'Massive emergency shelter' for refugees needed as winter approaches, organisations warn
Samusocial and other non-governmental organisations concerned with social welfare are calling on the Belgian government to create a "massive emergency shelter" for refugees before winter and its freezing temperatures arrive in force.
At least 7,000 asylum seekers are in need of shelter this winter, Samusocial estimates, but the Brussels government is only committing to 1,200 extra beds.
“I have never seen so many people in the queue at the immigration department as I did this morning,” Thomas Willekens of Vluchtelingenwerk Vlaanderen (Refugee Council Flanders) told Bruzz at the start of the week.
“The atmosphere was tense because 130 single men could not apply for asylum.”
Belgium’s refugee crisis has only been growing, with people lining up and even sometimes sleeping on the street as they wait for their turn to speak with immigration officials and have their application for asylum processed.
While recent holidays have resulted in even larger back-ups than usual when it comes to the processing of applications, the numbers have been soaring and the backlog has been growing for quite some time.
The American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the war in Ukraine have resulted in a massive influx of refugees that has overwhelmed the Belgian system.
“It is estimated that more than 3,000 asylum seekers are currently living on the streets,” Willekens said.
Belgium has already been sanctioned for its failure to provide adequate shelter for asylum seekers, but the state insists it is doing all that it can while being short on staff and facing numbers not seen since a previous crisis in 2016.
In that year, Belgium counted more than 42,000 people with official refugee status. In 2021, there were more than 74,000.
As winter approaches and temperatures drop, aid organisations are concerned that those asylum seekers waiting on the street to be processed face a real and pressing danger.
These organisations are trying to fill the gaps left by the lack of government action through their own means, including distributing sleeping bags, blankets and warm drinks.
“It's not much, but at least it's something,” Samusocial’s Magali Pratte told Bruzz.
Samusocial and other organisations work with one another in an attempt to find places for these refugees to sleep at night.
“But the situation remains very difficult to assess," Pratte added. "The number of people waiting in line at the reception centre on a daily basis fluctuates a lot. That makes organising efforts extra difficult.”
Samusocial will itself create additional space in its shelters, but Pratte said these efforts are only a drop in the ocean: “Those places will get filled in a few days. In other words, the current situation will only get worse.”
The Brussels region, together with the cabinet of Belgium’s federal state secretary for asylum and migration Nicole de Moor (CD&V), said in a joint statement: "An agreement has already been reached in principle, but that now needs further federal consideration."
In the meantime, aid organisations continue to work on the ground with refugees, among them Médecins Sans Frontières, which runs a medical aid post near the immigration office.
“The post receives a lot of people with skin disorders, but also with psychological issues,” spokesperson Steven De Bondt told Bruzz. “The impact of the latter is especially underestimated.”
Willekens of the Flemish refugee council agreed, adding that the situation asylum seekers are faced with upon arrival perpetuates these issues and can even result in their application being denied.
“By living on the streets and because of their difficult medical condition, some asylum seekers can come across as confused during asylum interviews,” Willekens explained.
“This can lead to discrepancies at the first and second interview and thus contribute to a negative assessment.”
The transfer of prisoners from Berkendael, Forest and St Gilles to the new complex at Haren has already begun. The buildings in Brussels could be used to house those sleeping on the streets … even as a temporary measure over the winter.