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A migrant hunger strike is shaking Belgium’s government

by editor

For hundreds of hunger-striking migrants in Brussels, the situation is growing dire. And it’s threatening to fracture Belgium’s government.

Their protest — launched by migrants hoping to get formal residency after living in Belgium for years — is now nearing two months, straining their health. Six strikers have sewn their mouths shut. Five have tried to commit suicide. Some have stopped drinking water. Volunteers count a thousand hospitalizations. 

Once a local issue, the strikers are gaining global attention. A U.N. human rights official came to visit them. Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters is one of many famous musicians, artists and filmmakers to sign an open letter lobbying on their behalf. A famous French cultural festival featured pleas for awareness of the migrants’ plight.

Yet Belgium’s migration officials have remained unequivocal: Nothing can be done.

It’s a stance that has prompted accusations that Belgium’s leaders are ignoring a looming humanitarian crisis and highlighted Belgium’s politically fraught approach to migration. It’s also a stance that risks breaking apart Belgium’s ruling coalition. 

On Monday, several left-leaning Belgian political parties threatened to pull out of the current government if one of the strikers dies. The groups are also leaning on Prime Minister Alexander De Croo to take the issue away from Belgium’s migration and asylum chief, Sammy Mahdi, who is refusing to budge on the strikers’ demands. 

For now, however, the situation remains almost as it was six months ago, when the migrants first began their occupation of a historic church and two Brussels-based universities. After no movement for four months, 475 of the migrants began a 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’ve lost almost 12 kilos and I’ve had two kidney infections. Now I can’t even go to the bathroom.” 

Tariq said that they had exhausted all classic political options: demonstrations, open letters, negotiation. “We want the government to take responsibility and find a solution,” he said. “They have the power, they have the possibility. One just has to be bold enough.”

The Belgian government insists it cannot bend the rules when it comes to “regularization.”

“The government has always taken the same line: you can submit your file individually, but not with a collective regularization,” said Mahdi’s spokeswoman, Sieghild Lacoere.

Two months without food

Inside the St. John the Baptist Church at the Béguinage, the air is saturated and it’s difficult to breathe. Faces are emaciated and exhausted. 

Ambulances come and go, bringing people to the hospital for urgent care. On the floor, a rescue team and volunteers provide first aid to a striker suffering from a diabetic attack.

On top of each mattress, there is a sign with each person’s job: woodworker, electrical mechanic, computer technician, nurse, hairdresser. They come from all over — the Maghreb, Pakistan and Brazil — but have lived and worked in Belgium for years. Without official papers, the migrants face social exclusion and lack of access to labor rights and social security. In Belgium, they’re known as “sans-papiers.” 

In addition to formal residency, the strikers want clear and permanent criteria for all residency applications, and an independent body to oversee each request. 

The strikers are also urging the government to process applications in a timely fashion. Some residency requests spend years making their way through the immigration office before getting rejected, leaving applicants in a prolonged state of legal limbo. 

Mahdi has met with the undocumented people several times, but they say he should come to see their current living conditions. Instead, a “neutral zone” has been established, where undocumented people can ask civil servants for information on residency procedures and the status of their individual applications. The government on Sunday also sent medical teams to the occupation sites to offer health checkups to those who wanted one.

“The problem … is that government officials do not 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 science. If they did, Mohamed added, “they would quickly realize that they 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 over fear of expulsion or prosecution.

The stand has gradually drawn worldwide attention. 

A support movement, “We are Belgium too,” has collected 40,000 signatures online. At the Avignon Festival in France, Belgian artists expressed solidarity with the migrants, reading for the audience an open letter the migrants had written. The letter that drew Roger Waters’ signature and also includes academic and artistic luminaries such as Noam Chomsky, Brian Eno, Ai Wei Wei, Peter Gabriel and Mike Leigh. 

International organizations have also taken notice. Olivier De Schutter, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, visited the church earlier this month. He then sent the Belgian government a concerned letter, co-signed by his colleague Felipe González, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants. De Schutter also met with Mahdi on July 12.

But so far, the appeals have come to no avail.

Mahdi has previously said the government made “mistakes” in 2000 and 2009 when it granted collective temporary residency permits to prior migrant occupations in Brussels. 

This time around, Mahdi has signaled the government will hold firm: there will not be a collective regularization, nor a revision of the criteria used to assess applications.

“Regularization is a procedure of exception and must remain so,” Mahdi’s office said in a statement shortly after the hunger strike started. “Setting criteria means that there will always be people who are 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 the hunger strikers through the existing application process. In light of the dire health situation, the strikers’ requests will be prioritized.

Belgium’s fraught migration politics

Migration is a charged issue for Belgium, divisive enough to topple governments.

In 2018, then-Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel’s government collapsed after its largest coalition partner, the nationalist New Flemish Alliance, quit after the Belgian parliament backed a U.N. migration pact.

The issue remains high on voters’ priority lists. And it’s becoming a source of contention within Belgium’s ruling seven-party coalition, the so-called Vivaldi government, which spans the ideological spectrum.

“There is a trauma of migration issues in the way the previous government ended,” said Nina Hetmanska, a member of the support committee for the migrants and PhD assistant at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, one of the occupied universities.

The current government is still “extremely fragile,” Hetmanska added.

The French-speaking Socialist Party and Ecolo, both left-leaning, want Mahdi stripped of authority over the protesting migrants. This week, the two parties even threatened to quit the coalition if there’s a death among the hunger strikers. Between them, the parties control seven of the coalition’s 20 ministers, giving them considerable — but not absolute — sway.

Yet the Flemish Socialist Party, Vooruit, is backing Mahdi.

“Regularization remains an exceptional procedure and is a favor, not a right,” Ben Segers, a Flemish Socialist MP, said in June on Flemish radio.

Meanwhile, Mahdi’s Flemish Christian Democratic party has traditionally held a more right-leaning stance on migration. His party, along with the centrist Open Flemish Liberals and Democrats, are wary of being punished at the polls if the migrant standoff led the government to collapse.

These fissures are only growing. Last Thursday, Ecolo and the Francophone Socialists issued a joint open letter to the federal government, asking it to resolve the standoff with the hunger strikers and pleading for structural reform to the migration process. Asked whether quitting the government would spark a crisis, an Ecolo spokesperson said only, “discussions are underway. We are extremely focused on the next few hours, which will be very important.”

On Monday, De Croo expressed his “trust” 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 create problems.”

And Mahdi shows no signs of relenting. He urged his coalition partners not to offer false hope or suggest temporary residency permits. 

“Giving a short stay to all hunger strikers is not desirable,” he said in a statement last week. “A few months later, the same undocumented people find themselves in an irregular situation again.”

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