High stakes for Belgium's undocumented migrant hunger strikers

7 min read
05 August, 2021
In-depth: Hundreds of undocumented migrants, most of North African descent, have put their lives on the line to try to secure Belgian residency.

Football commentary blared out of the speakers of a television set up in a room at a Brussels university, the mattresses of 130 people set up on its floor. Though the spectators had not eaten for weeks, everyone in the room used the little energy they had to will their country’s team to a Euro 2020 semi-final victory - but Belgium lost the match.

The Belgian fans made up a fraction of the more than 450 undocumented migrant workers, mostly from North Africa, who went on a 60-day hunger strike at two universities and a grandiose church in Brussels. Their aim: to compel the Belgian government to grant all undocumented migrants residency permits.

Lives were hanging in the balance, with strikers suffering from cardiac arrests, stomach and kidney pains, and emaciation whisked away by ambulances. Médecins du Monde, a medical organisation with volunteers monitoring the hunger strikers’ health, said death was possible at any moment.

"Hundreds of undocumented migrant workers launched a 60-day hunger strike in May to compel the Belgian government to grant all undocumented migrants residency permits"

Despite the life-threatening danger, some 300 of the hunger strikers upped the ante by taking up a thirst strike on 16 July. Three days into the thirst strike, an agreement was reached whereby the Belgian government would look at the migrants’ requests for permits on a case-by-case basis.

There are tens of thousands of migrants living in Belgium without legal status, some doing so for over a decade. Without papers, these migrants, called sans papiers in French, have no assurances of their rights, making them vulnerable to exploitation at work and at home. After all, complaining about abuses could get them deported.

After a deal was reached with the Belgian government - though not the deal they were after - the union representing the strikers announced a “temporary suspension” of the hunger and thirst strike.

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The Undocumented Migrants for Regularisation union (USPR), was born in January of this year out of frustration about how difficult it is to acquire papers, union spokesperson Mourad, who has lived as an undocumented migrant in Belgium for 12 years, told The New Arab.

“I had already asked for regularisation, but I had a rejection from the office. I don’t know why they rejected it. This office is very, very hard to get papers from,” he said.

The union began its occupation of the St. John the Baptist Church at the Béguinage and two universities - the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB), and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) - in April.

Mourad participated in the occupation and hunger strike, speaking to the journalists from all over Europe and elsewhere who had come to visit them in Arabic, English, and French. He slept each night at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, the occupation site he felt most comfortable sleeping in. 

"An estimated 120,000-150,000 undocumented migrants are living in Belgium, according to estimates from migrant and refugee rights groups"

In his role for the USPR, Mourad says he has been able to build a network of solidarity from communities that have historically been supportive of migrant and refugee rights. It has proven successful, with artist, student, and LGBTQ groups showing public support for the hunger strikers.

He writes impassioned statements about respect and justice for the union’s social media pages, and reels off messages to government contacts, pleading for them to grant all undocumented migrants the papers they need. But he has not been able to change their minds.

“They always tell us, ‘stop that, nothing will happen’,” he said.

“It has been six months of struggling, fighting with this government to take our rights. As of now, we have not taken anything.”

An estimated 120,000-150,000 undocumented migrants are living in Belgium, according to estimates from migrant and refugee rights groups - over one per cent of the country’s total population. 

With people like Mourad having to wait over a decade for a semblance of security in their lives, these groups and other human rights organisations have robustly criticised Belgium’s immigration system.

USPR spokesperson Mourad outside the Béguinage church in Brussels [handout]
Belgium's undocumented migrants, including Mourad, went on a 60-day hunger strike to obtain a residency permit [Handout]

At the centre of the criticism of the government’s handling of the hunger strike and immigration policy is Sammy Mahdi, the Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration and the son of an Iraqi immigrant who moved to Belgium in 1970.

