Some of the hunger strikers in the Beguinage church in Brussels and on the campus of the VUB in Ixelles have now started refusing water, the support organisation USPR reports.
The hunger strikers are undocumented immigrants who have been refused asylum status and are unable to work legally and make a living in Belgium. Numbering over 400, they are demanding a blanket regularisation to allow them to escape the clutches of unscrupulous contractors who employ them illegally, paying as little as €3 an hour.
The hunger strike is now in its 55th day, and has already reached a critical stage, where some of the damage caused will be expected to be irreversible.
To date, the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders have been sustaining the strikers with water and electrolytes – the salts normally contained in foods that maintain the body’s internal balance.
One of the most famous hunger strikes in Europe took place in 1981, by Irish Republican prisoners in the Maze Prison in Belfast. There, prisoners were protesting for the right to wear their own clothing.
The cases are very different, but what is important is the growing risk of fatalities. The most famous of the strikers, Bobby Sands, died on the 66th day of his protest. Two others lasted 60 and 62 days. One died after only 46 days.
The risk of this protest in Brussels producing fatalities is very real, and a move to refusing water will only accelerate those hunger strikers, reckoned to be about ten, who have chosen that route.
"The issue concerns about ten people at the VUB and a few in the Beguinage church," USPR spokesman Mohammed Alex told Bruzz.
"About fifteen people wanted to start a thirst strike at the ULB, but we were able to convince them not to."
So far, secretary of state for asylum and migration Sammy Mahdi (CD&V) has held to a strictly legalistic line and refused outright the demand for collective regularisation – and the prime minister Alexander De Croo (Open VLD) has backed him fully.
During the week, Mahdi proposed a compromised. The strikers, known as sans-papiers because they have no identity papers, could enjoy a ‘neutral zone’ in the environs of the Beguinage church, where they could find out information about their rights and how to obtain official status.
For the time being, the sans-papiers and their supporters have treated Mahdi’s proposal as an empty gesture. If the ‘thirst strike’ holds, the next few days could be very difficult indeed for the minister.