A volunteer helping a striker to move

Hunger Strike of Undocumented Migrants in Belgium

Starving bodies, eyes popping out of their sockets, mattresses on the floor, the incessant siren of the emergency services, doctors on the spot. These images are not those of a report on a city devastated by poverty but those of the 26th world power! Indeed, we are in Brussels (Belgium). Since 23 May 2021, the Béguinage church, the Free University of Brussels and the Vrije Univesiteit Brusselles are currently occupied by undocumented migrants on hunger strike. All are demanding a collective regularisation of their situation. There were 700 people at the beginning and now only 456 of them are continuing the strike.

Mehdi Kassou, spokesperson for the citizen platform in support of refugees, explained in the interview he gave me that some strikers had expressed the wish to go on a water strike. “A thirst strike would put their lives at risk within a few days, especially after 50 days on strike. Unfortunately, this seems to be a straightforward path”.

A man is rushed to hospital. He is lying down, looking up at the sky, and has electrodes on his exposed chest. He is surrounded by five doctors, masked. One of them is holding up a walkie-talkie
Image source: apk9to5.com

What happened so far?

Four people have sewn their lips shut. There have been six cardiac arrests and numerous hospitalizations. More than 150 people have lost between 15% and 20% of their body mass and most women have become anaemic. Several migrants have swallowed razor blades. Some have put wires around their necks to try to hang themselves. This is the dramatic spectacle resulting from the Belgian migration policy. Indeed, this strike reflects the situation of extreme vulnerability of undocumented migrants in Belgium. Since 2009, the migration policy of successive governments has been marked by the non-regularisation of illegal workers and the criminalisation of migration. Today, the number of undocumented migrants in Belgium is estimated at 150,000.

If they are now on hunger strike, it is because their conditions have only worsened since the health crisis. Without any social and health protection, many have found themselves without work and therefore without pay.

How did it come to this? How can a European country have one of its churches and two of its universities housing such great misery?

Clarification of the hunger strike

An undocumented migrant on hunger strike sits on a wheelchair. He is holding his stomach and is clearly in pain. He is supported by three men, including a doctor.
Image source: Euronews by Thomson Reuters

What are the dangers involved in a hunger strike?

In concrete terms, the body burns sugars and then attacks fats. When malnutrition or food deprivation is experienced, the body starts to burn proteins, which leads to irreversible damage. A member of Médecin du Monde Belgium explains “It attacks the muscles, the organs. This is where it gets really dangerous: nerve damage, confusion, delirium and heart failure. You can’t repair a heart.” The physical pain involved in a hunger strike is brutal. It implies fainting, stomach pain, aches, and difficulty moving. In addition to the physical damage, a hunger strike has neurological consequences.

“We fear the moment when there will be death. It’s almost miraculous that there hasn’t been one at this stage.” Says Muriel Gonçalves, communications officer at Médecin du Monde Belgium.

It is therefore urgent that a political gesture is made in view of the Médecin du Monde report alerting us about the catastrophic and very precarious state of health of the undocumented migrants on hunger strike.

Why is it necessary to be regularized?

It is imperative to leave a situation of clandestineness in order to benefit from rights and social protection. “Obtaining a legal status is also necessary to not suffer the overexploitation that undeclared work implies and to benefit from the same rights as the citizens of a country have” Mehdi Massou declared.
Belgian policy grants some rights to undocumented migrants:

  • Undocumented migrants are entitled to free legal aid for residence-related proceedings.
  • People in an irregular situation have the right to marry or declare a legal cohabitation in Belgium.
  • The right to schooling for minors

What may seem contradictory is that the law allows undocumented migrants to fully integrate into Belgian society. Getting married, starting a family, enrolling their children in school etc. Yet, they will not be able to enjoy social protection and work in decent conditions. Indeed, in view of their irregular situation, they cannot declare any work to the state. Therefore, they will have no minimum wage, no health insurance, no right to unemployment, and the list of rights they do not have is still growing.

An undocumented man stands with a hammer and wears a yellow safety waistcoat and a cap pulled down over his face. He apparently works in construction.
Image source: European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights

Indeed, in principle, the minimum rights of undocumented migrants are guaranteed. In practice, this is not the case. Thus, most migrants work irregularly, and live in situations of extreme poverty. The pandemic has only made their situation worse. Effectively, they were unable to work. In view of their irregular and undeclared situation, undocumented workers did not receive unemployment benefits and thus, could not support themselves.

