Ukrainians find refuge in Belgium as asylum seekers sleep rough
Asylum seeker at 'the Palace' squat Brussels, Belgium December 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/ Joanna Gill
What’s the context?
Asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere live in squalid conditions in heart of Europe, while Ukrainians enjoy special treatment
This story is part of a special series on the EU's response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis and the two-tier system it created: Europe's asylum paradox
- Asylum seekers sleep rough as reception capacity stretched
- Belgium strained by asylum application numbers
- Ukrainians fast-tracked for housing, healthcare
BRUSSELS – Every day, dozens of people brave the morning chill to stand in line outside the drab concrete asylum registration centre in downtown Brussels to see if they can get a home for the night.
"I guess every single person has a big story that could be a movie," said Omar, describing the reasons he and other asylum seekers had ended up in Belgium.
For his part, 40-year-old Omar had fled Gaza, the scene of decades of violence with neighbouring Israel.
At the registration centre, women and children have more chance of being housed, while men are almost sure to be turned back to the squats, tents and underpasses they call home.
On the way back to their makeshift shelters, they pass blue and yellow Ukraine flags flying on public buildings and draped from balconies - a reminder of Europe's warm welcome for thousands of Ukrainians fleeing last year's Russian invasion.
Unlike refugees from the rest of the world, Ukrainians were accepted into the European Union under its previously unused Temporary Protection Directive, which grants them the right to work, and access to housing, education, healthcare and welfare.
Omar does not resent the welcome given to Ukrainians, but questions why authorities treat others differently. Ukrainians, he said, "deserve what they have and more ... but there should be dignity for everybody here, whatever colour, nationality or religion."
Asylum system severely strained
Though one of the world's richest countries, Belgium says the sheer numbers of refugees from Ukraine, Africa and Asia are straining the resources of the country of 11.6 million people.
Data from the official Commissioner General for Refugees and Stateless Persons show asylum applications rose more than 40 percent in 2022 from the previous year.
Belgium's reception capacity of 34,000 is almost full, the national asylum agency Fedasil said. A backlog of asylum applications means some waiting in reception centres for up to two years for a decision.
As a result, by early March, Fedasil said between 2,000 and 3,000 asylum seekers were homeless. Without an address, getting a job, medical care, opening a bank account, accessing language lessons and even registering a mobile phone is difficult.
But for Ukrainians, a fast-track process means they are more likely to be in proper housing, and in education or employment.
More than 60,000 Ukrainians were given temporary protection in Belgium in 2022 - almost double the number of asylum applicants. Many Ukrainians were housed within weeks.
An unprecedented government call led to many Belgians welcoming Ukrainians into their homes. The government also quickly established a separate processing centre for Ukrainians.
"Belgium is usually pretty slow," Lyuba Karpachova, of non-profit organisation Promote Ukraine, told Context, but this time, she said, "they did it fast."
Hanna Oleichenko arrived with two young children in March last year. At the time, her hometown Mariupol, southern Ukraine, was under a bitter siege by Russian troops. But a chance encounter led to a retired Belgian couple taking them in.
"It was really lovely, and they helped the kids speak the language, and they became like grandparents to them," she said.
Struggle for housing
Meanwhile, hundreds of homeless asylum seekers occupied a Brussels building that had been intended to house Ukrainians.
Ironically dubbed 'the palace', the building housed single men from Afghanistan, Syria and Burundi over the winter before they were evicted due to safety concerns. Some were housed, but dozens ended up in tents by the city's canal. Some went on to squat other buildings in a cat-and-mouse game with authorities.
Refugee advocacy groups say families often decide that men should travel treacherous migration routes alone with a view to being joined by their spouses and children once they are settled.
"When you think about Belgium, you think about the capital of Europe. It shouldn't be like this," said Amadou, an asylum seeker from Guinea sleeping rough since January.
Refugee campaigners said the failure to house asylum seekers highlighted what they called the government's double-standards.
"This is actually institutional racism, a lack of political will to provide a minimum of dignity to people," said Marie Doutrepont, a lawyer working with asylum seekers.
She said asylum seekers were entitled to housing as soon as they lodged an application and called it absurd that hundreds were homeless.
Now, she said, if you want to get on a housing waiting list, you have to take the Belgian government to court.
The government has been taken to court more than 7,000 times for non-fulfilment of its obligations towards asylum seekers. It owes around 168 million euros ($184.16 million) in penalties, according to Asylum Minister Nicole de Moor.
It has refused to pay, but said in March it would increase reception capacity, hire more immigration officers and deport failed asylum claimants more quickly.
The government also pledged to set up a container village for asylum seekers, but has yet to receive a permit. The Flemish regional government opened a container village for Ukrainians last year, only three months after Russia's invasion.
For the hundreds of asylum seekers unable to find housing, sleeping rough has health costs. People registered with Fedasil usually receive vaccinations, but the homeless often slip through the net, said Doctors Without Borders (MSF) Belgium, a non-profit healthcare organisation.
"They've come over here to ask for asylum, and again they're being victimised a second time because the state is failing to provide basic medical services," said Jean-Paul Mangion, an MSF Belgium doctor.
Under asylum rules, applicants should have access to basic medical care as soon as they are registered, with Fedasil paying the costs, but the bureaucratic process means sometimes people are missed, MSF said.
In January, a pregnant asylum seeker was turned away from a Brussels hospital as she did not have medical insurance or the 2,000 euros to deliver her child.
The government called it a misunderstanding and Fedasil said it would have paid.
However, once Ukrainians register for medical insurance, they have the same healthcare as Belgian citizens.
Kateryna Shcherbyna comes from near Odessa, western Ukraine, and has spina bifida. She said the health service in Belgium was "on a higher level" and she had received life-changing surgery.
"The doctors saved my ability to walk," she said.
Fears of a fresh crisis
In Brussels, three places became emblematic of the refugee crisis - 'the palace' squat, the tent city along the canal and the government's newly built national crisis centre, which was occupied by asylum seekers in March.
Many cleared from the centre have been promised shelter, but 3,000 remain on the waiting list.
"That's the biggest difficulty," said Thomas Willekens, policy officer at the non-profit Refugee Council Flanders. "We no longer have a clear picture of where they go."
Some stay with friends, others sleep rough, while others move to another country, he said.
After the crisis centre was evacuated, Willekens said it might look like the issue had been resolved, but it had not. It had "become the new normal" for single men not to be housed, he said, and the situation could become worse next winter.
"We will face a situation like last year where we have minors and families on the streets," he said.
($1 = 0.9122 euros)
This article was reported with the support of Journalismfund Europe.
(Reporting by Joanna Gill; Editing by Jon Hemming)
Part of:Europe's asylum paradox
Updated: May 22, 2023
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