July 28, 2021

The Belgian government remains deaf to the plight of undocumented migrants on hunger strike

Tarek has lost 14 kilos since starting his hunger strike. In this chilly and rainy month of July in Brussels, he is bundled up in his beige parka, whose hood he has rolled up. He is alone on a bench, in front of the Saint-Jean-Baptiste-au-B├ęguinage church, a gigantic baroque building in the historic center of the Belgian capital and House of Compassion, at the heart of a project of meeting between people from all beliefs. In recent years, the church has mainly been the place where undocumented migrants gather at regular intervals in search of regularization.

Some 250 Moroccans, Tunisians, Egyptians, Pakistanis or Nepalese, men and women, sometimes accompanied by children, are on hunger strike and have occupied the premises since the end of May. A little more than 200 others invaded the refectories of the free universities, French-speaking and Dutch-speaking, of Brussels (ULB and VUB), at the other end of the city.

All the strikers hoped for a regularization, like those which had occurred on several occasions. But the last one took place in 2009 and, since, the conditions of access to residence permits have tightened, notes the Coordination and initiatives for refugees and foreigners (CIRE). The occupants of the Beguinage church also relied on the fact that the current government, a coalition bringing together the liberals and the Flemish center-right, but also the socialist and environmental left, would be more sensitive to their plight than the previous secretary of State to migration, the Flemish nationalist Theo Francken, and the former interior minister, Jan Jambon.

“Unacceptable” hunger strike

Vain hope, apparently. “There will be no collective regularization”, repeats Sammy Mahdi, appointed Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration in October 2020. This Flemish Christian Democrat, supported by the liberal Prime Minister, Alexander De Croo, puts forward his achievements: facilitated and accelerated reception for refugees, digital window to obtain a work permit, procedure for the most vulnerable. On the other hand, he insists, there is no question of collective regularizations which would penalize the 8,000 foreign students who had to complete many formalities to come to study, the 15,000 non-Europeans who obtained the right to work with a permit at the key, or all those who have returned home and “Had to give up a dream”. “It is unacceptable to resort to a hunger strike to bend the rules”, says this young official, who rejects any accusation of inhumanity.

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