Coming from Afghanistan, Africa, the Middle East, hundreds of people come knocking each morning at the door of the refugee office in Brussels, to seek asylum in Belgium.
Overwhelmed, the registration centre of Fedasil, which deals with asylum requests, can no longer cope. Humanitarian organizations are sounding the alarm.
“You see, the people sleeping here are often people who tried to get in yesterday, and the day before, but couldn't," says Helene Asselman, Coordinator for Vluchtelingenwerk Vlaanderen. "They have to come back tomorrow or the day after. In the meantime, they have no rights in Belgium, they have no status, they are not legal residents. Even people who have already applied have no access to shelters. Especially single men."
“We are in a difficult psychological state," says Muhammad Mahani a Palestinian asylum seeker. "We've been in Belgium for four months and they didn't give us accommodation, or Sim cards. We live in this freezing cold. We immigrated to build our future.But what we saw in our country, we see here now."
Worrying health situation
A few meters away from the asylum application centre, the association Médecins Sans Frontières has set up mobile clinics, the same that it uses in war zones.
“There is a health situation that’s quite worrying," says David Vogel, Advocacy Officer for Médecins Sans Frontières. "There is an epidemic of scabies which is hard to control in Brussels since people, without accommodation, go back to their squat in the evening, or to the street. We also had 17 cases of suspected diphtheria, three of which were confirmed by laboratories. There is a very significant deterioration in the mental health of this public. With prolonged exposure to the street, on top of difficult migratory journeys, punctuated by violence and deprivation. And so, we really see a deterioration in that field, which is also quite worrying."
At mealtimes, queues form around the so-called Humanitarian Hub, an aid focal point managed by NGOs and citizens’ collectives, in another part of town. The situation keeps getting worse, says one of the coordinators.
“We are providing an average of 1,000 to 1,200 meals a day, against around 800 people a year ago," says Clothilde Bodson, Operational Coordinator at the Brussels Humanitarian Hub.
"We offer specialized services such as medical checkups, psychological follow-ups, distribution of clothing, etc. There are different responses from civil society and humanitarian actors, but this is not enough. We are actually responding to needs because of the State deficiencies, and this is just not working."
Hundreds forced to sleep outside
Every evening, aid workers multiply rounds across the city to help the hundreds of people forced to sleep outside. The crisis is such that even Ukrainian refugees, who have a special status in Belgium as elsewhere in Europe, are more and more numerous to be left out in the cold.
Like these women, whom we meet at the Gare du Midi, in the heart of Brussels.
“I have to travel between different places," says Liubov Skvorets a Refugee From Ukraine. "In order to spend nights in temporary shelters. But the situation is such in those shelters, that you can only spend the night there. And then you just have to take your belongings, and move on to another place”
“When I received my registration," says Tetiana Makukha, also recently arrived from Ukraine. "Although I showed them documents certifying I’ve got cancer, they gave me shelter for one night in a hostel in the city centre. Only one night. I have been staying here at the station for a whole week."
“The figure we get from the Red Cross is that on average, every day, there are a hundred Ukrainians who arrive here at the Midi station," says Magali Pratte from Samusocial Brussels. "And out of 100 people, there are about forty or fifty who really need accommodation, who have no solution on their own. And of these 40 people, there are 20 people who are very vulnerable, with children or pregnant women, disabled people, or sick people. But who are now told that there is no more accommodation space left. And so people keep leaving and coming back, leaving, coming back again. That’s how things are these days."
Applicants for international protection
The aid workers continue their round, this time among applicants for international protection. As here, at the foot of one of the accommodation centres of the agency in charge of asylum seekers. The Belgian Red Cross teams are also on the ground.
"We have set up additional rounds, as there are more needs," says Morgane Senden from the Belgium Red Cross. "We see that people really need more help than we can give them. Because we don't bring much, just coffee, tea, and a bit of food"
Many sleep on mattresses on the ground, without any protection. Their makeshift tents are regularly dismantled by the police and groups dispersed.
Here, as in the Netherlands, or in France and in the south of Europe, asylum seekers also pay the price of a failing European migration policy. Pushed back by some EU States, they suffer in others from dysfunctional management of asylum applications.
Belgian state condemned
In desperation, groups of migrants have occupied empty buildings. One squat in a huge building that went from about 200 people to more than 600 in the space of a few days.
Marie Doutrepont represents several of the occupants of the squat, threatened with eviction, within a collective of lawyers who are tirelessly mobilizing for international protection.
"For a year, Fedasil and therefore through Fedasil, the Belgian State, has been condemned 7000 times by the labour court," she says. "Who said that it must respect the law and provide accommodation to these people, with judgments to which Fedasil did not comply, or with such delays that it no longer makes sense. The lawyers went to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which has just ordered provisional measures and confirmed this, saying that the law must be respected, and that these people need to be sheltered. And that failing to do so is subjecting them to inhuman and degrading treatment. And even that doesn’t make the Belgian State move!."
Nasrullah was a soldier in Afghanistan. He used to work at the Bagram prison. Some members of the new Taliban government were in his custody there, before they took over power. His life is now under threat. Just like that of Jean de Dieu, a pastor in Burundi, and human rights activist.
We find them both again later, alongside other companions in misfortune, who came to take part in the demonstration organized by their lawyers, not far from the State Secretariat for Asylum and Migration.
"What's the point of putting on our lawyers' gowns," says lawyer Manon Libert. "Of working on our files, of going to plead, of winning procedures and facilitating judgments if the State then just tramples on this, and deliberately leaves women, children and men on the street! We are therefore asking Belgium today to fulfil its international obligations! "
The State Secretariat for Asylum and Migration, as well as the agency in charge of receiving refugees, turned down my interview requests.
Citing a lack of means, the government also point a finger at the absence of European solidarity. Arguments which demonstrators say are untenable, given the emergency.