The global solidarity with Ukrainian refugees is also being demonstrated in Belgium, where they have opened a center dedicated to registering Ukrainian asylum applications. Local NGOs express regret that all asylum seekers are not receiving the same warm hand of welcome.
Belgium is mobilizing to help Ukrainian refugees. Since March 14, those displaced by the war have been able to register for temporary protection at Palais 8 du Heysel in Brussels. The protection scheme was activated by the European Union at the beginning of March and is valid for one year with the option to renew it.
The large building at Palais 8 du Heysel usually hosts trade fairs and exhibitions and has now been made available to the Fedasil agency and the Foreigners Office, the two institutions in charge of receiving migrants in Belgium.
While waiting to submit their applications, Ukrainian nationals "wait in a protected shelter", said the mayor of Brussels, Philippe Close, speaking to Belgian television channel RTBF. Once each application has been processed, anyone without an immediate housing solution is then offered "an emergency reception for one night, either in a hotel in Brussels or in the brand new reception center located [...] in Molenbeek," says the Fedasil website. Since the Russian offensive started in Ukraine on February 24, nearly 8,000 people have already been registered in this center.
Situation different for other migrants
In the city center, further south, the situation is much less orderly. In front of the doors of the Little Castle, the country's only registration center for asylum seekers run by Fedasil, the line of refugees from the rest of the world has been steadily growing. People who have fled Afghanistan, Syria or the Horn of Africa have been waiting for days in the hope of getting a place in a center.
"We welcome women and families with children, but for the others ... at the moment, we can't get everyone in," admits Benoît Mansy, spokesman for the Belgian agency, speaking with InfoMigrants. "We are back to the situation that prevailed in December.
At the end of 2021, the system was completely overwhelmed. Due to a lack of places, hundreds of people found themselves out on the street in the cold. To try to stem the problem, the Belgian state and local authorities were forced to open additional accommodation places in January.
These measures proved effective in the short term, but they are very inadequate to deal with the current situation. According to Belgian associations, nearly a thousand single men were unable to register their applications last week, according to the Belga press agency. There were 250 on March 14 alone. Yet Belgian law guarantees temporary accommodation to any exile who wants to apply for asylum in the country.
'The Taliban are far away'
The current critical situation implies, for the associations, a differentiated treatment between Ukrainian exiles and others. "We can only welcome this solidarity that is being expressed towards people fleeing the war in Ukraine. We must not discourage this momentum. But what would be even better would be to extend it to the people who have been fighting for their rights for months in front of Le Petit-Château [an asylum reception centre in Brussels]," says Michel Genet, director of Médecins du Monde Belgium, speaking with InfoMigrants. "Politicians know how to make an effort when they identify with refugees born in a country close to them. In comparison, the Taliban are far away."
"We can't compare the experiences of one person with those of another, but because of the political directives at national and European levels, the treatments are different," replies Mansy. "Fedasil has not concentrated all its resources on Ukrainian refugees ... But we have to recognize that there is not enough room for everyone."
This is obviously a difficult situation to accept for the asylum seekers waiting at Le Petit-Château, "who say they don't really understand what has happened. They feel abandoned," laments Genet.
One clear example are Afghan nationals. Afghanistan since March 2 is no longer considered a risk country by Belgium. Afghans applying for subsidiary protection can therefore be rejected. The General Commissioner for Refugees and Stateless Persons (CGRA) believes that "with the Taliban takeover, the security situation has changed significantly (...) But there is no longer a real risk of being a victim of indiscriminate violence in Afghanistan."
For refugees from Ethiopia, the situation in Belgium is also difficult. Since November 2020, the Tigray region has been ravaged by a devastating civil war. While no precise toll of the conflict is available, the fighting has driven more than 50,000 people to seek refuge in neighboring Sudan and displaced more than 63,000 within the region, according to the UN. Though Ethiopia is not considered a safe country by Belgium, the priority given to Ukrainians fleeing war is difficult to accept for Ehtiopian asylum seekers.
Belgium condemned for failing asylum seekers
Before the war in Ukraine brought hundreds of thousands of displaced people to Belgium, the Belgian asylum system was already struggling and in great difficulty. According to the Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration Sammy Mahdi, the country expects to receive 200,000 Ukrainian refugees.
For Genet, "this conflict has only amplified the reception crisis of recent months. Belgium and Fedasil were condemned on January 19 by the Brussels Court of First Instance for their poor management of asylum seekers. According to this decision, "the State has failed in its international obligations and has placed itself in an illegal situation by restricting the right to asylum."
Genet recognizes that "it is not easy to manage the flow of people. But it can be anticipated and prepared for. The Belgian state does have resources, and it is proving that today." For Ukrainian exiles, 30,000 temporary accommodation places have been identified throughout the country, according to Mansy. These are in dedicated structures, but also in sports halls, church buildings, or private homes. Emergency beds are also available to Fedasil in some hotels in the capital.
This accommodation made available to Ukrainians "could be used later on for other asylum seekers," hopes Mansy. But it remains to be seen whether the authorities will give the green light to those who, in the words of Genet, "do not look like them."
The original version in French was published on March 18, 2022.