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The situation is getting worse and worse for hundreds of migrants on hunger strikes in Brussels. And it threatens to break the Belgian government.
Her protest, launched by migrants hoping to find formal residence after living in Belgium for years, is now approaching two months and putting a strain on their health. Six strikers have their mouths sewn shut. Five tried to commit suicide. Some have stopped drinking water. There are a thousand hospital stays for volunteers.
Once a local issue, the strikers are gaining worldwide attention. A UN human rights officer visited her. Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters is one of many famous musicians, artists, and filmmakers who have signed an open lobbying letter on their behalf. A famous French cultural festival called for attention to be drawn to the plight of migrants.
But Belgium’s migration officials have made it clear that nothing can be done.
This stance has led to allegations that Belgian leaders are ignoring an impending humanitarian crisis and highlighting Belgium’s politically tense approach to migration. It is also an attitude that the Belgian government coalition could break apart.
On Monday, several left-wing Belgian political parties threatened to withdraw from the current government if one of the strikers died. The groups are also leaning on Prime Minister Alexander De Croo to get Belgium’s migration and asylum chief Sammy Mahdi, who refuses to give in to strikers’ demands, the issue off the ground.
For the time being, however, the situation remains almost the same as it was six months ago, when the migrants first began to occupy a historic church and two Brussels universities. After four months of immobility, 475 of the migrants began a hunger strike on May 23.
“The hunger strike is our last card,” says Tariq, 41, who has lived in Belgium since 2013. “I can not stand it anymore. I lost almost 50 pounds and had two kidney infections. Now I can’t even go to the toilet. ”
Tariq said they had exhausted all classic political options: demonstrations, open letters, negotiations. “We want the government to take responsibility and find a solution,” he said. “You have the power, you have the opportunity. You just have to be brave enough. “
The Belgian government insists that it cannot change the rules related to “regularization”.
“The government has always followed the same line: you can submit your files individually, but not with collective regularization,” said Mahdis spokeswoman Sieghild Lacoere.
In the Church of St. John the Baptist in the Beguinage, the air is saturated and it is difficult to breathe. The faces are emaciated and exhausted.
Ambulances come and go taking people to the hospital for emergency care. On the ground, a rescue team and volunteers provide first aid to a striker who is suffering from an attack of diabetes.
On top of each mattress there is a sign with the occupation of each individual: woodworker, electrical mechanic, computer technician, nurse, hairdresser. They come from everywhere – the Maghreb, Pakistan and Brazil – but have lived and worked in Belgium for years. Without official papers, migrants face social exclusion and lack of access to labor rights and social security. In Belgium they are known as “Sans-Papiers.”
In addition to formal residence permits, the strikers are demanding clear and permanent criteria for all residence applications and an independent body to oversee each application.
The strikers are also calling on the government to process applications in a timely manner. Some residence applications have to go through immigration for years before being rejected, leaving applicants in a prolonged legal limbo.
Mahdi has met with undocumented people several times, but they say he should come to see their current living conditions. Instead, a “neutral zone” has been set up in which undocumented persons can ask officials for information about residence procedures and the status of their individual applications. The government also sent medical teams to the occupation sites on Sunday to offer health checkups to those who wanted one.
“The problem … is that government officials don’t know the profile of the strikers,” said Mohamed, 28, who said he came from Morocco in 2010 to do a bachelor’s degree in biomedicine. If they did, Mohamed added, “they would quickly realize that they are people with potential, who know the country, who respect Belgium’s values and principles.”
Like other people interviewed at the church, Mohamed refused to give his full name for fear of deportation or prosecution.
The booth gradually attracted worldwide attention.
A support movement “We are Belgium too” has collected 40,000 signatures online. At the Avignon Festival in France, Belgian artists showed solidarity with the migrants and read an open letter written by the migrants to the audience. The letter that signed Roger Waters also includes academic and artistic luminaries such as Noam Chomsky, Brian Eno, Ai Wei Wei, Peter Gabriel and Mike Leigh.
International organizations have also become aware of this. Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, visited the church earlier this month. He then sent the Belgian government a concerned letter, which his colleague Felipe González, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, co-signed. De Schutter also met with Mahdi on July 12th.
But so far the appointments have remained in vain.
Mahdi has previously said the government made “mistakes” in 2000 and 2009 in granting collective temporary residence permits to previous migrants’ jobs in Brussels.
This time Mahdi has signaled that the government will withstand: There will be no collective regularization and no review of the criteria for evaluating the applications.
“Regularization is and must remain an exceptional procedure,” Mahdi’s office said in a statement shortly after the hunger strike began. “Setting criteria means that there will always be people who will be excluded. Each case is treated individually because every situation is different. “
Mahdi appointed a neutral envoy from the Belgian asylum center on Monday to guide the hunger strikers through the existing application process. Given the dire health situation, the concerns of the strikers are prioritized.
Migration is a hot topic for Belgium, divisive enough to topple governments.
In 2018, the government of then Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel collapsed after its largest coalition partner, the nationalist New Flemish Alliance, left after the Belgian parliament supported a UN migration pact.
The issue is still high on voters’ priority lists. And it becomes a point of contention within Belgium’s ruling seven-party coalition, the so-called Vivaldi government, which spans the ideological spectrum.
“The end of the previous government is a trauma of migration problems,” said Nina Hetmanska, member of the support committee for the migrants and doctoral candidate at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, one of the occupied universities.
The current government is still “extremely fragile,” added Hetmanska.
The French-speaking Socialist Party and Ecolo, both left-wing, want Mahdi to be deprived of authority over the protesting migrants. This week, the two parties even threatened to leave the coalition if there is a death among the hunger strikers. Together, the parties control seven of the coalition’s 20 ministers, giving them considerable – but not absolute – leverage.
But the Flemish Socialist Party Vooruit supports Mahdi.
“Regularization remains an exceptional practice and a favor, not a right,” said Ben Segers, a Flemish socialist MP, on Flemish radio in June.
Meanwhile, Mahdi’s Flemish Christian Democratic Party traditionally takes a more right-wing stance on migration. His party, along with the centrist Open Flemish Liberals and Democrats, are careful not to be punished at the polls if the immigrant stalemate leads to the collapse of the government.
These cracks only grow. Last Thursday, Ecolo and the Francophone Social Democrats asked the German government in a joint open letter to resolve the stalemate with the hunger strikers and pleaded for structural reform of the migration process. When asked if leaving the government would trigger a crisis, an Ecolo spokesman simply said: “Talks are ongoing. We are extremely focused on the next few hours, which will be very important. “
On Monday, De Croo Mahdi expressed his “confidence” to handle the situation. “The last thing our troubled country needs right now is a political crisis,” he said. “Our job is to find solutions, not to create problems.”
And Mahdi shows no signs of giving in. He urged his coalition partners not to raise false hopes or to propose temporary residence permits.
“It is undesirable to have short stays for all hunger strikers,” he said in a statement last week. “A few months later, the same undocumented people are again in an irregular situation.”