Who are the undocumented migrants on hunger strike?

Mostly Moroccan and Algerian, these foreigners are not eligible for asylum because they come from countries considered as “safe”. Therefore, they are called economic migrants. Most of them have been working in Belgium for a very long time. Some even for more than 27 years. They are women and men of all ages, speaking French, integrated into Belgian society and determined to see their situation improve.

The emblematic figure of migrant aid in Belgium, Mehdi Kassou, declared; “These people find themselves with the feeling that their lives are wasted, that, in any case, they are condemned to wandering and precariousness. They decide to put their lives at risk to protest. It is worrying to see that some people are as determined as convinced that it is only death that awaits them anyway. Either by remaining undocumented or because they have decided to go through with the process of getting as many undocumented people as possible out of precariousness.”

Two women and three men are gathered, dressed in black jackets, all looking at the same place, in front of the Jesus cross, inside the Beguinage church.
Image source: EPA

Hear them out

Nadya: “We are like Belgians, we live like them. We have our own place, we pay the rent, we pay the bills. Our children study with others. We are integrated, we have diplomas, but unfortunately we cannot work in our field because we have no papers.”

Assia “For example, I have a son who came here when he was seven years old. He has studied and is now 21 years old. Could you convince him to go back home? This is not normal. What we want is legitimate, it’s legal work, we’re not asking for charity, we’re asking for a solution.”

Hassem “Either we die or we get papers. Because we are ready to die for the papers. I will fight for my children, for my family, for my dignity and for my job.”

Some had already received residence permits that were withdrawn following changes in their jobs. This is the case of Mohamed. He has been living in Belgium for 23 years: “They took away my residence permit because I changed my boss.”

Regularisation solutions for undocumented migrants

Undocumented migrants stand in a long queue in front of the foreigners' office in Brussels.
Image source: JC Guillaume (DH)

Files with concrete solutions were sent to Paul Magnette, a member of the Socialist party. One proposal aimed at structural reform on the issue of undocumented migrants. The proposition was meant to allow transparency in the regularisation process so that decisions are no longer arbitrary as they are perceived today.

To put it simply, the Foreigners’ Office of Belgium is seen as a black box. Applications for regularisation are being sent there. From that moment on, no visibility, no administrative follow-up. The file leaves, accompanied with hope. A yes or a no comes back. No explanation is given. An independent commission is therefore requested by the Belgian socialist party and by many NGOs.

The pandemic,an exceptional circumstance

The Italian spokesperson for the hunger strikers’ support committee, Andrea Rea, denounced the government’s immobility in the face of the pandemic situation. Indeed, the data collected from the strikers underlines that they have lost their jobs in the construction and hospitality industries in the context of the second wave of the epidemic. The expert asked the Foreigners’ Office to take into account the exceptional situation of the pandemic and so, process applications accordingly.

Lasting attachments and vulnerability

This criterion implies having family and contact with the Belgian population. A criterion that would improve the situation of strikers. Indeed, for many years, the vast majority of undocumented migrants have been integrated into Belgian society. They know the language, live, pay their rent, have their children at school, etc.

Regularisation through work

Andrea Rea mentions a final solution, namely that of work. Among the strikers, some have been here for many years and most of them have worked; the men in construction, the women in hotels, the catering industry and in personal assistance.

FOREM, the Belgian public service responsible for employment and vocational training, has updated the list of professions in shortage. Construction is one of them. Therefore, the population that meets the country’s professional needs is already on Belgian soil. In fact, most undocumented migrants work in jobs considered to be ‘in short supply’. Yet they have no access to security, justice or dignity. The incoherence of a system that has become obsolete is denounced.

More than ever, Europe needs migration.

The graph demonstrates Europe's ageing population and projected old-age dependency ratio
Image source: Reddit. r/europe

The ageing of the European population is not an urban legend. Indeed, this demographic crisis represents a major challenge that must be met with dignity to respond to the economic growth that politicians want to see ever greater.

In his latest report written for the Center for Global Development, Charles Kenny states that “There will be a real need for migrants in sectors affected by ageing populations, such as health and care services. But this year has shown us that other areas of activity are experiencing labour shortages because of the decline in migrant arrivals.”

