'We were deceived': Hunger strikers accuse government of betrayal

'We were deceived': Hunger strikers accuse government of betrayal
A migrant on hunger strike in the Beguinage church. Credit: Belga

Four representatives of the undocumented migrants who were on hunger strike earlier this year have accused Secretary of State of Asylum and Migration Sammy Mahdi of "unprecedented betrayal."

They stated that Mahdi made promises that he has failed to keep regarding the regularisation of the migrants during negotiation talks. This lead the migrants to halt their hunger strike. They have called Mahdi's actions "a political scandal with immeasurable human consequences."

"We have been deceived, it is an unprecedented betrayal and we have no other choice than to denounce it publicly," Alexis Deswaef, one of the lawyers who worked on the hunger strikers' case, said in a press release on Monday.

"Over the past 20 years, I have been asked to help undocumented migrants go on hunger strike several times and have been in dialogue with four different ministers. Mahdi is the first one who does not keep his word!" he added.

For almost two months, more than 400 undocumented migrants conducted on hunger – and later thirst – strikes in the Beguinage church in the centre of Brussels and on the university campuses of the ULB and VUB in Ixelles, in a bid to obtain collective regularisation.

Mahdi, backed by De Croo, originally held fast to the legalistic line that the rules do not allow collective regularisation. However, he later set up a neutral zone where the migrants could receive information about existing procedures and their options, as the situation began to deteriorate and peoples' lives were in danger.

The strike eventually ended when Mahdi, alongside Freddy Roosemont – head of the Immigration's Office, and Commissioner-General for Refugees and Stateless Persons Dirk Van den Bulck (who was acting as a mediator), met on 21 July, when "concrete elements" that should make it possible to regularise a "significant part" of the hunger strikers were presented.

'Shame and human tragedy'

According to Deswaef, as well as Marie-Pierre de Buisseret (lawyer); Mehdi Kassou, spokesperson of the Citizen Platform, and Daniel Alliet, a priest at the Beguinage Church, they were told during this meeting that there was an option for regularisation for hunger strikers who "have been living in Belgium for a number of years and can produce proof of being well integrated."

However, after looking at the first decisions that have now been published by the Immigration's Office, the representatives argued Mahdi did not stick to his word, and that the discussions "have not been respected."

"There were four of us at this meeting and all four of us can testify that the elements that were put on the table were not respected," said Alliet. "It is a shame for all of us and it is a human tragedy for the hundreds of undocumented migrants whose future has just been brutally blackened."

In response, Mahdi reiterated that he never promised the hunger strikers any special treatment. "Many people have given false hope to the hunger strikers, but not me," he told Radio 1 on Tuesday morning.

He added that it was clear from the outset he would now allow for collective regularisation, as this would "give the wrong signal, and soon there will be hunger strikers in every church. That cannot be the intention."

"They know that I will not allow for regularisation in this situation, so they are trying to put pressure on the government," he said.

On Tuesday morning, the four representatives held a press conference at the Beguinage Church. It has been reported the hunger strikers may restart their action if no solutions are presented.

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