On a chilly morning last week, Alda Sousa and Gabi Zimmer, the head of the GUE/NGL leftist political group in the European Parliament, visited the Afghan refugee camped outside the Béguinage church in the Sainte-Catherine district of Brussels. Sousa wrote down her experience for EurActiv.
Alda Sousa is a Portuguese MEP from Bloco de Esquerda with the GUE/NGL group in the European Parliament.
Inside the church, we met some of the 200 people, many of them young children, who have been living in the church for several months now and are campaigning for their right to remain in Belgium.
Speaking with the occupants of the 300 year-old baroque church, we talked of the political impasse they are trapped in: they have no access to documents to regularise their situation, and at the same time the Belgian State does not have the right to deport them back home to Afghanistan. It's a political deadlock that leaves the refugees covered by a provisional protection status that does not give them the right to work or to any type of social protection.
With just one toilet to share, the circumstances are difficult to say the least but the residents have made the most of their conditions; establishing private and social spaces as best they can. Fortunately they are organised and there is also a solidarity network, organised by a committee of Brussels' citizens who are doing their best to provide them with food, water, showers, and all kinds of basic needs.
With this support, over recent months they have also engaged in a significant push to provoke public debate and raise awareness of their difficult situation as well as the problematic aspects of Belgian migration policy. How did they do this? They occupied vacant buildings where they lived and held protests and sit-ins. As the Prime Minister refused to receive them, they decided to march to his hometown, Mons, at the end of December right in the middle of winter. In order to be heard again, they did the same thing three weeks later by marching to Ghent, the home city of Maggie De Block, the Secretary of State for Asylum, Immigration and Social Integration, who recently removed €125 million from the budget line for social care of migrants. Their struggle is remarkable. They refuse to become invisible and they demand a political solution.
Some of those currently living in the church have been in Belgium for years and began protesting last year after being denied asylum. Afghanistan is patently an unsafe place to be right now, as confirmed in several reports by the UN Commissioner for Refugees. Around 2.7 million Afghans continue to live in exile, and some 600,000 are estimated to be internally displaced because of more than a decade of war. It also remains one of the world’s most difficult and dangerous places to be a child. The UN says over 4,000 children were killed or seriously wounded as a result of the conflict between 2010 and 2012.
Families are thus being pushed into an impossible choice between returning to uncertainty and violence in Afghanistan and administrative limbo in Europe. Despite this, the Afghans' pleas for help to relieve their desperate situation and their efforts to secure a moratorium against deportations to Afghanistan have been met by a Belgian government that lets the situation get worse and worse by adopting fake solutions to exclude some of the migrants from the statistics: we have seen young Afghans returned to their homeland, most probably to their deaths because those of army enlistment age are the most vulnerable.
Inseparable, of course, from the debate on the Béguinage church refugees, is the fact that Belgium, as well as so many other countries like Portugal, has had a military presence in Afghanistan since 2001, as part of the NATO operation there. Our political group, the GUE/NGL, has always condemned this military intervention and called for withdrawal instead of the maintenance of troops in Afghanistan.
Freedom of movement for people is a fundamental right and Europe has a responsibility towards those affected by harmful foreign policies of the wealthy west. While EU leaders preach human rights standards around the globe in any forum that will hear them, migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees in Europe face automatic criminalisation, whether they are from other EU member states or from other parts of the world. Just last year, in 2013, the Belgian authorities deported over 5000 European citizens from Belgium as they did not have enough money to live on. This is fortress Europe.
Sure enough, this is not the first time the Béguinage church has been at the centre of a struggle for human rights in this part of Europe. The building was occupied by political refugees following the botched expulsion of Semira Adamu in 1998. A 20 year old Nigerian asylum seeker, Semira was suffocated to death with a pillow by two police officers who tried to calm her during a deportation effort. She left Nigeria to escape a forced marriage.
More recently, last week we heard the heart-breaking story of Maria Chidiri, 35, who had been living in the Anderlecht district of Brussels for many years but who had never officially registered for fear of being deported. She heard the police knock at her door and, mistakenly believing they had come for her, jumped out her apartment window to escape, dying from the fall.
The European 'capital' is no stranger to the horrors of these very European tragedies but despite the countless appalling stories of this kind from every corner of the continent, the need to remind governments that the protection of refugees is an obligation of all EU states remains. In our capacity as members of the European Parliament we will continue to do our utmost to maintain pressure for a respectful EU migration and asylum policy that, instead of scapegoating to deflect attention away from failed economic policies, acknowledges the positive contribution that migrants bring to our societies and fulfils its obligation to protect those that flee persecution. We are calling on the Belgian government to stop all returns of Afghan nationals to Afghanistan; to provide a lasting solution that recognises the right to live in safety, without fear, and in respect of human dignity."