Detention and deportation of undocumented migrants in Belgium

mardi 3 août 2010

Since a migration stop has been announced in 1974, The gateway for foreign workers in Belgium has been shut almost completely. Meanwhile almost nothing has been done to build up a modern migration policy. All political parties have however, been pushing to develop a new migration policy, mainly because it would be an opportunity to execute an effective deportation policy. Nowadays the frustration of politicians is growing over the inability of the government to deport the tens of thousands undocumented migrants out of the country. The latest campaign of regularisation was a prelude to a much bigger game : a new migration policy with clear criteria to designate who is not welcome and how to smoothly deport those unwelcome migrants out of our society .

The ‘general’ regularisation in 2009 was finally pushed through by a compromise between the political left and right over the criteria that would determine the conditions on which an undocumented migrants could obtain a (temporary) residence permit.. The right wing politicians tried to exclude as much undocumented migrants as possible from this regularisations, using a rhetoric dividing undocumented migrants in good and bad migrants. “Who wants to enter through the backdoor without knocking on the frontdoor is not desired”. This lead to a ridiculous big difference in the conditions to obtains residence permits.. Migrant who never started a residence procedure, for example, had to present an employment contract to obtain a regularisation The contract would permit them to obtain a residence permit for one year.

Migrants who already demanded asylum once but had been refused asylum, however, could obtain a full and unlimited residence permit. Not many migrants will be regularised on the basis of this working permit, because this demand is utterly unrealistic. Despite the clarifications by the home office not many employers will provide a formal employment contract for an undocumented employee. It seems like this regularisation has been a symbolic procedure of which not many undocumented migrants will benefit. Migrants who will benefit from this regularisations will be exceptions, a ‘collateral damage’ the government is willing to take.. It is highly sarcastic that a large Group of undocumented migrants who received a temporary working permit after long hunger strikes will not be able to obtain a permanent residence permit because many of them cannot prove that they are surviving on their own for more than five years, after trying to hide their existence out of fear of being detained or arrested.

The regularisation agreement was necessary to force a breakthrough in the negotiations over a new migration policy. The debate has been stalled for a year because of the compromise that had to be reached concerning a regularisation. The concessions served to open up the possibilities for a consensus on migration. Some existing residence procedures were afterwards tightened up (reuniting families procedure, marriage, and obtaining the nationality). Everybody who did not fit into the criteria is considered undesired, the only perspective remaining for them being the deportation back ‘home’. Several right wing political parties will now ask for a number of measures aiming to detain and deport migrants who have been denied asylum and undocumented migrants as soon as possible. A number of these proposals will be dealt with further in this article.

Figures of detention and deportations

Trying to keep the pressure on the kettle, undocumented migrants are daily harassed by police and other public servants (e.g. ticket controls at trains of busses, social inspection officers, etc) Sometimes this happens at random, based on appearance or hotspots for undocumented migrants, but more often during massive raids in specific neighbourhoods or streets where the city’s poor are known to be found.

In 2009, 17 938 people undocumented migrants have been arrested, the bulk of them being released immediately on the streets with an order to leave the Belgian territory. Nevertheless last year 4200 have been deported after detention in a closed detention centre, 1900 have been released. Actual numbers about the people held annually in closed detention centres are not released. The number of forced deportations is declining the last couple of years from 7000 in 2006 to 5000 in 2008. Notable is that the freedom of movement for people in the EU doesn’t mean more freedom in reality for people within the EU : Bulgaria, Romany and Poland are in the top 5 of countries where detainees are being deported . Despite the new possibilities for people from new EU countries to reach Belgium , it remains hard to obtain a permanent residence permit, forcing them into clandestine residence. Without jobs, or housing, they stand no chance for a residence permits, leaving them nothing but one way ticket back.

The top of countries being the destination for deportations is completed by Brazil, Morocco, and Russia.

Closed detention centres in Belgium

Belgium has 5 closed detention centres (officially named “centres for illegals”). The eldest being the transit centre 127 located at the national airport in Zaventem. Since its opening in 1988 it is the deportation centre mainly for people withheld at the border office on the airport, asking for asylum. Six years later, the closed detention centres in Merksplas (near Antwerp) and Steenokkerzeel (near the Zaventem airport) were in function./ The buildings of the Merksplas detention centre had lost their original function as a detention centre for vagrants after the abolishment of the law on vagrancy. The state had moved its aim to the new vagrant : the illegal, giving a new content to the concept of unwanted people who need to be removed from society. In 1995 an old womans prison, closed because of it’s unsanitary condition, was transformed into the closed detention centre ‘the refuge’ in Bruges. In 2000 a new closed detention centre was constructed in Vottem

The normal period of detention is 2 months, but this can be prolonged if the ‘service of foreigners’ (DVZ) attempt to deport the detainee. This prolongation can amount up to 8 months, a measure reserved for those who the government considers a threat to the public order, a concept being vaguely interpreted. People resisting their deportation actively and who cannot be repatriated because of their resistance, however, can be locked up for much longer. After each attempt the person is re-inscribed in the centre, putting the counter back on zero. In principle a detention for unlimited duration is possible.

