'Spectacular increase' in unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in Belgium

'Spectacular increase' in unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in Belgium
Credit: Belga

The number of unaccompanied foreign minors applying for asylum in Belgium rose sharply in 2021, according to figures from Belgium's Immigration Department given to the House of Representatives on Tuesday.

This is mainly down to an increasing number of young Afghan asylum seekers who came to Belgium following the US withdrawal from the region.

The Office of the Commissioner General for Refugees and Stateless Persons (CGRS) registered almost 26,000 applications for international protection in 2021 – one and a half times that of the previous year, Belga News Agency reports.

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The number of unaccompanied minors also rose significantly, from almost 1,800 in 2020 to 3,219 in 2021. Belgium’s federal asylum agency Fedasil processed an average of 260 applications for underage migrants per month last year, compared to 100 to 120 in years prior.

A crisis of asylum seekers

Belgium has been struggling to find places for all of these asylum seekers, even after converting abandoned hotels into reception points and accepting help from the European Union - something the EU asylum agency has never had to do before for a country not located on an EU border.

Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration Sammy Mahdi has been opening more reception centres in Brussels in recent weeks. Credit: Belga

People working and volunteering within Belgium’s system for asylum seekers have long warned of an impending crisis, but the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan brought a new influx of migrants, overwhelming the system to the point where people were sleeping on the streets of Brussels to avoid losing their place in long lines at the then-only reception point.

Some adults pretend to be minors

For more than 2,100 of the 3,219 alleged minor migrants who came to Belgium in 2021, an age test was requested to determine if they were truly under the legal age. In nearly half of the cases examined so far, the person was lying. Head of the Immigration Department Freddy Roosemont expects that this will rise to two in three once pending cases are resolved.

Migrants who are minors receive a number of benefits that adults don’t, including a longer registration period and, in Flanders, a stipend equal to about six Afghan annual salaries.

They’re also not subject to the so-called Dublin rules, which stipulate that the first country of registration is responsible for the asylum application, and are much harder to deport even in the event of a serious crime.

Migrants on hunger strike in the Beguinage church last summer. Credit: Belga

Unaccompanied minors are also given priority for placement in a reception centre – State Secretary for Asylum and Migration Sammy Mahdi in the House of Representative made it clear that the only migrants left on the streets were adult men.

The Fedasil director is calling for age tests to be carried out within two to three days so that adults can be filtered out of the group more quickly.

Reception centres for minor migrants are struggling

Unaccompanied minors are accommodated in appropriate reception structures and supervised by a guardian in Belgium, but the sharp increase has put a "huge strain" on that system, Roosemont said, even though the number of places has increased by 60% compared to the end of 2019.

“The saturation has never been so urgent. The peak was at 2,600 unaccompanied minors in 2021, during the asylum crisis in 2015-2016 it was around 2,000,” he said.

Belgium is “far above its fair share” for minor migrants compared to most other European Member States, Roosemont added.

He also says that 60 to 100 additional reception places per month are needed if the 2021 trend continues this year.

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