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Hundreds of asylum seekers forced to sleep rough due to lack of shelter space
In the cold, the wind, and the rain, hundreds of asylum seekers wait every day in front of the Petit Château in Brussels in the hope of being invited in. But the doors of the reception centre, run by Fedasil, the organisation responsible for receiving asylum seekers, rarely open. There are no places available.
Only unaccompanied minors, single women and families stand a chance. NGOs on the ground are the only ones helping these people seeking refuge, and they are concerned about the fate of these asylum seekers as a critical humanitarian situation unfolds in the Belgian capital.
“I've been in line since 5.30 and I'm waiting to apply for asylum,” said one young Congolese man who arrived in Belgium a week ago. “I can't believe that in Belgium, people are left in the rain without help."
"As single men, we are not a priority,” said another African man waiting in line, who had returned to the queue for yet another day. “But it is normal to give priority to children."
Many spend the night sleeping rough on the streets nearby under makeshift shelters. There is nowhere else to go. Their only sustenance and relief come from volunteers and workers from aid organisations.
“We distribute croissants and biscuits but also hats and gloves, and then we offer a little medical help to treat ailments due, in particular, to the cold,” said Julien Buhacolette, head of mission at Doctors Without Borders who, along with the Red Cross, Doctors of the World, and the Citizens' Platform, are trying to provide the asylum seekers with information as well as aid.
"Our presence should not serve as an alibi for secretary of state Sammy Mahdi to do nothing since the challenge is to find places, structurally within Fedasil, or on a temporary basis in available hotels,” said Michel Genet, director-general of Doctors of the World. “I do not understand why the secretary of state for asylum and migration rejects the solution of using hotels and prefers to leave people in the cold, rain and dirt. It's just unacceptable."
Hundreds of people wait outside while only 20 are admitted each day. The accommodation network which could be providing more of them with shelter is stretched to breaking point with victims of the summer floods and Afghans who fled following the fall of Kabul in August taking many of the available places. The NGOs on the ground also say that some mayors in Brussels are reluctant to open centres in their communes and accuse the government of dithering over making more space available, despite the alarm being sounded weeks ago.
"The average waiting time is about 20 days," said Mehdi Kassou, from the Citizens' Platform. "On Monday of this week, 191 men remained outside. We need to open pre-reception places as a matter of urgency." An additional 400 places would be needed.
The people waiting mostly come from Afghanistan and from Middle Eastern countries such as Syria and Iraq. There are many Africans too, particularly from Guinea, and a few groups from Latin American countries. The four humanitarian organisations are concerned that this situation, which has existed since the beginning of autumn, will continue.