Sometimes there are attempts to deport people who refuse to identify themselves towards certain countries, even if their origin is not certain. This happens often to break their silence on their origins. Imagine an Ethiopian being deported towards Congo, while not being able to talk the languages, without having any contacts there to help him/her survive. It has happened that Moroccans are being deported to Algeria because of the tensions between Morocco and Algeria. If Algeria accepts the Moroccan migrant it will be impossible for this person to return to Morocco since all borders between Morocco and Algeria are closed. This measure is thus effectively used as a pressure to break people.

In September 2010 the office of foreigners will finish the construction of a new closed detention centre in Steenokkerzeel. The new wing is specifically designed to imprison the ‘unruly” migrants from over the whole country, thus separating them from the rest of the undocumented migrants. Officially individual cells are being constructed for people who have difficulties living in groups. It is easy to determine which migrants the state will think not suitable for living in group. The risk at incidents by centralising all people who act upon their desire for freedom by revolting is however higher. It is certain that the state will install a strict prison policy, putting in practice the image the government wanted to avoid. The decision to construct this new wing followed a revolt in the nearby closed detention centre in august 2008, in a period when the government hardly could manage to meet over infighting about the new migration policy. The new repressive measure however, fluidly found its way and reunited the different politicians. They can hardly wait until the works have finished in September 2010 since some cells in Steenokkerzeel have been set alight again in May of this year

Dublin II convention

According to the so called ‘Dublin-convention the country where an undocumented foreigner crosses the border of the EU, receives a (temporary) residence permit, or asks asylum, is responsible for the handling of the asylum procedure. This means that if an Afghan enters Europe in Greece, this member country is responsible for the handling of the asylum demand, even if the migrant never declared himself in Greece. The same procedure counts for Russians and Tchetchians passing trough Poland or African boat refugees stranding in Italy or Spain..

When during the interview made by the office for foreigners it becomes evident that the asylum seeker has already resided or applied for asylum in another EU-country or if his or her fingerprints are registered in another EU-country ; this person will be locked up during the procedure of turning the file over to the state responsible for handling the asylum file. In principle this type of detention is limited to two months maximum, but this can be prolonged in case of refusal of deportation. There is much critique on sending asylym seekers back to Greece because their asylum system is know to be incorrect and their detention centre in deporable state. After July 2009 the asylum system has been further hollowed out by abolishing the appeal possibilities and recruiting extra policemen to control and deport the unwanted foreigners. In a reaction the UNCHR, also know for its dubious role, even cancelled it’s co-operation.

Despite this, Belgium keeps on deportating asylum seekers to Greece. About 85% of asylum seekers from Aghanistan or Iraq are being deported to Greece, only 0.05% of the asylum demands in Greece receive a positive answer ?.

Return housing for families

In October 2008 the office of foreigners introduced an alternative to the detention of undocumented migrant children much criticized by many organisations. Families are now being held in a so called ‘return house’ when they await a deportation or asylum procedure. The houses are being introduced by the government as holiday houses, where ‘family coaches’ take them shopping in local shops and children are able to attend local schools. The families have to sign an agreement with the office for foreigners promising to co-operate in their deportation. The irony is that the foreigners office has no real measures for deporting these families. Luckily the houses are not being locked after the (coach) leaves the house in the evening. With some logistical help several deportations have been sabotaged. However, ” in 2009 about 60 families with about 100 children have been deported using the “return houses, a telltale sign of the same deportation policy with softer means.

The impact of Europe on the detention of undocumented migrants

During the no Border camp in Brussel, Belgium will take presidency of the European council. Therefore it will have to be active in implementing the ‘EU return guideline , agreed upon in June 2008 by the European parliament. Because of this guideline, undocumented migrants can be locked up for a period of 18 months pending their deportation or release if they cannot be deported. It also involves a 5 year ban for the European union.

Another toy for the EU is the Stockholm program. It is a new version of the programs already decided upon in Tampere (1999) and Den hague (2004) aiming to achieve a bigger cooperation on protecting our welfare and richness for the rest of the world. The focus point within the Stockholm program concerns the control of migration and the reinforcement of the outer border control. Under the Den hague program the Frontex agency was created to coordinate the building of fortress Europe at its outer borders.

