Refugees moved to converted hotel in Belgium as asylum system struggles

Rising applications and limited capacity have led to people being turned away at existing facilities

Belgian police officers stand next to migrants waiting to enter a reception centre at a former military barracks in Brussels. AFP

Belgium is housing asylum seekers in a converted three-star hotel as it tries to ease overcrowding that has left some refugees sleeping in the cold.

Humanitarian groups say hundreds of people were left homeless and reliant on emergency aid after reception centres filled up and long queues formed in front of a former military barracks where people could lodge asylum claims.

Officials said it had become impossible to house everyone after monthly asylum applications in Belgium rose to more than 2,000, the most since 2015.

The recent evacuations from Afghanistan, the need for social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic, and the emergency needs left behind by Europe’s summer floods have all been blamed for straining capacity.

Employees at the barracks staged a walkout in October to protest against the conditions, after a hunger strike by hundreds of undocumented migrants during the summer.

Seeking to ease the strain, the Belgian Red Cross helped to convert a disused Mercure hotel in Brussels into a centre which opened this week and is expected to house hundreds.

People will be provided with food, shelter and information about the asylum system until they are moved further along the process. About 30 places are reserved for unaccompanied children.

A total of about 1,000 places should be available in the first half of 2022, with aid workers urging the government to use that time to find longer-term solutions.

A group of Afghan nationals arrive on the tarmac at a military airport near Brussels during the August evacuations that followed the fall of Kabul to the Taliban. AFP

The Red Cross runs 24 other reception centres but it is “no longer possible to increase the capacity” there, the charity said. Some people have spent nights camping outside the barracks where they can register claims.

“All the teams do a great job welcoming as many people as possible in decent conditions in completely saturated structures,” it said.

Belgium has separately called in support from the EU and the bloc's asylum agency will provide up to 150 “reception units” to ease the pressure.

It is the first time the agency has set up shop in a country which is not on the EU’s external border.

Aid groups came away disappointed from a meeting this month with Asylum Minister Sammy Mahdi to discuss creating more places. Mr Mahdi said the situation was improving with faster procedures to hire staff.

Thomas Willekens, a policy worker at an NGO called Flanders Refugee Network, was encouraged that nobody had been turned away from the barracks this week.

“The first normal week since mid-October. That’s worth it,” he said.

Updated: December 30th 2021, 4:20 PM