'Living with serious fears': State ignoring court judgements in asylum seeker cases

'Living with serious fears': State ignoring court judgements in asylum seeker cases
Refugees waiting outside the entry to the Petit Chateau, a Fedasil registration centre for asylum seekers. Credit: Belga/ Virginie Lefour

From judges to lawyers and magistrates, the staff working in the French-speaking Labour Court of Brussels are succumbing to the surge in workload as a result of Fedasil's failure to provide shelter to asylum seekers. It has now emerged that Fedasil is also ignoring the convictions made against it.

In contrast to previous figures cited by Fedasil, Belgium's asylum reception agency, it has been convicted 4,500 times in the past year for not providing asylum seekers with shelter. Those not given the shelter are entitled to go to the Labour Court to fight this decision.

"In the last few months, we have received dozens of such complaints every day. We just never stop working. Both the work and mental pressure on people working in the court are very heavy at the moment," one judge working in the court told The Brussels Times.

The court has received 4,832 unilateral applications since 1 January concerning the reception of asylum seekers, almost 100 times more than the annual average between 2014 and 2019. This amounts to a workload for about six to seven full-time employees that now comes on top of the everyday work carried out by the court's 75 staff members.

Due to the skyrocketing number of cases, the nature of these unilateral applications — a rare process for legal action to be brought without an opponent — and their high urgency, the court's staff is feeling the pressure under a system at breaking point.

Losing sight of purpose

In more than 90% of these applications, Fedasil has been convicted, with the claim of the asylum applicant being ruled as well-founded. Such a decision should result in the applicant receiving the shelter they are legally entitled to, but in practice, this is not always the case.

"Just yesterday, a man came into the building and refused to leave. He said that he was still not given shelter, despite the fact that three months ago, we ruled in his favour and convicted Fedasil," the court's judge said. "We did our job correctly, but the outcome of it is being completely ignored."

A woman and a child outside a Fedasil reception centre. Credit: Belga

This was confirmed by Thomas Willekens, a Policy Officer at Vluchtelingenwerk Vlaanderen (Refugee Council Flanders), who said that no single man is given shelter at the moment, even following a successful conviction for the government asylum agency.

Such incidents are resulting in judges questioning their work if decisions are not being implemented. "We are still motivated because we know there are people who have a right to this type of legal help, but it is weighing on us mentally."

On verge of burnout

The current additional workload is being divided across all four categories of staff members in the Tribunal. "If we didn't do this, some would definitely be in burnout," the judge said.

Willekens noted that among the around 40 lawyers his organisation collaborates with, many can no longer cope with their workloads. "They are often the only point of contact for the asylum seekers, which is weighing on them mentally. It is very worrying that legal operations are now also under enormous pressure."

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Various sources close to the matter told The Brussels Times that the situation is only bound to deteriorate, especially as winter is around the corner. "There is definitely a serious fear among first-line workers dealing with this crisis that there will be more and more such requests."

Despite these dire predictions, the judge said she has not lost hope. "My wish is to speak calmly with the relevant authorities to come to a step-by-step solution, but there is a real sense that energy is now being wasted in our court to come to convictions that then don't result in change. I feel it would be better if that energy was spent to find a solution."

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