Maximilian Park in Brussels, Belgium, where refugees regularly settle | Photo: Citizens' Platform for Refugee Assistance
Maximilian Park in Brussels, Belgium, where refugees regularly settle | Photo: Citizens' Platform for Refugee Assistance

This summer's extended hunger strike by undocumented migrants in Belgium revealed the shortcomings of the Belgian administration in terms of integration processes for all foreigners. InfoMigrants looks at the different options for living legally in the country.

Suicide attempts, hospitalizations, health problems ... The hunger strike of 450 undocumented migrants in Belgium from May to July 2021 was dramatic. It also highlighted the difficulty, for foreigners, to reside legally in the country. Having a job, a family, and years of life in Belgium behind you is not always enough to obtain official papers.

If you want to settle in the country permanently, here are the main solutions available to you.

Option 1: Residence permit

The first option is the residence permit, which is mandatory if you want to stay in Belgium for more than 90 days. Usually you make the first request from your country of residence outside Belgium. You must apply for a D visa, also called a national long-stay visa, at the relevant Belgian diplomatic or consular post.

When you arrive in Belgium, you must present your D visa to the municipal administration associated with your Belgian address, within eight days. The city authorities will then conduct a "residence inquiry", your file will be entered in the register of foreigners, and a residence permit will be issued. As a rule, this is granted for a limited period of time: it is called the A card.

Between 45 and 30 days before the expiry of the card, you must apply for a renewal. As with the first application, you must submit your file to the municipal administration of the place where you live. It is then sent to the Office des étrangers (OE), Long stay department, for examination and decision.

"When applying for an extension of the A card for the first time, the person must also prove that he or she has made efforts to integrate into Belgian society," the OE website states. To complete your file, you can, for example, follow an integration course organized by the authorities, prove that you work as an employee, civil servant or self-employed person, know and speak the different languages used in Belgium, or indicate that you have followed a professional training course.

The Belgian administration can also issue a B card instead of the A card, which authorizes you to stay in Belgium for an unlimited period of time. However, the OE will still be able to "oversee the efforts you make to integrate into Belgian society" for a period of four years.

Read more: Belgium: Hunger striking migrants 'between life and death'

Applying for a residence permit from within Belgium

It is also possible to apply for a residence permit from inside Belgium, when "exceptional circumstances" justify it. If you can prove that it is impossible or particularly difficult for you to return to your country of origin to apply for a residence permit, then you can do so from Belgium. The website of the OE points out that "a long stay in Belgium, or integration in Belgian society, is not, in itself, an exceptional circumstance justifying the submission of an application for a residence permit."

If you can justify "exceptional circumstances", then the application must be made to the local administration, which will check within 10 days whether you live at the address indicated. The local authorities will then forward your application for a residence permit to the OE, for examination and decision.

It is also possible to apply from Belgium for "medical reasons". If you suffer from an illness that poses a real risk to your life or physical integrity, or "a real risk of inhuman or degrading treatment, and there is no adequate treatment in your country of origin," then you can send your application to the OE, by registered mail.

Read more: EU to establish new asylum agency

Option 2: Work in Belgium

Working legally in Belgium is another solution. The application for a work permit is made to the regional administration and, once accepted, it is issued by the OE. This single permit is equivalent to a residence permit.

In the Brussels-Capital Region, it is usually the employer who fills out, dates and signs the work permit application form. In Wallonia, it is up to you to provide the information on your identity, and your employer to provide the information on the position to be held. The authorization will be provided to you by the Service Public de Wallonie.

In principle, "you must be residing in your country of origin when applying for a work permit," explains the OE. If you live abroad, once the permit has been granted, you will receive a visa via the diplomatic post to cross the borders. Once in Belgium, you can pick up your permit at the local administration if it is a work permit for more than 90 days, the "unique permit".

You can also apply for a work permit in Belgium, but under certain conditions: if you are already legally resident in Belgium, or if you already have a work permit in another region.

Read more: Belgium: A center for asylum seekers comes under fire from critics

Option 3: Family reunification

This application can be made from within Belgium. The length of time it takes to process an application for a visa or residence permit is determined by the nationality of the person residing in Belgium.

In most cases, the decision is made by the OE. When the decision is positive, the family member concerned receives a visa or a residence permit, sometimes both.

If the application is refused, the applicant can appeal to the Conseil du contentieux des étrangers. In some cases, the applicant can ask the OE to review the decision. For example, they can propose that an applicant who has not been able to establish his or her family connection with documents have recourse to a DNA test. It is also possible to submit a new application.

Having stayed in Belgium for a certain period of time, the family member who was able to settle in Belgium thanks to family reunification can apply for permanent residence.

Option 4: Apply for asylum

To reside legally in Belgium you can also apply for asylum and obtain refugee status. This is granted to any foreigner who meets the criteria of Article 1 of the Geneva Convention.

To do so, you must first apply to the OE, upon arrival at the border or within eight days thereafter. You must provide them with information about your identity, your origin and the route you took to Belgium. An interpreter can help you if you do not speak the language of the procedure. You will also have to explain, during this step, why you are applying for asylum.

Your file is then sent to the Commissariat général aux réfugiés et aux apatrides (CGRA). "If the asylum seeker meets the criteria set out in the Geneva Convention, he or she will be officially recognized as a refugee. If the asylum seeker cannot be recognized as a refugee but runs a real risk of suffering serious harm if returned to his or her country of origin, he or she is granted subsidiary protection status," explains the Foreign Ministry website.

However, "the number of people granted subsidiary protection status is lower than the number of people who are granted refugee status," it says. This is due to the fact that the Belgian asylum authorities (CGRA and CCE) give priority to the recognition of refugee status and apply a rather broad interpretation of the definition of refugee. Thus, in a number of situations for which other countries would grant subsidiary protection status, Belgium grants refugee status instead.

In case of refusal, it is possible to appeal within 30 days to a third administration, the Conseil du contentieux des étrangers (CCE). This body can cancel the decision of the CGRA and send your application back to it for reconsideration.

If the CGRA and the CCE refuse your application, you can appeal to the Conseil d'Etat, again within 30 days of the decision.


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