Migrants occupy the Beguinage church in Brussels, demanding dialogue with the government over regularization | Photo: AP Photo/F. Seco
Migrants occupy the Beguinage church in Brussels, demanding dialogue with the government over regularization | Photo: AP Photo/F. Seco

One year after undocumented migrants started staging a hunger strike at the Beguinage church in Brussels, the church has requested an end to the occupation. The migrants still have not received a ruling on their residency applications.

After about a year of hosting a group of undocumented migrants, the Beguinage church's officials are asking the migrants to leave the premises.

The church administration says that the building is not suitable for accommodating people in the freezing winter months. "It's not humane: There is only one toilet, no heating or showers," reads the statement published on the church's website on January 4, signed by the church's priest Daniel Alliet. "We know from experience that such conditions can be risky and lead to counterproductive results."

The occupants are faced with an uncertain future as most of them have not received an answer on their residency applications. Support organizations and volunteers are reportedly trying to find alternative accommodation.

A home for migrants on hunger strike

The occupation was initiated by a group of undocumented migrants under the formation of Union des Sans-papiers pour la Régularisation (USPR) in January last year in an attempt to bring attention to their struggle as long-term residents to access the job market and social services.

Between May and July, the historical church located in central Brussels became the main site of the hunger strike of more than 400 undocumented migrants who were demanding a clear path to legal residency, with many having lived and worked in Belgium for years.

"The action was not an action by and for 'homeless' people, but a political action. The [occupants] were undocumented workers who had worked here for many years, often in severely exploitive conditions," the Beguinage church's statement reads.

Many of the activists were hospitalized as a result of their worsening health after weeks of hunger strikes. Belgian and international press, including Politico, reported that some of them stitched their mouth shut, five committed suicide, and some others stopped drinking water.

As images of emaciated strikers were circulating online, the occupation began to get global attention, as well as the support of the French-speaking socialist party PS and green party Ecolo in Belgium.

The migrants ceased their hunger strike in July after Migration Minister Sammy Mahdi promised to hold negotiation talks and review their cases quickly.

The Beguinage Church has a record of supporting migrants and their causes. | Photo: AP Photo/F. Seco
The Beguinage Church has a record of supporting migrants and their causes. | Photo: AP Photo/F. Seco

The strikers return

Early November, about 40 undocumented migrants returned to the church to resume their strike, Brussels Times reports. The occupation representatives were quoted by several Belgian news outlets saying that most strikers did not receive a positive answer and that Mahdi did not deliver the promises he made during negotiation talks. They said the applications were treated arbitrarily and accused the government of unprecedented deceit, according to Brussels Times.

"We feel very disappointed when we see the number of negative responses, even for people who we thought had excellent cases," says the Beguinage church’s recent statement, "files which -- after discussions with the authorities -- we expected to end in positive answers."

Some 20 migrants still rely on the church for refuge, according to the Beguinage church’s administration. These are mostly people who lost their homes during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The priest in the Beguinage Church is well known as a supporter of refugees and undocumented migrants
The priest in the Beguinage Church is well known as a supporter of refugees and undocumented migrants

'Hoping for a serene solution'

For now, the church administration has asked the final occupiers to leave. They have taken the request to the local justice of the peace -- the lowest rank of the Belgian justice system that deals with minor claims. The ruling is expected to be announced in a few weeks. In their statement, the church administration has hoped for "a serene solution to the situation."

The Beguinage church has been occupied by migrants several times in the past 20 years. Priest Daniel Alliet is known for devoting his life to supporting undocumented migrants.


"Let it be clear: this is in no way a sign that we have distanced ourselves from the struggle of people without legal residence for a more humane asylum and regularization policy!" reads the statement, signed by father Alliet. "We continue to give solidarity as always."

 

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