocco and Algeria – have been protesting at three sites in Brussels since the end of May, demanding the government grant them the right to remain after years living and working in the country.
Since Friday, about 300 of the hunger strikers have also been refusing to drink, and some are reportedly near death. Four of the protestors have also stitched their lips together or harmed themselves in other ways.
We will leave the government within the hour if anybody dies
Several political parties in Belgium have urged Prime Minister Alexander De Croo to intervene, with the leaders of the Socialist and Green parties, members of the governing coalition, warning in a statement at the weekend that a tragedy was imminent.
According to the Flemish public broadcast VRT, the Socialist deputy prime minister, Pierre Yves Dermagne, told members of the inner cabinet on Monday: "We will leave the government within the hour if anybody dies."
Belgium's Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration Sammy Mahdi said on Sunday that "nobody wants a tragedy" to happen and said he was following the situation closely.
But he insisted that the government would not allow a collective right to stay, saying "that would trigger hunger strikes in churches up and down the land."
Two United Nations special rapporteurs have written an open letter to Mahdi and called for a resolution to the crisis.
"The information we are receiving is alarming and several strikers are between life and death," said Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.
Felipe Gonzalez, Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, also wrote: "In order to respond to this emergency situation, the government must immediately confirm that the state of health of the hunger strikers is an obstacle to any expulsion, and that it is considering granting a temporary residence permit, allowing the exercise of an economic activity, to anyone who applies for regularization of residence."
The tweet from the UN special rapporteur reads "Secretary of State @SammyMahdi stands by his position. Strikers stop drinking. Read the official letter (in French): https://t.co/Iv0817MzON
In a letter of reply, Mahdi defended Belgium’s right to make political choices regarding the status of non-citizens with no right to reside in the country.
Doctors of the World told local media that it feared the hunger strikers risked "sudden cardiac arrest" as their physical condition had deteriorated. "A death becomes possible at any moment," the organization said.
They also warned on Sunday that the neurological and psychological condition of the hunger strikers had deteriorated to the extent that they may decide to take their own lives.
Translation: "After nearly sixty days of hunger strike, a majority of 450 people started a thirst strike. It is urgent to find a way to end it!"