'I survived a perilous journey from Gaza, but now I'm sleeping on Brussels' streets'

It's a familiar story among asylum seekers who have resorted to pitching tents canalside as Belgium struggles to fulfil its promise to shelter arrivals

Every day, new tents are erected on the streets of Brussels as the country struggles to find shelter for asylum seekers. EPA
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Sitting in a cafe near a Brussels canal, Abdelrahman, a 29-year-old Palestinian asylum seeker, stirs a cup of tea as he recounts his harrowing year-long crossing by land from the Gaza Strip to Belgium. Violence and economic hardship pushed him to leave behind his wife and four-year-old daughter in the Hamas-controlled enclave to join his brother in Belgium.

Abdelrahman, who declines to give his surname, took a bus to Egypt, then a plane to Turkey, where he waited for four months before heading to Greece by boat after paying a smuggler, known in Arabic as “traders of death” due to the high death rate among those who attempt the journey.

Abdelrahman continued his journey, mostly on foot, through a long list of European countries, but is unsure exactly what ones. “At one point, I was walking alone for four days, and I had no idea where I was,” he says.

Little did he think that when he reached the heart of Europe, he would face new hardships just to get support from local authorities so that he would not end up sleeping on the street.

By law, Belgium must house asylum seekers until they receive a response to their request, a procedure that often takes three months but can extend to more than a year.

Though the number of new asylum seekers in Belgium increased by 40 per cent last year, the overall figure remains lower than during the 2015 migrant crisis.

Yet shelters that were opened at the time were then closed, and since 2021, there has been a chronic shortage of space, which remains unresolved and which many observers describe as stemming from a lack of political will to tackle the crisis.

'Horrible' living conditions

So far, no long-term solution has been found, and asylum seekers are regularly left to sleep rough for weeks or months, highlighting the plight of the rising numbers of people who have come to the EU's unofficial capital from other parts of the world. There are currently 2,500 people on the shelter waiting list of the Belgian agency for asylum seekers, or Fedasil.

When he first arrived earlier this year, Abdelrahman lived with other asylum seekers in a squat. A few days later, the squat was evacuated and more than 140 of its inhabitants, including Abdelrahman, moved to tents along a canal bypass, sharing the pavement with a busy cycling path and a congested two-way road on each side of the canal.

When The National first met Abdelrahman last week, he had been living with two other Palestinians for more than two months in a small grey tent decorated with the green, red, white and black Palestinian flag.

The tents formed a long line along the road, which faces a large 19th-century red brick building run by the Fedasil known as the "little castle". In theory, the asylum seekers should have been allowed to live inside, but it was full, and priority was given to women and children.

The men on the street received support from charities, which would distribute warm food and clothes to help them fend off the freezing Belgian winter temperatures.

Tjara Visser, a 21-year-old student and volunteer, described their living conditions as “horrible”. “It shouldn’t be upon us [to do this],” she said.

A few kilometres away, in the more upmarket Schumann neighbourhood, European decision-makers are working at the EU Commission on closing the migration route via Turkey taken by Abdelrahman. Hostility towards illegal immigration is growing, though some countries like Germany are trying to ease access for skilled workers due to labour shortages.

Faced with growing criticism for failing to fulfil its obligations, Belgian authorities on Tuesday morning evacuated the informal camp of 150 people, threw out their tents and covers, and placed them in various shelters, including in the "little castle", where Abdelrahman lives now.

As long as there are no structural solutions, people will be in the street. It's a purely political problem
Yann, a volunteer helping asylum seekers

Around 50 asylum seekers who were not present at the time of registration in the prior weeks lost both their tents and a place to sleep. Volunteers have helped them move to a new squat nearby, but they have already been notified by local authorities that they will have to evacuate the empty warehouse building in the coming weeks.

Many, like one volunteer named Yann, believe they will see new informal tent settlements appear soon in the neighbourhood.

"As long as there are no structural solutions, people will be in the street. It's a purely political problem," said Yann.

