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Migrants on hunger strike sew lips shut, migration secretary holds firm
As the hunger strike by undocumented migrants in Brussels enters its second month, four participants have sewn their mouths shut and the migration secretary has vowed to not bend to the pressure. Some 400 sans papiers are continuing the hunger strike, with some of them admitted to hospital.
The action began in May in protest at the hundreds of undocumented migrants on Belgian soil who have no legal right to work or access to the social welfare system. They refuse to eat until they receive papers allowing them to stay in the country legally. While their backgrounds and experiences in the immigration system are diverse, many of them have been in Belgium for years.
The corona crisis has made the situation more precarious for some of the migrants, as they lost their work. Many of them work undocumented in construction or other jobs.
Those taking part in the hunger strike are demanding a collective recognition of residency. Federal migration secretary Sammy Mahdi (CD&V) has stated from the beginning that the strike would not lead to a collective regularisation.
He repeated the sentiment this week. “There are reportedly 150,000 people living here illegally,” he told VRT. “If 200 people decide to stop eating and are automatically granted residency, what happens then? A week later, you have 200, 2,000, 20,000 people who will do the same. That is no way to deal with this situation.”
Migrants can be regularised by the system in certain conditions, such as if their asylum or residency requests are taking a long period of time to be assessed or if they have been in the country for many years. But a collective recognition of legal residence is not possible, explained Mahdi.
As the hunger strike continues, the migration secretary is under pressure by some parties to send immigration civil servants to Saint Catherine Church, where many of the migrants are staying or to form a regularisation committee to assess requests and produce clear criteria for approving a request.
The condition of some of the migrants is, in any case, becoming very serious. “We are coming up on some precarious days, and doctors are getting very concerned,” said Rita Van Obberghen, a Brussels physician who is checking in on the hunger strikers.
She references the four young men who have sewn their mouths shut. “With needle and thread, they sewed their own lips together. That is a symbolic message: ‘We have no say in this.’ But they are also showing that they are really not eating.”
Photo courtesy VRT