This effort to create a well oiled European policy concerning forced deportation, detentions and guarding the outer borders, which will only lead to the heightening of detentions and deportations. With a communal policy other member states of the EU can be reprimanded for not upholding the conventions. Especially at the outer borders where frontex is given more and more a free hand.

Streamlining the deportation of asylum seekers

Negotiations are being held between Fedasil, the office for foreigners and different other organisations who organise the housing of asylum seekers to develop a method to integrate the deportation and detention of refused asylum seekers as an element within the accompaniment of asylum seekers

The proposal is based on an intensive pathway monitoring during the asylum procedure stimulating the asylum seekers to integrate, but in the meantime also prepare them for a return in the case of a negative decision. If asylum status is not granted, the asylum seeker will be given the opportunity to follow a return pathway, prolonging the housing and care, if they promise to fully cooperate in their return. The aim of this intensive program is to facilitate the re-integration in the country of origin. But the voluntary aspect of this method stops if the asylum seekers refuses the attempts of the assistant (read deportation functionary) to return the asylum demander. If Fedasil thinks the ‘co-operation’ is not fully, it can file a demand to arrest a person and lock him or her up in a closed detention centre thereby starting up the procedure for a forced deportation.

The same plan is being developed for undocumented migrant families who, under the children’s rights convention, have to be accompanied. Who will not cooperate voluntarily risks detention. A return or a detention can be avoided off course by escapint the centre in time. Nevertheless an agreement like this will certainly set the mood of the modern migration policy Belgium will try to implement : giving shelter , … or economic migration, who does not fit in will be deported one way or the other

Resistance against closed detention centres and deportations

The resistance against closed detention centres and deportations has never been huge in Belgium, especially not in Flanders. However now and then new dynamics have been created to sabotage the deportation machine and throw a spanner in the works. The most turbulent period began without doubt in 1998 when Semira Adamu was killed by asphyxiation during an attempt to deport her. Her death was the cause for demonstration where thousands of people participated. The same year the ‘anti-deportation collective’ (Collectief tegen uitwijzingen) was founded. One of the most remarkable actions by this collective was the escape of 31 persons out of the closed detention centre in Steenokkerzeel. The actions of the collective were met with great repression. After one year the collective had to disband and in 1999 a new group took up the glove :Collectief van Verzet tegen Uitwijzingen en Gesloten Centra (collective of resistance against deportations and closed detention centres).

From 2003 on the focus in the struggle on the themes of migration and undocumented migrants shifted towards a demand for regluarisation. Even tough this movement aimed for collective demands, it created in fact some real perspectives for individual undocumented migrants to shape their future. The shift in perspective however made a continuous attack on the existence of closed detention centres very hard those years. . The fight against deportation centres may not be widely supported in 2010, but is more fierce than ever. The biggest cause of this renewed ardour is the construction of a new wing in het closed detention centre in Steenokkerzeel.. it’s construction created a new clear perspective to attack the deportation system. The tactics chosen to fight the construction reminds of the campaigns against vivisection centres of Huntingdon Life Sciences (UK) and BPRC (The Netherlands). The campaign isn’t just centred around the closed detention centre but aims at everything and everyone contribution to the construction or the maintenance or every company gaining profits from this centre. Several companies were blacklisted and in 2010 several machines used by Besix , who is responsible for the works on the new detention centre, were set alight all over the land. Other companies like De post (postal service who is responsible for the bank accounts of the closed detention centres ; ISS (cleaning the closed detention centres) Dalkia (electricity works in prisons) have found vehicles or buildings damaged. The fight against this new centre is fought also by spreading thousands of posters and leaflets in Brussels where thousands of undocumented migrants run the risk of being arrested and put in the new closed detention centre every day. Several demonstrations have been held in Brussels against this centre.

Earlier a new wave of actions originated aiming at effectively blockading a closed detention centre for a day, thus delaying all deportations that day. In october 2008 a large group of activists blocked the closed detention centre in Vottem, followed by a blockade of Steenokkerzeel in april 2009 and a simultaneous blockade of Vottem and Bruges in October 2009. Following these actions a new action form was used : publicly announced noise demonstrations at the gates of closed detention centres to show solidarity with the imprisoned migrants.

Different groups try to organise regularly manifestations at the gates of the closed detention centres, but are not very successful at gathering many people. In March 2010 however a 1000 people attended a march against the 11 years existence of the closed deportation centre in Vottem. In April a concert was organised by several refugee support organisations in a meadow right in front tof the closed deportation centre in Steenokkerzeel, baptised Steenrock.


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