Non-Ukraine refugees speak of unfair treatment: ‘Don’t I also have the right to live?’

Non-Ukraine refugees speak of unfair treatment: ‘Don’t I also have the right to live?’
Refugee reception centre 'Belgrade' in Namur, one of Belgium's largest. Credit: Luca Manunza

Ukrainian refugees in Belgium are automatically granted temporary protection upon arrival. But the same is not true for many others fleeing war-torn countries.

Belgium's temporary protection immediately allows Ukrainians access to the labour market, social welfare, and a one-year residence permit that can be extended for another year.

However, those who have fled non-European war zones face a very different reality.

Double standards

Elvis (36) from Cameroon has been to hear whether he can stay in Belgium for four years, Le Soir reports. The father of two sons fled the English-speaking region of Cameroon, where war has been a daily challenge for the past eight years.

After arriving in Belgium in 2018, his first asylum application was refused. Belgian authorities later admitted their mistake and Elvis received an apology letter. But he still has not received the official decision about his status from the refugee reception centre in Namur.

When Ukrainians arrived after Russia's invasion on 24 February, Elvis and others like him realised that they were treated very differently. Feeling a sense of injustice, the situation in Namur's reception centre, which is home to refugees of many different backgrounds, has become tense.

The director of the centre, Virginia Garcia, denies that there was any conflict but acknowledges a high level of "misunderstanding" among refugees from other nations.

“I have provided all the documents proving that I fled a war. Why can’t they protect me too?” Elvis wonders. "Don’t I also have the right to live?”

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Elvis is grateful to the Belgian state for providing him with training as a cook but finds the situation illogical: “All those fleeing war should have access to temporary protection. I have the impression that those who come from Africa are not treated like the others."

Other asylum seekers share these views and fear that the preference Ukrainians receive will slow down the application process for everyone else.

Yet Garcia is quick to correct this claim: “Temporary protection is automatically granted to Ukrainians. This has nothing to do with the substantive analysis of other cases by the Office of the Commissioner-General for Refugees and Stateless Persons (CGRS).”

Basic living

Elvis says he is not jealous of the outpouring of solidarity that has prompted thousands of families to open their doors to Ukrainians. “I think I’m mature enough to get by,” he says.

However, his standard of living is very different. He shares a cramped room with three strangers and counts himself lucky to have a kitchen, which isn't the case in other centres. Still, asylum seekers need to respect timetables, eat in the refectory and share their fridge.

Elvis also needs to report to the reception daily to prove he is still residing there, in order to receive the food allowance of €200 per month. He pays his social contributions as a catering worker and waits – although with less and less patience.

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