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Situation worsens for hunger strikers as politicians remain divided

Illustration picture shows the undocumented migrants demanding regularisation by occupying the Saint John the Baptist at the Beguinage - Sint-Jan Baptist ten Begijnhofkerk - Eglise Saint-Jean-Baptiste-au-Beguinage church, in Brussels. (BELGA PHOTO LAURIE DIEFFEMBACQ)
06:06 19/07/2021

The physical and mental health of hunger strikers at the Church of the Beguinage in central Brussels and on the campuses of the VUB and ULB universities in the capital is deteriorating, the organisation Doctors of the World warned on Sunday.

There have been several suicide attempts in recent days, the organisation reported, and the kidneys of some of the hunger strikers are beginning to malfunction. "But the strikers refuse to give up until a comprehensive solution has been found," the association said.

More than 400 undocumented people went on hunger strike on 23 May to obtain collective regularisation. Some of them have now even started to refuse liquids.

"They were already weakened, and their kidneys are now taking an extra hit with this thirst strike," said a spokesperson for Doctors of the World. "Some of them have been hospitalised and one, who lost 13kg, has had to have liver and kidney surgery."

The deterioration in the hunger strikers’ mental health is also alarming. Doctors of the World has reported several suicide attempts, some of them by swallowing razor blades.

"No one wants a tragedy," the secretary of state for asylum and migration, Sammy Mahdi said over the weekend. "We continue to hope that people will want to have their cases dealt with individually, because there will be no collective solution or concessions for the hunger strikers. Otherwise, tomorrow, there may be hunger strikes in all the churches of the country." Mahdi added, referring to the establishment of neutral zones where strikers can have direct contact with officials.

Officials will remain in contact with the undocumented migrants who are on hunger strike to provide them with the necessary details of these neutral zones, created near to the locations of the strikes so they can get information about their cases and options. Normally, asylum seekers have to go to the relevant services for this, such as the Foreigners Office.

According to the office of the secretary of state for asylum and migration, the spokespeople for the undocumented migrants have been invited to come and view the neutral zones set up near the hunger strikers, but for the moment, they have not yet accepted the invitation.

Meanwhile, Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo has been urged to take control of the case of the hunger strikers by fellow politicians.

"The situation of the hunger and thirst strikers in Brussels is deteriorating dramatically," tweeted Meyrem Almaci, president of the Green Party. "The consultation is deadlocked. Given the critical situation, we ask prime minister Alexander De Croo to intervene before there are casualties."

Chairman of the Socialist party Paul Magnette, and Ecolo's presidential duo, Jean-Marc Nollet and Rajae Maouanen, took a similar line calling on the prime minister to “take matters into his own hands immediately" as the situation becomes more desperate and the secretary of state for asylum and migration refuses to shift his stance on principle.

The shared statement from the politicians on Twitter added: "There is a tragedy looming, we must allow the possible solutions to the crisis to be implemented as soon as possible." A tweet from Raoul Hedebouw, the national spokesman for the PTB, followed a few minutes later and shared the same text.

However, Sammy Mehdi’s stance received support from CD&V president Joachim Coens who tweeted his support for the secretary of state for asylum and migration while claiming the neutral zones that Mahdi established on Friday were a step forward.

"Help the hunger strikers to see the possibilities that are available: neutral zones to view files individually,” he tweeted.  “All confidence in Sammy Mahdi's approach: human and consistent. Medical assistance is available, files can be discussed individually. Stop the hunger strike."

Egbert Lachaert, the chairman of Open VLD, added in his own tweet that "the government has provided all possible assistance; medical assistance is available, records can be discussed individually."

Georges-Louis Bouchez, president of the Reformist Movement (MR), also stated his support of the Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration. "Sammy Mahdi has the full support of the MR in his policies," he tweeted. "He needs general support from the government. He respects the coalition agreement and does everything he can to guarantee humanity. It is a human tragedy, but hunger strikes cannot be a bargaining chip."

Written by Nick Amies