Four months after ending their hunger strike, about fifty undocumented migrants are still occupying the Béguinage church in the center of Brussels. Despite discussions held with authorities in the summer, most of the migrants are still waiting to have their status officially regularized. They hold little hope that they will one day get papers.
Alongside the Christmas festivities that are in full swing nearby in the Sainte-Catherine district, Béguinage square seems eerily quiet. Only a large fir tree decorated with a few red balls brightens up the place. Behind it, messages written on large panels adorn the façade of the Béguinage church, calling for "Regularization of undocumented migrants". Inside, roughly fifty migrants are beginning yet another day of protest.
Most of them are still waiting, with a growing sense of resignation, for their regularization to be processed. Despite the government's "helping hand" and the hope raised by discussions with the office of the Belgian Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration, Sammy Mahdi, many of these migrants have seen their applications rejected.
One such example is Nezha, who has been living in Belgium for 12 years. Last September, this 52-year-old Moroccan woman was refused for the umpteenth time, despite "a particularly good file", according to her lawyer, Marie Tancré. On Monday, November 22, five former hunger strikers filed a summary action before the French-speaking court of first instance in Brussels, for "failure to keep their word".
'Every day is hard'
In the meantime, the last occupants of the Béguinage church are getting organized to face the winter, which is already well underway. On this icy day in Brussels, the temperature does not exceed three degrees. And it is not much warmer inside the unheated building. To protect themselves from the cold, panels and cardboard boxes surround the beds of the strikers, forming an alignment of small huts from the entrance to the altar. There, a few carpets have been laid out on the floor. This is the space reserved for prayer.
A few meters away, the sound of soles dragging on the ground and coughing break the silence of the nave. Tarik wakes up slowly. He tidies up the "room" he shares with a friend. Originally from Nador, Morocco, this frail 32-year-old has been in Belgium since 2017. A white scarf tied around his neck, he admits that for him, "it's difficult at the moment to work, because of [his] bad health." So while waiting for an answer from the Office for Foreigners, he stays in the church. Even if, "with the cold, every day is hard."
For provisions, Tari counts on the local residents, who regularly bring food to the undocumented migrants at the church, he says with a smile that makes his dark-rimmed eyes crinkle. Before heading towards the small toilets, at the back of the building, he hesitates. His slippers have become too tight for his feet wrapped in thick socks.
'The bosses take advantage of it'
The floor leading to the showers is shiny. Kamel has just mopped the floor. "It has to stay clean," he proudly announces. He is also the one who posted the "no smoking" sign at the entrance of the church.
Kamel and the other strikers have all been living together since the beginning of the movement, ten months ago. Kamel has left his apartment in the center of Brussels -- "too expensive" -- despite the money earned from his many jobs in the building industry. "At the moment, I'm building a false ceiling," says this 46-year-old Algerian, born in the Casbah of Algiers, showing InfoMigrants photos. "But my former employer still owes me €1,000. That's the problem with being undocumented, the bosses take advantage of it."
Kamel arrived in Europe 27 years ago by boat, via Italy, and initially settled in Amsterdam for 13 years. On the advice of a friend, he left the Netherlands for Brussels. "In 14 years of living here, I have never had to deal with the police. I have never even set foot in a police station, I assure you. I speak French and Flemish. And even a little Romanian now, thanks to my colleagues," he adds with a laugh. "Yet I'm still here, waiting."
At the beginning of July, the hunger strike had weakened him considerably. Today, it is the cold that he fears the most. "The night here, with the cold, is an ordeal." But he does not intend to leave until he has an answer from the authorities and his situation is regularized.
Just like Dera, who talks with another former striker near a confession box where blankets are piled up. With his hat tightly on his head and his hands shoved in his jacket pockets, he says he sleeps in the church "from time to time", pointing to a white mattress on the floor. But here or in his Brussels studio, this young Algerian of 30 years says his nights are "very bad". While waiting for his case to be processed, he sleeps badly, and wakes up "at least three times a night, because of the stress."
In Belgium since 2015, Dera "has never spent a day without working," he says. Throughout the year, he takes on one assignment after another in the construction industry and in the pastry business, which he prefers.
"I know how to make all the cakes sold in bakeries, and even croissants," he says proudly. One of the occupants of the church since the beginning of the protest, the young man admits to feeling "exhausted by all this" and stuck "in a dead end."
He says he has never considered returning to Algeria. "I have made a lot of friends here, Belgians, Moroccans, Turks," he says. "In Algeria, I don't have my girlfriend anymore, and I have even lost my father. I don't have anyone to return to there anymore."