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Living wage or free housing? Belgium debates benefits for Ukrainian refugees

Sammy Mahdi - photo Belga
13:35 17/03/2022

Ukrainian refugees entering Belgium are currently entitled to a living wage but must still pay for their own shelter. The federal government will meet on Friday to examine whether this is the best way to provide aid for those fleeing the Russian invasion. 

The Flemish government is already urging the federal government to “reconsider” the decision that automatically entitles Ukrainian refugees to a living wage, De Standaard reports, and Friday’s meeting will include a review of a proposal from competent minister Karine Lalieux (PS).

Prime minister Alexander De Croo (Open VLD) has defended keeping a living wage entitlement, but Antwerp mayor Bart De Wever (N-VA) said there were disadvantages to such a benefit, and expressed concern that the money would end up flowing into the pockets of landlords already enjoying an overheated housing market. 

State secretary for asylum Sammy Mahdi (CD&V) said both a full living wage and free housing were not compatible, which prompted a snarky reply from De Wever on Twitter: “You literally said that you were ‘very angry’ because I had questioned the desirability of a (full) living wage. You’re making a mess of it that helps neither the reception nor the refugees.”

Ukrainian refugees continue to stream into Belgium

The 10,000 mark of registered Ukrainian refugees was passed on Wednesday, and accommodation had to be found for about a quarter of them. 

Mahdi declined to comment on the number of refugees to be expected, although estimates range from 80,000 to almost 290,000. He said “we have to prepare for the least favourable scenario.”

Flemish minister of housing Matthias Diependaele (N-VA) is already preparing an emergency decree to make short-term rental contracts possible for private individuals who want to rent out their property to Ukrainians or who want to make a room available. Public authorities can also make use of this decree.

In addition, Mahdi announced that a 'screening procedure' for private individuals looking to host refugees is being worked on, after police raised concerns that they weren’t allowed to perform background checks or even verify that hosts weren’t registered sex offenders or paedophiles. 

“These people are usually full of good intentions,” Mahdi told the committee, but in order to exclude those with less good intentions, he is looking together with minister of the interior Annelies Verlinden (CD&V) for a working method to screen host families “within the legislative framework.”

Photo: State secretary for asylum and migration policy Sammy Mahdi at opening of centre for Ukrainian refugees at Brussels Expo on 14 March © Belga/James Arthur Gekiere



Written by Helen Lyons