People are once again sleeping on the ground and in tents in front of the offices of the Immigration Office. This concerns about a hundred asylum seekers. “Nobody helps us. How is this possible here in Europe?”
At eight o’clock on Wednesday morning, about a hundred people line up in front of the glass cube on Pachecolaan. The glass construction is the gateway to the Immigration Office (DVZ), where the people in line hope to submit their application for international protection. While the line swells, dozens of men are still sleeping on the concrete ramp next to the entrance gate to the offices. The meter-long chain of cardboard ‘mattresses’ and blankets shows that there must be about a hundred of them at night.
“It’s starting to get terribly cold now. I saw two boys aged 16 and 17 sleeping here. Is that normal?” says a 26-year-old man from Eritrea who has just woken up. He was able to apply for asylum last week and has been sleeping in front of the Immigration Office since then, awaiting his next appointment for his asylum procedure. He did not know before his arrival that a reception crisis has been going on in Belgium for more than two years and that State Secretary for Asylum and Migration Nicole De Moor (CD&V) once again emphasized last summer that there is no reception for single men. “I thought there are intelligent and helpful people in Europe, but no one helps us. How is this possible here? Do you think it’s normal how we sleep here?”
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About ten tents have been set up on top of the concrete ramp, but most people sleep outside in harrowing conditions. They can count on volunteers to bring tea and coffee, and Vluchtelingenwerk Vlaanderen is on site to inform the asylum seekers, but otherwise we see no care providers. There are also no sanitary facilities, which explains the sharp urine smell. And the trash is piling up in every corner. The situation is somewhat reminiscent of last year’s situation at Pacheco.
“It has been somewhat problematic for some time that we are again seeing more people sleeping outside where they are waiting to apply for asylum,” says Thomas Willekens, policy officer at Vluchtelingenwerk Vlaanderen. In addition to the mini tent camp on the side of the glass cube, more and more people are also sleeping at the entrance to Passage 44 on the Kruidtuinlaan side. “That’s where people go when they have an appointment for an interview at DVZ. The fact that people sleep there is new.”
Waiting list is growing
The consequences of the reception stop that De Moor announced in August are becoming increasingly visible on Pachecolaan. Vluchtelingenwerk Vlaanderen fears that the situation will only get worse in the coming weeks and months, especially now that the queues for asylum seekers appear to be getting longer.
“It has been very busy at the registration center at Pacheco in recent days. There are days when we see more than 250 people queuing to apply for asylum, while we usually do not see that at this time of the year,” said Willekens.
“These are not reassuring signals that we see,” he continues. “We also see it in the waiting list for a shelter. At the beginning of September there were still 2,300 people on it, but it is now 2,600 people. The list continues to grow.” According to Vluchtelingenwerk Vlaanderen, more and more families are applying for asylum. For the time being, they will all still be assigned a shelter. “But if the increase we have seen in recent weeks continues, we may be in trouble in December. It remains a precarious balance.”
New tent camp?
Due to the reception crisis, a large tent camp was created along the canal in Molenbeek at the end of last year. It is not inconceivable that such tent camps will reappear next winter. “That would not surprise us, because the policy has done far too little to avoid these situations. Everyone with the right to shelter should also receive shelter, but many people end up on the street,” says Willekens. “People now live a bit spread out, making the problem less visible. But when it gets colder, it could be that more people will sleep in one place in a tent camp. Just like last year, mainly to not be forgotten, to in the picture to stay.”
Vluchtelingenwerk Vlaanderen emphasizes that the reception crisis is not an unsolvable problem. The NGO sees a mandatory distribution plan as the only way to create additional reception capacity in the short term. Willekens: “It is often presented as a means of coercion, because it concerns mandatory dispersal, but that is a wrong approach. Collective reception centers are already being imposed on municipalities today, without consultation. That is of course not a way of working, while the dispersal plan takes into account with factors such as the number of residents, taxable income and the existing shelters of a municipality.”
According to the latest figures from the Commissioner General for Refugees and Stateless Persons, the largest groups of asylum seekers in September came from Syria, Afghanistan and Turkey. The other main countries of origin are Guinea, Cameroon, Eritrea, Congo, Russia, Moldova and Palestine. “You might expect there to be a larger increase for the latter group, but that is not the case for the time being,” says Willekens. “This is probably because people cannot leave Gaza.”