Undocumented migrants in Belgium ; the cycles of struggle

mardi 3 août 2010

By many eurocrats and regionally elected dreamt of as a center of power ; Brussels is demolishing its neighbourhoods to erect business parks and searching for ways to concentrate poverty in discrete reservoirs. It´s specifically there where you´ll meet undocumented migrants, which are sometimes very capable militants for freedom of movement.

Glass walls

Moroccans, Congolese, Ecuadorians, Afghans and many other migrants are providing a workforce for different sectors like construction, cleaning, bars and restaurants, informal trade and prostitution. Alongside the ´Petit Chateau´ asylum seekers shelter African day labourers aren´t hiding but instead offering their labour out in the streets. Belgian taxes on labour are high enough in order to legitimise black wages and consider it as common sense. This reality can´t exist without staying blind and being supported by a largely racist police force and a strong administrative wall. First mentioned is being illustrated by the murder of Semira Adamu by suffocation on September 22 1998, the raid on 80 Ecuadorians in June 2003 and the beating and imprisonment of 100 people occupying the church of Anderlecht. The administration, named Immigration Office1, is based in the Rogier business park – the North Gate – and gains all its strength from the undefined laws on migration. The regularisation campaign in 2009 didn´t succeed in creating any permanent guideline and is now subjected to the successive ministers ; like gymnastics performing figures in front of a radical right wing crowd. They´ve always opposed the three regularisation opportunities to be released since the first one in 1974.

The regularisation dyke

Semira´s death wasn´t an isolated event. The ´right´ atmosphere has been created since the state started building a closed detention center in 1988 (plus five more through the following years and one which is being constructed right now2) and the implementation of the Schengen Convention in 1996. Documented and undocumented people have responded to this by creating several associations but have hardly been listened to by the authorities. The most outstanding events are probably the occupation of the construction site of the Vottem detention center by the so-called ´Collectif de Résistance Aux Centres Pour Etrangers´ and the evasion of 31 detained migrants in the Steenokkerzeel camp supported by the ´Collectif Contre Les Expulsions´. The repression of this movement, which became crystallised by the death of Semira, succeeded in breaking the dynamics just before the regularisation campaign in 1999. In 1974 this involved 8000 cases. This one in 1999 allowed 42.000 people (out of 60.000 files) to find a way out of their clandestine life.

The next cycle, which had begun in 2003 by Afghan refugees, ended a year ago by a new regularisation campaign. This came as a late and meagre response from those in power to the uproar that the movement of undocumented migrants had initiated over the past few years. The ´Union de Défense des Etrangers sans Papiers (UDEP) came to exist in 2004 in reponse to an urging need of self-organisation as the undocumented migrants had more and more become controlled by structures which are linked to the state. In those early days UDEP managed to occupy 60 churches simultaneously with more than 600 people between March and June in 2006. They´ve also proposed a law in the Parliament which was based upon permanent guidelines for regularisation of undocumented migrants. This proposal of common sense has still not been treated, nor did it receive any response except for the promise of a punctual regularisation in 2009 which has only been executed after a year of struggle, occupations and hungerstrikes.

The end of the dyke ?

While releasing its results drop by drop, the process of regularisation has already changed the faith of many undocumented migrants. Some have been refused the regularisation by a job offer on behalf of the ´reason´ that the sector they´d be hired to isn´t part of a sector which is under pressure, or to be reserved for foreign citizens. Return to construction work, restaurants, cleaning, … Others won´t be regularised because they lack some months of stay on the Belgian territory. But no certificate is needed to prove that they´ve been in this struggle for four or five years. Their experience proves and explains that this movement has constantly renewed itself to be better equipped to cope with the traps of negotiation, the little value a promise by the state actually has, the price to pay for the union´s support, the weakness of the internal democracy.

During the No Border camp that will come to Brussels, the undocument migrants should at least be expecting a place where this memory of the Belgian movement can meet other experiences of struggle which are all very unique but yet still all related. But let´s hope that the No Border camp will not only remain limited to this minimalistic objective but also learn from those testimonies and experiences.

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