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For hundreds of migrants on hunger strike in Brussels, the situation is becoming dramatic. And that threatens to fracture the Belgian government.
Their protest – started by migrants hoping to obtain official residency after living in Belgium for years – is now approaching two months, putting a strain on their health. Six attackers sewed their mouths together. Five attempted suicide. Some have stopped drinking water. The volunteers count a thousand hospitalizations.
Once a local problem, strikers are gaining worldwide attention. A UN human rights official came to visit them. Roger Waters of Pink Floyd is one of many famous musicians, artists and filmmakers to sign an open lobbying letter on their behalf. A famous French cultural festival presented appeals to raise awareness of the plight of migrants.
However, Belgian migration officials remained unequivocal: nothing can be done.
It’s a position that has sparked accusations that Belgian leaders are ignoring an impending humanitarian crisis and have highlighted Belgium’s politically heavy-handed approach to migration. It is also a position which risks breaking the coalition in power in Belgium.
On Monday, several left-wing Belgian political parties threatened to withdraw from the current government in the event of the death of one of the strikers. The groups are also relying on Prime Minister Alexander De Croo to withdraw the case of the Belgian head of migration and asylum, Sammy Mahdi, who refuses to budge on the demands of the strikers.
For now, however, the situation remains almost as it was six months ago, when migrants began to occupy a historic church and two Brussels universities. After four months of immobility, 475 of the migrants went on hunger strike on May 23.
“The hunger strike is our last card,” said Tariq, 41, who has lived in Belgium since 2013. “I can’t take it anymore. I lost almost 12 pounds and had two kidney infections. Now I can’t even go to the bathroom.
Tariq said they had exhausted all classic political options: protests, open letters, negotiation. “We want the government to take its responsibilities and find a solution,” he said. “They have the power, they have the possibility. You just have to be bold enough.
The Belgian government insists that it cannot circumvent the rules on “regularization”.
“The government has always followed the same line: you can submit your case individually, but not with collective regularization,” Mahdi spokeswoman Sieghild Lacoere said.
Two months without food
Inside the Church of Saint-Jean-Baptiste du Béguinage, the air is saturated and it is difficult to breathe. The faces are emaciated and exhausted.
Ambulances come and go, bringing people to the hospital for emergency care. Upstairs, a rescue team and volunteers provide first aid to an attacker suffering from a diabetes crisis.
On each mattress, a sign with the profession of each: carpenter, electromechanic, computer scientist, nurse, hairdresser. They come from everywhere, from 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 “illegal immigrant.”
In addition to official residence, the strikers want clear and permanent criteria for all applications for residence, and an independent body to oversee each application.
The strikers are also urging the government to process the demands in a timely manner. Some residency applications spend years passing through the immigration office before being rejected, leaving applicants in a prolonged state of legal limbo.
Mahdi has met the undocumented migrants several times, but they say he should come and see their current living conditions. Instead, a “neutral zone” has been established, where undocumented people can ask officials for information on residence procedures and the status of their individual claims. The government also sent medical teams to the occupation sites on Sunday to offer health checks to those who wished.
“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 study for a bachelor’s degree in biomedical sciences. If they did, Mohamed added, “they would quickly realize that these are people with potential, who know the country, who respect the values and principles of Belgium”.
Mohamed, like others interviewed at the church, declined to provide a full name for fear of expulsion or prosecution.
The stand gradually gained the attention of the whole world.
A support movement, “We are also Belgium”, collected 40,000 signatures online. At the Avignon Festival in France, Belgian artists expressed their solidarity with the migrants, reading to the public an open letter that the migrants had written. The letter which drew the signature of Roger Waters and also includes academic and artistic figures such as Noam Chomsky, Brian Eno, Ai Wei Wei, Peter Gabriel and Mike Leigh.
International organizations have also taken note. 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 worried letter, co-signed by his colleague Felipe González, UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants. De Schutter also met Mahdi on July 12.
But so far the appeals have not been successful.
Mahdi has previously said the government made “mistakes” in 2000 and 2009 when it granted collective temporary residence permits to former migrant workers in Brussels.
This time around, Mahdi has indicated that the government will hold its own: there will be no collective regularization, nor any revision of the criteria used to evaluate the candidates.
“Regularization is an exceptional procedure and must remain so,” Mahdi’s office said in a statement shortly after the start of the hunger strike. “Setting criteria means that there will always be people excluded. Each case is treated individually because each situation is different.
On Monday, Mahdi appointed a neutral envoy from the Belgian central asylum authority to guide hunger strikers through the existing application process. In view of the dramatic health situation, the demands of the strikers will be prioritized.
Belgium’s tense migration policy
Migration is a serious problem for Belgium, conflicting enough to overthrow governments.
In 2018, the government of then Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel collapsed after the resignation of its biggest coalition partner, the New Flemish Nationalist Alliance, after the Belgian parliament backed a migration pact of Nations United.
The question remains high on the priority lists of voters. And it becomes a source of contention within the seven-party coalition in power in Belgium, the so-called Vivaldi government, which covers the entire ideological spectrum.
“There is a trauma of migration issues in the way the previous government ended,” said Nina Hetmanska, member of the committee to support migrants and a doctoral student 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 on the left, want the Mahdi to be stripped of his authority over the protesting migrants. This week, the two parties even threatened to quit the coalition if the hunger strikers died. Between them, the parties control seven of the 20 ministers in the coalition, giving them considerable, but not absolute, influence.
However, the Flemish Socialist Party Vooruit supports Mahdi.
“Regularization remains an exceptional procedure and is a favor, not a right,” Ben Segers, a Flemish socialist deputy, told Flemish radio in June.
Meanwhile, Mahdi’s Flemish Christian Democratic Party has traditionally taken a more right-wing stance on migration. His party, along with the open centrist Flemish Liberals and Democrats, fear punishment at the ballot box if the migrant stalemate leads the government to collapse.
These cracks are only getting bigger. Last Thursday, Ecolo and the French-speaking socialists published a joint open letter to the federal government, asking it to resolve the impasse with the hunger strikers and pleading for a structural reform of the migration process. When asked if the government’s resignation would trigger a crisis, a spokesperson for Ecolo only replied: “Discussions are ongoing. We are extremely focused on the next few hours, which will be very important. “
On Monday, De Croo expressed his “confidence” in Mahdi to handle the situation. “The last thing our battered country needs right now is a political crisis,” he said. “Our job is to find solutions, not to create problems.”
And Mahdi shows no sign of relenting. He urged his coalition partners not to offer false hopes or suggest temporary residence permits.
“Giving all hunger strikers a short stay is undesirable,” he said in a statement last week. “A few months later, the same undocumented migrants once again find themselves in an irregular situation. “