In the heart of Europe, Belgium is home to more than a million immigrants out of a total population of 11 million.
Around 70% are from other EU member states, with large Italian, Dutch and French communities.
In recent years Belgian immigration policy towards Europeans has tightened, and more and more people are having their residency permits withdrawn, from eight in 2008 to more than 2000 in 2014. Between 2008 and last year more than 10,000 people were ordered to leave Belgium.
Belgium’s jobseekers’ Catch-22
To Antwerp in Belgium’s Flemish north, where Giorgia Bergamini faces an uncertain future. After 28 years of working for an Italian company this seamstress decided to set up here with her Belgian partner.
Giorgia took Dutch classes and worked as a volunteer, but the state employment agency could only tell her she was overqualified for anything they could offer her. In November 2013 the city of Antwerp ordered her to leave.
“They took away my Belgian ID card telling me I had no case in Brussels and that I hadn’t made any effort to satisfy the criteria Belgium set for me to stay. It was pure madness,” she says.
Giorgia has never applied for benefits, but the administration has ruled she could have and still can, and that she has no chance of finding a job.
“I’ve never asked for help. It’s the first thing my partner told the local administration, but they told me it was a pre-emptive measure in case I did claim at any time in the future. As if I would ever…”
European law allows for the expulsion of Europeans without sufficient resources, but Giorgia and her partner Sven have decided to take the matter to court, and prove her commitment to becoming integrated.
The appeals judge came up with the answer; with a civil union the pair could get Giorgia to apply for residency as the partner of a Belgian citizen, and no longer as a single jobseeker.
“We’re still afraid because it was something we hadn’t expected and we hope now that everything is in order,” says partner Sven Gysels.
Stay healthy if you want to stay
Expelled Europeans who have not been able to sort things out like Giorgia often continue living in Belgium illegally without papers while seeking other ways to qualify for residency. Most refused to talk to us.
One Spanish woman accepted , but on condition we hide her identity as her case is currently going through the courts. We will call her Nadia.
Today she is meeting two activists from “Europe4people” a grouping of Greek, Spanish, Italian and Belgian associations campaigning against the growing number of expulsions of Europeans.
Nadia came to Brussels in 2012 and worked as a cleaner until she was injured at work. While recovering she received benefits and her company sent her to language classes.
But in October of last year her local authority withdrew her residency permit.
“They told me ‘You are European and you came here to work, not study’, but I tried to explain to them that I was studying. They didn’t want to listen or even look at my paperwork proving I was looking for work. they gave me 30 days to leave, and that if I didn’t the police would come and fine me,” she says.
The European directive allows expulsions of Europeans if they cannot prove they are really looking for work. But one Spanish lawyer says Belgium has put a strict and systematic regime in place that targets unemployed Europeans on benefits.
Bending EU law to fit domestic politics
“Belgium is putting into place systematic checks on people who have no resources, and expelling them all. The European directive expressly forbids this kind of systematic checking,” says Europe4people’s Sara Lafuente Hernandez.
Nadia goes to the group’s ‘Help-desk’ for advice. Europe4people provides free advice and legal counsel. Since Nadia’s expulsion she has lost her benefits, but she has just found a new job and hopes to appeal. Her lawyer underlines the fact that the Belgian authorities notified Nadia of their decision two years late, and that they had refused to recognise her status as a worker on sick leave, and in so doing they misapplied EU law on workers’ mobility.
“Under the European rules, being a worker gives you the right of residence, and being a worker doesn’t just mean you have to work, it also applies to people who have been working but who may have an accident at work. So during the time that they are off sick, or recovering from the accident, they retain the status of worker,” says EU Rights Clinic lawyer Anthony Valcke.
Ending ‘benefits tourism’
It is in the Foreign office in Brussels that the expulsion decisions are taken, following policy set by the Belgian Migration State Secretary.
This is to fight ‘social tourism’ by European citizens that is considered an unreasonable burden on the country’s social security system.
According to the Office’s official figures in 2015 1,700 EU citizens were ordered to leave Belgium. Most were from Romania, followed by the Spanish, Bulgarians, Italians and Dutch.
Since 2011 the Foreign Office has been working closely with the Department of Social Affairs to identify any Europeans on benefits.
“If they don’t contribute by themselves to the social system or they never have contributed to the Belgian social system, they only get benefits from it, then we will withdraw the residence permit,” says the Immigration Office’s Geert de Vulder.
Nadia’s lawyer takes her case to court for the appeal. Between now and the end of March he wants to expose 100 expulsion cases he says proves Belgium is being too rigid in its application of EU mobility laws. He hope his evidence will convince the EU Commission to open a disciplinary procedure against Belgium.
“The European law requires that there should be an individual assesment of each person’s circumstances before they can be expelled, and what we see unfortunately is that assesment is not individual and personalized enough. These letters that people received are not detailed enough to enable people to know what kind of documents they should provide and they are not told they should get legal advice at that stage,” insists Valcke.
Anthony Valcke, a Belgian lawyer with British roots, wants to compare the figures for expulsions from
around Europe, but the statistics are hard to come by.
Among the top expellers are France, the UK, the Netherlands and Belgium. Valcke works with trade unions in Italy and Belgium to put pressure on the European authorities to do something about the Belgian situation.
There is power in a Union
The Federal Secretary of the FGTB Belgian trade union meets with his Italian colleague from the CGIL to hammer out the strategy for the next few months.
After the UK demanded the right to cut benefits for , EU workers they are worried other EU member states will follow the UK’s lead.
“I fear that the European Commission, in the context of the ‘Brexit’ and current migration pressures from within and without the EU, will harden its position.
We took a giant step forwards with the free circulation of capital and people, but now the Commission risks damaging this. The case of Belgium may illustrate this risk,” says FGTB General Secretary Jean-Francois Tamellini.
The unions are fighting to ensure that workers like Giorgia, who paid her dues for more than 28 years in an Italian factory, do not lose their social rights when they leave their home countries and go to another EU member state.
“Everything was fine as long as it was only goods moving around, it was only mozarellas crossing borders,” smiles Giorgia. “Now it’s not just cheese moving, it’s people, too, and no-one is taking that into account. I get the feeling that each country is strengthening its borders, and doesn’t see any foreign input as an opportunity.”
European laws on the reciprocal recognition of benefit rights exist, but they are not always properly applied by member states.
En 2012, 10 million Europeans lived in another member state to their own, or two percent of the total population.
Our sources inform us that the European Commission is hard at work revising the laws on workers’ mobility, but is awaiting the result of the UK referendum on EU membership before presenting its revisions.