In Brussels, hundreds of people have been camping for weeks in front of the only registration center for asylum seekers, which is also responsible for providing them with shelter. But the accommodation network is completely saturated, so the migrants find themselves sleeping on the street, in the cold and in the middle of waste and rats.
Every morning, for weeks, the same scenes have played out on repeat in front of the Petit Château center in downtown Brussels. Hundreds of people queue up in front of the Fedasil agency (the federal agency for the reception of asylum seekers) to file their asylum applications and hope to find a place to stay for the night. Some of them have even taken to sleeping over night to hold their spot in the queue, in the midst of rats and garbage, as a cold winter is setting in.
This center in charge of registering applications and providing accommodation is overwhelmed. The accommodation network, with almost 29,000 places, is entirely saturated due, in particular, to floods in mid-July, according to the office of the Secretary of State for Asylum. Around 1,000 reception places were either damaged or are occupied by disaster victims.
Between 150 and 200 people wait every day
"I've been here for three weeks without getting any answers. Every day, they simply say there is no room. We sleep outside, it's cold, it's hard," an asylum seeker told Euronews.
"We have been here since November 17, we are still outside. It's cold, it rains. People are getting sick," said another man from Congo.
On average, between 150 and 200 people cram together in front of the Petit Château every day. More than half of them are single men. Vulnerable people, families and unaccompanied minors are, most of the time, given priority. But the situation has become so extreme that now there are even some unaccompanied minors left out in the cold too.
"They are all exhausted and, in terms of their mental health, it is a catastrophe. The traumas they experienced leaving their countries and traveling to get here are now being heightened because they are not being welcomed properly," says Alexandre Seron, director of campaigns at Médecins du Monde (Doctors of the World) Belgium, tells InfoMigrants. "On a physical level, they are exposed to all the germs that are circulating. It's not only COVID-19, there are also colds, pneumonia and other viruses going around. And this is all highly problematic."
'All this was foreseeable'
To deal with the most urgent cases and avoid a crisis, a collective of associations, including Doctors of the World (Médecins du Monde), Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the Belgian Red Cross and the Citizen's Platform for Aid to Refugees, distributes survival blankets and hot drinks every day. On Monday, with the help of the city authorities, the NGOs also opened a place that can house about 100 people. Only a few days after its opening, the center was, however, already full.
Other structures have been opened by the authorities but their capacity is extremely limited. New centers are expected to open soon. An agreement has been reached with the government to create an additional 5,000 places. "But it's going to take time, we have to convince the mayors, find places, develop sites...", Mehdi Kassou, founder of the Citizens' Platform, tells InfoMigrants, lamenting the lack of action by political leaders. "Only 40 places have been created since October and the Fedasil employees going on strike."
In fact, to protest against "the lack of action by our political authorities", the staff of the Petit Château stopped work in October for a number of days. The staff had already complained about the lack of reception places for asylum seekers and the deterioration of their working conditions. They also demanded respect for the right to asylum and the dignity of asylum seekers.
"Fedasil and humanitarian organizations have been sounding the alarm since the summer. The Secretary of State for Asylum did not heed the warnings, and now we are facing extreme situations. All this was foreseeable," says Mehdi Kassou, "There are no mass arrivals, so the problem is structural. It's a question of resources."