Mahdi, a member of the centrist Christian Democratic and Flemish (CD&V) party, has vowed to tighten ship when it comes to Belgium’s immigration system - including speeding up deportations for people who have had their requests for papers denied, to bring Belgium on par with other European countries like Germany. He has repeatedly ruled out any collective regularisation for the immigrants.

His decisions were met with derision from politicians, with the country’s socialist and green parties backing the strikers and even threatening to pull out of the coalition government if one of the hunger strikers were to die. On the other side of the political spectrum, an anti-immigration party accused Mahdi of capitulating to the strikers.

Mourad said Mahdi met with members of the USPR several times, first on 8 April.

They met again at the VUB, one of the occupation sites, weeks into the hunger strike. They last met with him on day 50 of the hunger strike. 

Communication was frequent, but the government was not offering the strikers anything close to what they wanted. The union only gave in when the government agreed to look at the strikers’ applications one by one.

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The Belgium government says it is doing what it can to grant residency permits, but won’t budge on its policies on undocumented migrants.

“The government’s point of view is that people need to have residency permits,” Sieghild Lacoere, spokesperson for Mahdi’s office told The New Arab.

“More than 100,000 people receive a residency permit every year. There are ways to live and stay in Belgium, but one must follow the rules,” Lacoere said.

More than 23,000 people are told that they must leave Belgium every year, she said.

The UN has proposed changes to the system, including Belgium’s establishment of a permanent, independent and impartial body to look at requests for regularization, separate from the government’s immigration office.

“There are migration channels with clear criteria, like work migration, student migration, family reunification, procedures for asylum seekers,” Lacoere said.

“Moreover, there are categories like the stateless who should not remain in the regularisation proceedings. We are working on a bill to set up a residency permit for them.”

Most of the hunger and thirst strikers are economic migrants, not stateless persons, so they will not stand to see the benefit of the change.

State Secretary for Asylum and Migration policy Sammy Mahdi pictured during a session of the chamber commission for Interior Affairs on 23 July. [Getty]

Volunteer medical staff and students kept an eye on the hunger strikers, among them Yannis Boumazouzi, a student medic working with Médecins du Monde at ULB. Though he saw lots of physical ailments that were a direct consequence of the hunger strike, there were also people suffering from long-term ill health who simply could not afford to see a doctor.

“They were working and they couldn’t take a day off, because it meant a day or two without food,” he said.

One of Boumazouzi's main concerns was the migrants’ mental health. As the weeks went by, pre-existing conditions, diagnosed and treated or otherwise, worsened during the closed-door strike. Anxieties over fending for the loved ones they could not see worsened. Morale had been worn down, and fights broke out between the irritable, vulnerable hunger strikers. 

One of the protesters had even sewn their lips together. “You can't forget what sewn lips look like,” Boumazouzi said.

Most alarming for the student medic was that there were six or seven attempts by people to take their own lives over the course of the hunger strike at ULB.

Migrant workers without papers rest in critical condition on day 58 of a mass hunger strike for legal status inside the Church of St. John the Baptist on 20 July. [Getty]

Though fixed in his stance against collective regularisation, Mahdi called the ill-health incurred by the hunger strike a “tragedy”, and his spokesperson expressed some compassion for undocumented migrants. 

“I agree that people wait too long to receive a decision. It is inhumane to leave people to wait for that long. We’re working on it. I’m hiring people for the asylum and migration service,” Lacoere told The New Arab.

Even so, she said, “a hunger strike is never the way one wants to change policy”.

The USPR has pressed indefinite pause on the hunger strike, though the occupations continue. They say they’ll stay put until their applications for residency permits are processed.

The focus, for now, is on the recovery of the hunger strikers, Boumazouzi said.

“It is not over for us. We still have to watch the refeeding and they still need medical supervision… they could show neurological symptoms, cardiac symptoms. So I think the medical presence is needed now more than before.”

Shahla Omar is a staff journalist at The New Arab.

Follow her on Twitter: @shahlasomar