Belgium's housing freeze raises fears of homeless refugee crisis
Homeless asylum seekers and citizens demonstrate against eviction from Brussels squat. Belgium August 31 2023. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Joanna Gill
What’s the context?
The government says it has no more room to house single male asylum seekers, leaving thousands facing homelessness, charities warn
- Belgium halts housing provision for single male refugees
- Medical charity warns of health risks facing the homeless
- Lawyers consider legal challenge over government measure
BRUSSELS - The empty building on Rue de la Loi street in Brussels is crowded and run-down, but the roughly 100 asylum seekers who are squatting there say they have nowhere else to go if police carry out an eviction order.
"We don't know what to do - if we leave, we won't have a place to stay," Amil, a 30-year-old man from Afghanistan, who asked not to use his full name, told Context last week as the eviction date drew near.
Refugee rights advocates in Belgium say many more like Amil now face homelessness after the government announced a temporary freeze on the provision of housing for single male asylum seekers looking for shelter.
Even before the step, a shortage of accommodation meant many men ended up living in squats or sleeping rough.
Outlining the freeze last week, Asylum Minister Nicole de Moor said limited housing capacity meant the government had to prioritise the housing of families and unaccompanied children.
"I absolutely want to prevent children from ending up on the street. Our country has been doing more than its share for a long time. That is no longer possible," she said in a statement.
Refugee arrivals rose 8% in July from the previous month, according to official data, and the government says the influx of asylum seekers from Ukraine, Africa and Asia is overwhelming housing resources in the country of 11.6 million people.
Its reception capacity of 34,000 is almost full according to the asylum agency FEDASIL, which also has a waiting list of more than 2,000 asylum seekers.
In Brussels, the sight of refugees and migrants sleeping rough on the streets has become increasingly common over the past year, reflecting a wider crisis in Europe over how to accommodate people fleeing war, violence and persecution.
Britain put up thousands of Afghan refugees in hotels, with large families sometimes sharing small rooms for months, while the Netherlands housed hundreds on a giant passenger ferry.
'To hell and back'
But critics say Belgium's decision to stop providing accommodation for single men risks causing a housing crisis over the winter and violates the country's obligations to refugees under international law.
"Not only is it inhumane, it is also perfectly illegal," said lawyer and refugee rights advocate Marie Doutrepont, who is considering launching a legal challenge against the government over the housing freeze.
"There is no hierarchy, we have to house everyone," she added.
Asked to comment about such criticism, the asylum minister's office referred to previous statements by senior officials about the policy.
Belgium's Refugee Council Flanders said the government measure was politically motivated - aimed at tapping into voters' fears about rising immigration - and would do little to ensure families can be housed.
"I believe it is only a matter of weeks before FEDASIL can no longer shelter families and then the bubble will burst," said Thomas Willekens, policy officer at the nonprofit.
He said FEDASIL had asked the organisation for help providing emergency shelter, which it refused following the announcement to halt accommodation to single males.
Homelessness poses particular health risks for asylum seekers, who are often already suffering poor health including mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, said Emilie Van Limbergen, advocacy manager at Medical charity Doctors Without Borders Belgium (MSF).
"These people have been to hell and back having experienced violence, sexual abuse, or torture ... and then having reception refused - the impact on people's physical and mental health is going to be enormous," she said, adding that charities have been calling for extra housing capacity for two years.
Responding to criticism of the housing freeze, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said on Friday that officials were working on a plan to open up campsites and youth hostels for asylum seekers during the cold winter months.
Refugee charities are calling on the government to implement a so-called compulsory dispersal plan, which would redistribute asylum seekers evenly between different local authorities and force them to provide accommodation.
That policy was enforced in 2015, when more than a million people sought asylum in the European Union, Willekens said.
The EU's own asylum agency (EUAA) has offered to provide 750 emergency container shelters, although only 150 have been installed across the country so far.
At Rue de la Loi street in the capital, activists from a group called Stop the Asylum Crisis gathered last Thursday - the deadline for the squatters to voluntarily vacate the building, which lies a stone's throw from EU institutions.
In the absence of alternative accommodation, activists say the government should stop the planned eviction and provide showers, bedding and meals to the asylum seekers.
Amil, who fled his homeland when the Taliban seized power in August 2021, said the lack of stable housing was hampering his efforts to build a new life.
Fellow residents of the squat stood close by, some clutching their asylum applications, others holding plastic bags stuffed with their belongings.
"We are coming here to survive, to live," Amil said. "(But)today there is a lot of stress."
(Reporting by Joanna Gill; Editing by Helen Popper)
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