According to the UN, by 2050, if the situation remains as it is, migrant workers will only fill between 23 and 30% of the total labour shortage in Europe. In addition to being a human rights issue, the subject of immigration is also about the future of the European economy. It must therefore be treated with the greatest possible attention if we are to hope, one day, to be able to link the inexhaustible thirst for economic growth with human dignity.

The Belgian political response

The Socialist Party has proposed an inter-ministerial conference in view of the emergency of the situation. “We have to tackle the problem head on today, and give these people the opportunity to contribute to the economy while granting them rights and protection”, the Socialist Party declared.

However, the fact that the majority parties refuse to enter into dialogue means that the situation remains stalled.

Sammy Mahdi, Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration in the Belgian Federal Parliament.
Image source: Le soir

Sammy Mahdi, Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration, announced that he would not give in to the undocumented migrants’ collective demand. The secretary said he was open to dialogue but maintained his refusal to negotiate with them. “Life is never the price to pay and people have already gone to hospital. I really want to try to convince all the people and organisations behind it not to give false hope” he said. He also mentioned “blackmail’, which he would not give in to.

The blindness of the migration debate

The problem involved with the term ‘blackmail’ is that it refers to a sort of whim without any legitimacy. The demands for the regularisation of the situation of undocumented migrants did not start on the 23rd of May. On the contrary, the precarious situation of undocumented migrants has been latent for many years. Yet, the three major proposals to improve the situation have been refused. The government refuses to engage in dialogue. Despite working and integrating well, the migrants have no access to legal status. This hunger strike is the logical yet dramatic consequence.

Human dignity has been violated. Interpreting voluntary food deprivation as blackmail is tantamount to reiterating this contempt for people whose suffering is not considered as such. Sewing one’s lips shut is a desperate gesture of protest yet emblematic of the inability to enjoy one’s freedom of expression. A right, however, stated in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression”.

Therefore, to reduce suicide attempts, collective mutilations and, more generally, hunger strikes to “blackmail” is to deny the only recourse to freedom of expression of undocumented migrants; women and men, who are in desperate situations.

The activist’s word

Mehdi Kassou, spokesperson for the citizen platform in support of refugees, standing in front of the camera, wearing a jacket "BXLREFUGEES3
Image source: Le soir

Mehdi Kassou declared: “The strikers are ready to go to the end. Unfortunately, this seems to be a straightforward path, no matter how much we try to put in place a framework, logistical support, medical care. We simply see people in front of us who are as desperate as they are determined. We honestly hope that the government will come up with a solution before a tragedy occurs.”

“The government seems to consider us (the 120 NGOs supporting the strikers) as the ones responsible for this hunger strike. The only ones responsible are the policies of the successive governments who decided not to recognize the administrative existence of these people.”

Indeed, It should be noted that the last official campaign to regularise undocumented migrants in Belgium dates to 2009. From then on, the Belgian reform showed a striking delay and an inability to adapt. Therefore, the ongoing hunger strike is the direct consequence of the implemented migration policy.

“3500 people have been regularised in 2020. This figure is not representative of the demand. It is less than 3% of the estimated number of undocumented migrants in Belgium. The only explanation that can be given to clarify why there is no such regularisation is ideological. It is the result of the political attitude of the right wing” proclaimed Mr Kassou.

The sad irony of Europe, the shame of Belgium

Three men sleeping on mattresses are on strike as they lie beneath a framed artwork of Jesus in the Béguinage church.
Image source: Mathieu Golinvaux (Le soir)

In response to Sammy Mahdi’s request not to give false hope to migrants, it should be stressed that this situation is one of absolute despair. It is precisely because these people have lost hope that they compromise their lives. If “life is never the price to pay”, then what price should one put on the lives of those people who risk it to see their situation improve? What price should one put on social and job security when so many people do not have access to it? If “life is never the price to pay”, perhaps dialogue is. However, it must be too expensive for Sammy Mahdi, who refuses to meet the undocumented migrants on hunger strike.

Brussels is hosting the principal EU institutions. Yet, the Belgian capital is witness to a migration policy that has chosen to turn a blind eye to the precariousness that its inefficiency implies. The EU’s proud motto is “unity in diversity”. It is high time to apply its terms in practice.

This hunger strike is not only done by undocumented migrants. It is above all workers, women and men integrated into society and who only ask for dignity. In a European capital of this magnitude, there is only one word that hits the reality; shame.

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