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Belgium failed to provide shelter to refugees, rules European Court of Human Rights

20:24 17/11/2022

The European Court of Human Rights has strongly condemned Belgium for failing to provide refugees with shelter while they await consideration for asylum.

The court ruled in favour of 148 people, all single men of various nationalities, who had sued the Belgian state for failing to accommodate them.

The ECHR was set up in Strasbourg by the Council of Europe member states in 1959 in order to deal with alleged violations of the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights.

Those rights include the right for refugees to be given appropriate shelter and support while their asylum applications are considered.

The 148 people who lodged the complaint claiming "a risk of serious and irreversible damage to human dignity and requesting that Fedasil be ordered to comply with its legal obligations” to provide them with shelter", a statement from the ECHR reads.

Fedasil, the Belgian government agency that handles migration, has been struggling for some time to accommodate and process record high numbers of refugees.

During the refugee crisis in 2016, more than 42,000 people with official refugee status were counted in Belgium. In 2021, there were more than 74,000.

The 148 who brought the case “are living in Belgium without accommodation”, the ECHR said.

“On various dates they lodged unilateral applications with the Brussels Labour Court… In each of these cases the court ordered Fedasil to house the applicants in a reception centre, or else in a hotel or any other suitable facility should no places be available, and to ensure their reception as defined in section 6 of the law, subject to penalties for non-compliance.”

Those orders were served, ECHR said, "but have not been enforced to date".

Last month the ECHR served an interim measure, demanding the Belgian state provide these 148 refugees with "accommodation and material assistance to meet their basic needs for the duration of the proceedings before the court".

Such interim measures are implemented only in emergency situations when there is determined to be a serious risk of irreparable damage without immediate intervention.

A similar measure was served at the end of October, as well, when the ECHR ordered Belgium to take in a man from Guinea in West Africa after he won his case in the Brussels courts.

Much of the recent dramatic rise in asylum applications stems from the American withdraw from Afghanistan, and more recently the war in Ukraine.

Ukrainian refugees are reportedly sleeping on benches at Brussels-Midi station, after an agreement between Belgian railway company SNCB and the social welfare organisation Samusocial was reached.

“In the last two months, 75 Ukrainian refugees have already spent the night there, huddled on chairs, benches or on the floor,” De Standaard reports.

Unlike other asylum seekers who are already familiar with displacement, many Ukrainian refugees are especially ill-prepared for homelessness. These refugees are given temporary protection for this reason and are processed differently from other asylum seekers.

But the numbers remain overwhelming, and social organisations worry that the onset of winter will put hundreds of people at risk of sleeping on the streets in freezing temperatures.

Centres are already overcrowded, and winter will bring an influx of homeless people seeking indoor shelter.

State secretary for asylum and migration Nicole de Moor (CD&V) said that Belgium’s regions have committed themselves to creating additional places for the homeless and refugees “as soon as possible”.

Written by Helen Lyons