About 500 people demonstrated on Saturday afternoon in Sint-Laureins, East Flanders, against a plan to set up a centre for asylum seekers in the Godshuis, a former monastery that has been empty for many years, Belga news agency reports.
The centre, which would be run by the Red Cross, would host some 240 asylum seekers, most of them Afghans, according to Belga.
The municipal council of Sint-Laureins, which has a population of about 6,800, came out against the plan soon after it was announced in mid-January that the former monastery would be transformed into a centre for asylum seekers at the request of State Secretary for Asylum and Migration, Sammy Mahdi.
According to the AVS TV station, the owners of the building had offered it to the State Secretary and the Federal Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers, FEDASIL, for use as the centre.
The town council said in a public reaction on 19 January that it had not been involved in the plans for the centre. It added that Sint-Laureins proper – which makes up the municipality together with a number of other districts – has only 2,861 inhabitants and lacks the infrastructure, including public transport, to accommodate such a large number of asylum seekers.
The council then called on residents to take part in a peaceful protest on January 29 to manifest their opposition to the plan, AVS reported.
Participants in the protest said on Saturday that while they were opposed to a large asylum centre, they were not against hosting asylum seekers in their municipality. They added that asylum seekers had lived in Sint-Laureins in the past, but on a much smaller scale, according to AVS.
Queried about the plan at a meeting of the Home Affairs Commission on Wednesday, State Secretary Mahdi said that while Sint-Laureins was an option, no decision had been made yet, nor had it been decided who would be accomodated there, AVS reported. He also said he understood the population’s concern.