The platform for Belgium's international community

Search form

menu menu
  • Daily & Weekly newsletters
  • Buy & download The Bulletin
  • Comment on our articles

‘As good as dead anyway’: Sans-papiers threaten hunger strike

16:14 09/02/2021
In moves that recall similar actions in Brussels’ recent past, unregularised migrants are occupying buildings and threatening hunger strikes

A group of sans-papiers, or unregularised immigrants, have occupied a building at the Université Libre De Bruxelles in Etterbeek. The group entered the building yesterday, about a week after 200 people moved into the Saint John Church at the Béguinage near De Brouckere.

The corona crisis and now the freezing temperatures have ramped up activism among sans-papiers. Many of them have been living in Belgium for more than a decade without papers to allow them to work legally. And now the pandemic has caused the unreported work they do to support themselves to largely dry up.

“We’re not going to give up,” a member of the group at the university told Bruzz. “More occupations will follow this one.”

The pastor of the Saint John Church has put out a call for other churches to open their doors to these permanent migrants. The more than 200 people sleeping in the church are wearing masks and trying to social distance. People lined up outside this week hoping for a space, but the pandemic means not everyone can get inside the church.

“There are people here from Arabic countries, Algeria, Tunisia, Pakistan and Africa – all of them unregularised,” a migrant called Khalid told the paper. “I’ve been illegal for 14 years. Before corona, I worked at the Early Morning Market, the Abattoir or flea markets, sometimes for €20 a day. Just to survive. But now there’s hardly any work because of corona.”

Desperate measures

As temperatures are dropping to well below zero this week and Brussels’ homeless shelters are full, some of the people at the church are simply looking for shelter. But many others are repeating actions seen at the church since 2009. A hunger strike that year eventually led to temporary residency permits and a programme that allowed some migrant labourers to become regularised.

That programme, however, is rife with problems, according to non-profit organisations working with sans-papiers, and has requirements that are difficult or impossible to fulfil. Some of the people occupying the church this week are also threatening to go on hunger strike.

“I’m not here to find a place to sleep or something to eat,” said Khalid. “We are sick of this situation and want papers. Within a few days, we’ll go on hunger strike. We’re as good as dead anyway, so what are we waiting for?”

Empty spaces everywhere

In the meantime, several non-profit organisations are behind an initiative to house sans-papiers in empty office buildings and other sites. They have already entered properties, hung banners and spread the word via media channels.

Trying to ensure that the police do not have to get involved, they are contacting owners of the empty spaces – former office blocks, garages, rest homes, etc – to get permission to house people before going ahead with any squatting.

“The government has long been ignoring our situation, but it has never been as bad as it was in the last year,” Moudou, a sans-papier, told Bruzz. Moudou is a spokesperson for Co-ordination Sans-Papiers, an umbrella organisation that campaigns for regularisation of long-time residents.

“There are people who cannot pay their rent,” said Moudou. “We don’t even know if we can get a corona test without our information being passed on. And the politicians act as if this problem just doesn’t exist. We need housing and want to make our problem as obvious as possible. That’s why we are trying to move into empty buildings.”

Photo: More than 200 people are sleeping inside the Beguinage church
©Nils Quintelier/BELGA

Written by Lisa Bradshaw