A year later, a migrant occupation that briefly gripped the Belgian government officially comes to an end – at the request of the host – leaving uncertainty about what has been achieved.
In January 2021, around 200 undocumented migrants moved into a historic church in Brussels, hoping to draw attention to their struggles as long-term residents who could not fully access Belgian society.
Within months, their local action turned into a global discussion. The protesters staged a hunger strike that nearly fractured the Belgian government and became a cause for artists around the world. Then, just as the strikers’ health was entering perilous territory, the protest was called off. Belgian officials had agreed to speed up the examination of the strikers’ applications for legal residence.
After that, the occupancy began to dwindle down to just 20 illegal immigrant stayed — those who lost their homes in the past year. Now church officials say the 17th century Church of Saint John the Baptist at the Beguinage in central Brussels is no longer safe as winter frost sets in. And they insist that those who remain must leave.
“It’s not human: there’s only one tap and one toilet, that’s all. And no heating,” said Daniel Alliët, the church priest, who has spent his career speaking out on behalf of migrants and is a member of House of Compassion, an organization supporting the occupation.
However, the majority of the occupants, past or present, have still not received a response to their applications for residence. And most of those who got a response were denied legal status. It’s a result that left some protesters frustrated, wondering what they could do next to keep the pressure on.
For now, however, the church administration has said the last occupants must leave – a request they have made to the local justice of the peace, who is expected to rule in late January or early February. The church administration said it “hoped for a peaceful resolution to the situation”.
Support organizations and volunteers are looking for homes for the remaining occupants. Karen Naessens, also from House of Compassion, said she was “confident” in finding solutions through an existing network of people willing to open their doors.
“We are still trying to find solutions,” said Tarik, a Moroccan protester who is still inside the church and, like other occupants, declined to give his last name. “We were able to find accommodation for many of them so that they could go there and rest. During the day, they come back here.
Over the summer, protesters went to great lengths to demand legalization and point out the difficulties they faced — like lack of access to social security and labor rights, issues that the pandemic n only exacerbated. Some have sewn their mouths shut. Others have stopped drinking water.
Yet, several months later, the demands have not evolved as quickly as they would like.
Of the 442 residency applications, the government took a decision on 79, involving 93 people, according to figures from the office of Sammy Mahdi, Belgium’s top migration official. The government granted residence to 24 of these people while refusing the other 69.
Mohamed, who is also still in the church, said he was one of 69 residents turned away. He said he was considering another hunger strike, arguing that the government had failed to deliver on its promises.
A spokesperson for Mahdi pushed back against the allegation: “The Secretary of State has always been very clear about the accusations of certain people: no false promises were made.
Those who worked with the church during the occupation say that during the protest it was acceptable to have people living in poor conditions – it was part of the political action.
“For political action, it’s normal to have circumstances that are out of the norm,” Naessens said. “But for someone who has nowhere to go, it’s an inhumane place to stay.”
Still, some of the protesters see the church itself as an important platform, even six months after reaching an agreement with the government.
“The Beguinage Church is our lever,” Tarik said. “We are already here, in the church, and there are only negative decisions [on residency applications]. If we leave, that’s it, we’re buried, right away.
Tarik is not homeless; his mother is Belgian-Moroccan and has a legal residence permit in Belgium. Tarik officially filed his own residency application on August 20, and police stopped at the end of October to confirm his address at his mother’s house. But several months later, he has not received a final decision.
Alliët, the priest, said that it was mostly women with children in school or pregnant women who had their applications accepted.
Many others didn’t even get the police check like Tarik.
“Their address needs to be verified before they get a response to their request,” Naessens said. “For many of them, that simple step of a policeman coming to check didn’t even happen.”
For Alliët, the fact that the demonstrators are leaving the church does not mean that the fight must stop.
“They are disappointed because it hardly worked out,” he said. “But it is still important that some politicians recognize that this situation is not acceptable, even if it will not change directly.”