Belgium has failed when it comes to immigration, according to politicians and reports.
A closed-off, though friendly, mentality and a traditional culture make it hard to be included in the lives of locals. An abundance of paperwork and opaque bureaucracy slow down the process of establishing your own life.
“The integration of foreigners has been a failure,” said Belgian politician and former European Commissioner Karel De Gucht during an interview with De Standaard in 2017. In the same year, German think tank the Bertelsmann Stiftung released a report that said, “Belgium has a contradictory attitude toward immigration.”
While Belgium welcomes political refugees with the creation of emergency accommodation centres, for example, it fails in following this up by helping immigrants integrate. “The country currently lacks the capacity to integrate first and second-generation immigrants with appropriate education and successful entry into the labour force,” the report said.
An inefficient and underfunded integration system
Unlike other countries, Belgium does not collect data of immigrants’ skills, which makes it hard to align skilled foreigners with the job market. The application process for immigrants is too long and cumbersome and the administrative offices are understaffed, the report also said. As a result, it can take months and even years for immigrants to be granted a work permit.
Sofie De Mot, coordinator of integration and housing at Caritas International, helps refugees during the first year of their arrival. “Very few people can find a job sooner than three years so we often say it takes five years,” she said. “Language barriers and the recognition of people’s skills and diplomas are the biggest difficulties when refugees want to get jobs. Refugees often expect that they will find a good job quickly and “it is a disappointment that it happens so slowly here,” she said.
Even after waiting for years, refugees can only get low-earning jobs most of the time. A big issue here are language capabilities. “In Germany, there is more training on the job, which facilitates learning the language while you are working,” De Mot said. “The problem lies in that people either do not have a degree or their degree is not recognized in Belgium.”
Not only refugees face this challenge, people of different origins in general cannot find jobs easily, even for second and third generation immigrants. De Mot said that integration and the search for employment can only really start once someone has secured a reliable place to live, which can take between six months and a year. “People don’t speak the language when they are looking for a home, refugees are dependent on a small stipend from the social services, which scares off the home owners, the homes they find are often of very bad quality, and the prices are very high,” De Mot said.
Besides housing and employment, another problem lies with the education system, which is ill-suited for anyone whose mother tongue isn’t French or Dutch, according to the German report. Some schools are better prepared than others, said De Mot. She pointed out that schools have reception classes to facilitate the transition into Dutch or French-language education.
Social exclusion and racism
During his interview with the Belgian newspaper, De Gucht pointed to a more social issue. He said that the Flemish way of thinking poses a problem for integration. “I will say it gently: we Flemish people are not very open toward another,” he said. “You shouldn’t be naïve. Culture clashes are unavoidable but integration runs more smoothly in other countries. I see Flemish people who think that there is a terrorist in every Muslim.”
De Mot experienced that locals are often reluctant to rent to foreigners. “Out of ten phone calls, 9.9 times we will get a “no” based on people’s origins or because they receive living wages,” she said.
In the early 1990s, when racism and nationalism were surging in Belgium, Unia, an independent governmental body for equal opportunities and against discrimination, was founded. In 2013, it became an inter-federal agency, meaning it is active on all three levels of Belgium’s government.
The centre’s immigration division became an organ of its own in 2015 called Myria. Despite these steps, “public funding and proactive policies are still insufficient to deliver the substantial results that are needed to turn the immigration that has occurred over the past 30 years into a success,” according to the German report.
Young Muslim minorities “feel excluded from Belgian society and are concentrated in large cities, particularly in Brussels and Antwerp,” the report said. “For example, unemployment is already as high as 15% in Brussels and the city’s schools may exceed capacity by some 20,000 students by 2020.”
This sense of exclusion and high unemployment rates provide a fertile ground for extremism. According to a 2015 UN working group, about 500 Belgian fighters went to Iraq and Syria to go fight for extremist groups. This is the highest number per capita in Europe. American think tank The Soufan Center estimates that at least 100 of those fighters had returned to Belgium by the end of 2017.
Fighting an uphill battle
The concentration of minorities is not only apparent in Muslim communities, people of different ethnicities often end up in distinct neighbourhoods. Erdem Yilmaz, a student of pedagogy at the University of Leuven who came from Turkey seven years ago said he notices a significant difference between the integration of Turkish people in Belgium and Germany, where he has family.
“In Germany, people do not live in ghettos,” he said. “In Ghent, for example, where seven percent of people are of Turkish origin, you only see them in specific neighbourhoods, whereas in Germany they are in every part of the city, including the wealthy neighbourhoods.”
