Brussels has a problem. A steadily growing asylum-seeker crisis is leaving people in the streets living in makeshift tents for months on end, as they wait to register within Belgium’s overburdened immigration system.
As many as 250 migrants are lining the canal in the centre of the city, where they have set up camp in the freezing winter cold outside the country’s arrival centre known as Le Petit Chateau – in English, The Little Castle.
Most of them, who come from Afghanistan, Syria and sub-Saharan Africa, do not even have easy access to food and clean showers, save for the few charities in Brussels that give out food, like Doctors Without Borders, which has set up a dozen mobile toilets and a sink with drinkable water nearby.
It is a far cry from what is normally described as the heart of the European Union. The EU’s institutions are located just a few miles away in a district that can only be described as luxurious compared to the conditions in which these people are living.
Mohammed, a 30-year-old man from Somalia, made the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean in a small boat with his family. This was after traversing Africa to get to the equally as dangerous Libya.
He is one of the many in the city stuck outside the system, waiting for six months now to begin the process to start his new life.
Mohammed described his situation as desperate, saying that he has “no money”, but he cannot work to get money in the first place, since he is not yet registered in the system.
A lack of ‘political will’
Fedasil – the government agency responsible for the reception of asylum seekers in Belgium – did not want to give a comment to Euronews, but has previously said that their housing network of 33,000 places is full to the brim and has been since 2021.
According to Dr Jean-Paul Mangion, a medical coordinator at Doctors Without Borders Belgian Mission, the problem isn’t just a lack of proper housing. The organisation says it is simply not a vote-winner to provide too much assistance to asylum seekers.
Most politicians are just unwilling to help.
“There is currently no political will to find a solution to this problem,” he told Euronews.
“It’s not a simple and it’s not an easy problem to solve because even if you created new places they would quickly get filled up by the new incoming persons. There are a number of bottlenecks within the asylum system, which need to be taken care of,” he added.
The office of Belgium’s Immigration Minister Nicole de Moor told Euronews that the political will is there and that they are working as hard as possible to resolve the issue.
It added that a record number of 100,000 people sought protection in the country last year, with nearly 37,000 people applying for international protection – a 40% increase compared to 2021.
As things stand, there are 3,000 people waiting to enter Belgium’s asylum seeker system, which would give them access to housing and work. Most of them are currently living on the streets in Brussels.
Mangion says these people need help immediately though.
“Right now for these people, there is a very simple solution and that is asking the different communes of Belgium to take a number of persons and basically distribute all the 3,000 persons or so who are currently waiting for a centre in the different communes in Belgium,” the medical coordinator said.
Doctors Without Borders says it doesn’t expect a solution anytime soon, despite a fresh influx of refugees expected as the warmer weather kicks in.
And with most EU leaders, including Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, speaking about how they can stop people entering Europe, rather than how they can help those already here, asylum seekers’ problems could very well worsen.
The tent encampment on the canal was dismantled by the Belgian police on Tuesday morning.