Abdelrahman had already made great sacrifices just to end up on the pavement in Brussels. Overall, he paid $14,000 dollars to get to Belgium, a considerable sum that he borrowed from his brother and relatives in Gaza, where 65 per cent of the population lives under the poverty line.

Sitting next to him, his Palestinian friend Louay, also from Gaza, pulled out a picture of a large brown bear in a forest, somewhere in Eastern Europe, which he says he encountered as he travelled a similar route. Abdelrahman laughed. “Each man has his own wild stories,” he said.

Yet Abdelrahman also seemed relieved. He had just spent his first night in a long time in a bed with a roof above his head. “It’s so much better than the street,” he says.

For him, the physical hardship of sleeping rough was not the most difficult thing to bear. It was more the realisation that he was homeless after all the suffering he had been through to reach his goal.

“It was a shock,” he says, “and not exactly what I was expecting.” However, he is also keen to stress that he is grateful to the Belgian state. His brother was unable to house him because his lease explicitly bans long-term guests.

Increase in suicide attempts

“I can’t wait to start my life again and get to work. I’ll do anything,” he says. Louay used to be a tile setter in Gaza, and the two friends dream about working together once they have both obtained asylum, a procedure which can take many months.

Lorenzo Viola, who is a general coordinator of a humanitarian hub set up by five NGOs that feeds, clothes and gives mental health support to asylum seekers, said he has noticed an increase in suicide attempts and mental health conditions among homeless asylum seekers.

"There is institutional violence towards human beings fleeing violence in their countries and find themselves sleeping in the street," he told The National. "There is a deterioration of their mental and physical health. Our mental health services have noticed a huge rise in suicide attempts since last May."

Belgium is among the EU countries that receive the most asylum requests relative to its population of 11.7 million, according to the office of Belgium’s commissioner-general for refugees and stateless persons.

"Unlike the 2015 migrant crisis, when the whole of Europe was impacted, the recent rise in figures seems to be due mostly to inter-European migration," Damien Dermaux, a spokesman for Belgium's refugee commission, told The National.

"There is a perception that Belgium is a country where people will have access to rights more easily than in other European countries," he said. To explain a sharp rise in arrivals of unaccompanied Afghan minors, Mr Dermaux pointed to specific benefits given to schoolchildren in Flemish regions of Belgium.

Around 20,000 people are waiting for a response from the commission, which studies asylum requests. "We are doing everything to increase capacities to play our part in finding a solution to this crisis," said Mr Dermaux.

Belgian law allows the state to implement a compulsory distribution plan for asylum seekers within the country's municipalities, Benoit Mansy, spokesman for Fedasil, told The National. "However, it is the government that must make the decision to activate this plan, which it is not currently willing to do."

Unpaid fines lead to furniture confiscation

Fedasil created 4,000 new spots for asylum seekers last year, but that was not enough. Last year, Belgian courts sentenced the agency more than 7,000 times for failing to fulfil its shelter duties after lawyers filed complaints, which means in theory, it should pay them reparations worth millions of Euros.

But Fedasil has not paid these fines and government officials have said that it would encourage more asylum seekers to come to Belgium. Court bailiffs on February 14 seized items belonging to Fedasils’ Brussels headquarters.

Mr Mansy said that items included office tables, couches, garden tables, a television screen, acoustic panels, benches and chairs. They were sold at auction a few days later covering, in part, the unpaid fines. He said he did not know how much the fittings were sold for or how the state agency would pay for the replacements.

Belgium's asylum and migration minister, Nicole de Moor, on Thursday announced 2,000 new beds for asylum seekers including in a site to be built with refitted containers. Ms de Moor did not answer a request for comment.

For asylum seekers, such administrative disputes seem far away from their daily worries.

Abdelrahman does not know how long he will have to wait for a response to his asylum request, but for now, he is satisfied living in the "little castle". He hopes that one day, his wife and daughter will be able to join him.

“I’ll be patient. I won’t change my decision. I’m here now,” he said.

Updated: March 10, 2023, 7:11 PM