'Neutral information zone' needed for migrants on hunger strike, Mahdi says

'Neutral information zone' needed for migrants on hunger strike, Mahdi says
Credit: Belga

A "neutral zone" should be created near the undocumented migrants who are on hunger strike in Brussels so they can get information about their cases and options, State Secretary for Asylum and Migration Sammy Mahdi has argued.

More than 400 migrants demanding collective regularisation have been on hunger strike since 23 May at the Free Universities in Brussels (VUB and ULB) and the Beguinage church in the centre of the city.

Mahdi has been called on in the past to find a political solution but has said he would not negotiate with the strikers and called for an end to the action.

"We have been clear on the fact that collective regularisation is an exceptional measure and that there are a lot of rules and requirements around this that most people don't fulfil," he told Bel RTL on Thursday. 

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He has instead proposed that a "neutral zone" should be set up where people can easily get information on their cases and their options, as for certain people, there is still the possibility of an individual investigation to determine whether they can stay in Belgium for humanitarian reasons.

Normally, asylum seekers have to go to the relevant services for this, such as the Foreigners Office.

The asylum seekers have been fighting for the right to work in Belgium for years, and have asked to be hired into professions facing labour shortages and other sectors that have been finding it difficult to fill vacancies during the coronavirus pandemic.

However, having a profession is just one of the basic preconditions for regularisation on the basis of work, and several of the migrants face other hurdles in their process.

'Can't help everyone'

Mahdi emphasised that he believes it is necessary to inform these people and that he hoped that their cases could be dealt with more quickly, but that they should not be treated differently because they started a hunger strike.

"I was frustrated these last days when I saw that academics were arguing that something should be done for those on hunger strike, even though there are 150,000 undocumented migrants in Belgium," he said.

"We can't do everything for everyone,  and this could be inciting people to stop eating, to put their lives in danger, and it's really not the right thing to do," Mahdi added.

Although he has pointed out he will not negotiate with the group of asylum seekers, Mahdi said: "I hope that there will be no deaths, and I go to sleep every night with the idea that it could happen and I don't sleep. I try to do everything I can."

Supporting the cause

Several protests have taken place in the last weeks to show support for and demand the regularisation of the migrants, including on Wednesday, when several students from the VUB set up tents on campus to draw attention to the situation for 24 hours, and to call on the federal government to take its responsibility.

The previous day, a group of occupiers consisting of students, citizens, social workers and activists occupied the building of the Foreigners Office in Brussels to ask for immediate regularisation and to lay the groundwork for a legalisation policy that would benefit all undocumented migrants.

On World Refugee Day (20 June), a few hundred activists assembled in Brussels, chanting slogans including "only one solution: regularisation.

“They are fighting with their bodies solely for humanity and dignity,” the demonstrators said. “The silence and deafness of the authorities with respect to the fate of these persons must cease.”

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