In Germany, there are second and third generation Turkish people who don’t speak Turkish anymore but just German, something Yilmaz said he has not encountered in Belgium. Yilmaz said he has not experienced racism and feels that his distinct cultural background, in the end, “opened up more doors than it closed.”
When he tells someone he is from Turkey, however, he does notice a change. “People’s facial expression changes in a negative way usually when they hear you are from Turkey,” he said. People seem surprised because they don’t expect him to be Turkish, Yilmaz said. “Maybe I interpret it this way because of a subconscious thing like an inferiority complex, but I experience this change as a disappointment. It’s not a very joyous expression, to be honest.”
Yilmaz said that Flemish people do not easily let someone into their lives, and he mostly made friends in the international community. He added that he noticed this reserved attitude among Flemish people as well and did not feel it was tied to his ethnicity. “People don’t share very easily here,” he said. “But people like to blame things on racism or xenophobia too easily. When I talk, I can see that they want to be friends with me, Flemish people are actually very friendly but it requires a lot of patience from the international person’s part.”
Yilmaz is currently researching the position of minorities in Belgium’s educational system. When he studied film in Ghent, where 12 percent of the population are of Turkish and North-African origin, he did not see any Turkish people on campus besides the cleaning ladies. According to a 2007 report by the University of Leuven, only two percent of students in higher education were of Turkish or North-African descent. In the Netherlands, Turkish and Moroccan students almost made up four percent of students in 2007.
A 2006 analysis by education magazine Klasse said that only ten percent of minority students graduate. Whereas almost 70 percent of ethnic Belgians start university, only one fourth of those with Turkish or Moroccan roots enrol, said Gazet van Antwerpen in 2010.
After seven years in Belgium, Yilmaz feels more at home here than in Turkey. “I would definitely say, without a millisecond of thought, that I feel much more comfortable in Belgium than in Turkey.”
However, as a student he can only get a temporary visa and is limited in the amount of money he can earn. This means he lives in a constant state of uncertainty, which has been a cause for anxiety. “My life lacks certainty, it’s been the biggest issue in my life since I moved abroad,” he said. “You cannot make plans, everything is on a yearly basis.”
And the bureaucratic difficulties that come with being a temporary resident and the constant reminders when he goes to the municipality sometimes makes Yilmaz feel like he is not wanted here. “I do everything a Belgian does,” he said. “I don’t see a future for myself in Turkey, but I am also tired of being assumed to be like a vampire of the social system. I have done nothing but contribute financially since coming here.”
Drowning in paperwork and bureaucratic processes
Even expats such as Anne-Maire Hammer, who is from the United States, has a family and works for an international NGO, knows the frustrations of Belgian bureaucracy. “There were a lot of stumbling blocks;” she said. “There is a tendency in Belgian bureaucracy to explain only the first one or two steps of any process rather than giving full information about the whole process. This leads to a lot of frustration.”
The opacity of every process means that simple things such as registering can take very long. “We must have been at the municipality at least three times before we were registered,” Hammer said. We would deliver one paper only to be told that we needed another. Transparency is completely lacking. And don't get me started on car registration. It took 10 months.”
This is not what Hammer expected when she moved to a country that is the centre of so many European and international organs. “You would think that a country that hosts so many international institutions and expats from all over the world would have an interest in making the process of moving to this country as easy as possible,” she said. “This is not the case.”
Refugees, too, have a tough time with the bureaucracy when they arrive in Belgium, De Mot confirmed. “Language alone makes it hard to understand everything and also the fact that it’s a paper chase: everything you do involves paperwork and people receive documents and reminders they cannot read, which can get them into trouble,” De Mot said.
Hammer, who lives on the outskirts of Brussels with her husband and three children, finds it difficult to establish a social life. This is not because of the people, who have given them a “warm reception”. “The people on our street are friendly and smile when we pass each other, but we don't see each other socially,” she said. “We have prioritized a garden and fresh air, so we live outside of the centre of town, and this means socializing is a logistical nightmare.”
Belgium’s Catholic tradition of closing everything on Sundays makes it harder to have a social life on the weekends. “The fact that everything is closed on Sundays means that Saturdays are stressful and focused on shopping for groceries and other necessities,” Hammer said. “I'm extremely sociable by nature, so it is by no means a choice that we are not better integrated in Belgian life”.
With tens of thousands new expats as well as refugees and migrants expected to arrive in Belgium this year, the country still has a long way to go in improving the speed and efficiency of their integration into the society, both socially and practically.
By Jelter Meers