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Undocumented migrants suspend hunger strike as deadlock is broken

Illustration shows banners at the site of a hunger strike by people without papers occupying the Saint John the Baptist at the Beguinage - Sint-Jan Baptist ten Begijnhofkerk - Eglise Saint-Jean-Baptiste-au-Beguinage church in Brussels, Monday 19 July 2021. ( BELGA PHOTO HATIM KAGHAT)
06:08 22/07/2021

The undocumented migrants on hunger strike at the Beguinage Church in Brussels, as well as those at the university sites of the ULB and VUB, stopped their thirst strike and suspended their hunger strike on Wednesday after agreements were made in principle between the government and representatives of the migrants.

"Yesterday and today, there have been meetings with the government and with supporters of the migrants,” a representative for the undocumented workers announced outside the church. “We have managed to put in place agreements, which have not yet been validated. We hope that they will be. So that there is no more stress and anxiety inside the church, the decision has been taken to stop the thirst strike and to suspend, for the time being, the hunger strike."  

Secretary of state for asylum and migration Sammy Mahdi confirmed that, in cooperation with representatives of the hunger strikers, the strike had ended. "After 60 days, the hunger strikers have put an end to their action, which was putting their lives at risk," he said.

"The way in which the situation has worsened in recent weeks has left a great impression on me. It is good that, together with civil society, we have been able to convince people that collective regularisation is not a solution and that the existing procedures are humane."

“We are not going to make agreements on migration policy,” he added. “There is a policy with rules that must be followed. This has been explained several times and has been discussed."

"That is why we continue to inform people in the neutral zone about the existing residence procedures and their individual files. In addition, we will continue to work on the structural improvement of existing legal migration channels."

The neutral zone set up by the government to help individual undocumented immigrants "will remain open for some time," he said. "People can go there to be advised on submitting their individual file for regularisation.”

"I am relieved that the hunger strike is over. Let us hope that no one will suffer with permanent after-effects," Mahdi added. "For me, it was not a fight against people, but for a correct and fair policy which I will continue to work towards.”

It was revealed that several of the hunger strikers were transferred to hospitals in the city after the strike ended and that some of them will remain in intensive care.

Prime minister Alexander De Croo said on Wednesday that ending the hunger strike "is the only right decision".

"There is only one way in our country and that is the way of the law,” he said. “This is the only way to avoid arbitrary decisions. A government can never accept blackmail. That would be unfair to everyone who follows the rules correctly."

"Let us hope that permanent physical damage can be avoided," he added. "If physical consequences remain, all those who have encouraged the hunger strikers in recent weeks, given them false hope or provided them with non-objective information, will bear the responsibility."

The parties of the federal majority in the government expressed their relief at the announcement of the suspension of the hunger strike.

"Thank you to all the people who, on both sides, in the light or in the shadows, have allowed the situation of the hunger strikers to settle down,” tweeted Ecolo co-president Jean-Marc Nollet

"With this progress, which brings us closer to a human solution, we break the deadlock, and the tragedy is avoided" added his Dutch-speaking counterpart Meyrem Almaci.

In recent days, tensions within the government had risen to boiling point. Divisions over the response to the hunger strikes had led to some politicians claiming the coalition could fall apart if a solution could not be found.

Written by Nick Amies