Massive increase in suicides and attempts in Belgian asylum centres

Massive increase in suicides and attempts in Belgian asylum centres
The Klein Kasteeltje in Brussels. © Fedasil

Conditions in asylum centres, such as overcrowding, have been blamed for an increase in the number of successful and failed suicide attempts, Nieuwsblad reports.

Fedasil, the Federal Agency for the reception of asylum seekers, started collecting figures on suicide and self-harm in the asylum centres in 2017 – when 12 incidents were recorded in Flanders and nine in Wallonia (the figures do not distinguish between suicides and attempts).

By 2021, however, those totals had increased respectively to 38 and 30, according to figures provided by the Office of the Asylum Minister, Sammy Mehdi (CD&V), to Member of Parliament Theo Francken (N-VA).

Fedasil sought to place the raw figures in context. “For the first year (2017), there are four months missing, so the figures are not representative,” explained Spokesperson Mieke Candaele. At the same time, the population of the asylum centres increased over the period by almost 10,000, from 17,788 to 27,676.

Nonetheless the figures keep on rising. And the principal reason, according to Thomas Pelseneer, a mental health specialist with Doctors Without Borders (MSF), is the long waiting times before asylum requests are processed. There are currently more than 20,000 asylum-seekers waiting for a ruling on their case.

“In recent months we have seen that almost all of our patients are depressed,” he told Het Nieuwsblad. “Someone set himself on fire in front of the doors of the Klein Kasteeltje, an asylum centre in Brussels, during the Christmas period. A man from Afghanistan threw himself out of the window of the asylum centre after a negative decision," he said.

In a study from 2021 and still only partially published, asylum-seekers themselves described the experience of long waits for a verdict as repetitive and lacking a perspective for improvement. And the feeling of isolation is exacerbated by language problems experienced by asylum applicants.

Almost inevitably, the conditions lead to rising tensions, and in turn to an increase in violence. The overcrowding leads to a great deal of stress, one worker told the paper.

The problem has reached the attention of the Dirk Van den Bulck, the Commissioner-General for Refugees, responsible for adjudicating on each application.

“With almost 500 employees, a record number of civil servants work on the files,” a Spokesperson said. “They are already preparing for the summer: the number of people in need continues to increase.”

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