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Staff at Belgium’s asylum reception centre stage spontaneous strike

Petit-Chateau asylum reception centre - Belga
16:01 23/08/2022

Belgium’s reception network for asylum seekers and refugees has been oversaturated for months, resulting in Fedasil staff staging a spontaneous strike on Tuesday in an effort to draw attention to the crisis. 

The temporary strike saw all work cease at 36 reception centres, report local media. They included the main one in Brussels, Petit-Château/Klein Kasteeltje, where refugees have frequently been turned away and have resorted to sleeping on the pavement to keep their place in long queues. 

“Enough is enough! The staff of Fedasil can no longer work in the current circumstances,” said department head Nils Bartens.

“We have already crossed many lines at Fedasil in the past few months and that line has only been moved further. We have tried to keep looking for solutions, but we are fighting a losing battle.”

Some of those lines crossed, employees say, include the violation of international law: Fedasil has already been sanctioned at least 1,254 times, and Belgium’s minister for asylum and migration Sammy Mahdi has been accused of knowingly violating asylum seekers' right to asylum in the country.

Despite the opening of temporary shelters destined to handle a surge in asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Ukraine, the number of refugees left to sleep on the streets has only increased, De Standaard reports.

Fights break out in queues

The tipping point that sparked Tuesday’s strike was a series of fights that broke out between asylum seekers while queuing. Police had to be called in to break up the fighting. 

During a meeting of department heads, the decision was made to temporarily stop work. 

“We cannot let people apply for asylum in unsafe conditions. Just one person needs to push or shove, two metres from the entrance, and a drama unfolds,” said Bartens.

The queue was moved to the back of the building last week after local residents complained, but workers reiterated that the problem was structural.  

“Fedasil has been without a future for years,” said Bartens. “The new reception centre in Berlaar only takes in a few new asylum seekers, meanwhile the number of new arrivals continues to grow. There’s no room to accommodate everyone. The situation is hopeless.”

Fedasil says the crisis isn’t just a matter of processing refugees more quickly, but also transporting them faster to other countries that have already approved their asylum applications. 

The current backlog of applications for asylum in Belgium stands at 12,393 cases.  “Decisions are not forthcoming and asylum seekers remain in reception far too long,” Bartens said, adding that this wasn’t helpful for the refugees. 

Potential closure of Petit-Château in the future

Brussels mayor Philippe Close (PS) says that tensions between local residents and asylum seekers at the Petit-Château application centre have never been so high. He voiced support for relocating the reception centre in the future. 

It had already been forced to shut down on Thursday following complaints of nuisance from local residents. 

Hundreds of people form long queues and wait for hours without toilets and with little water available. As a result, the neighbourhood is filled with litter and when fights break out, residents complain about the violence. 

“It's not easy with such a large registration centre and an extremely high urban density in this area,” Close said.

“We really tried all summer to support Fedasil with our police services by opening our water fountains and by trying to help [human rights organisations] present on the spot to find a solution.”

Moving the queue was another proposed solution, but was temporary and seemingly only led to the outbreak of more fights.

“I heard the secretary of state discuss moving the Petit-Château and I think it’s a wise decision in the long term, because the place is no longer suitable for registering refugee candidates,” Close said.

Photo: (c) Belga/Nicolas Maeterlinck

Written by Helen Lyons