United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1997 - Belgium, 1 January 1997, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a8b640.html [accessed 30 August 2016]
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During 1996, 12,232 persons applied for asylum in Belgium, a 7 percent increase from the number of asylum applicants filing the previous year. The number of persons applying in 1996 nevertheless represents a significant 54.5 percent decrease from the 26,882 claimants filing in 1993, the year Belgium introduced a series of restrictive amendments to its law on foreigners. During 1996, the largest number of asylum seekers came from the former Yugoslavia (2,843), followed by claimants from the former Soviet Union (1,767), Zaire (841), Romania (751), Turkey (695), and Bulgaria (599). Asylum Procedure Belgium has a two-step asylum procedure. First, the Aliens Office of the Ministry of the Interior decides on the admissibility of the asylum claim. Manifestly unfounded claims can be rejected at this stage. Accelerated procedures for claims decided to be manifestly unfounded "do not always benefit from adequate procedural safeguards," according to UNHCR. Of the applications it reviewed during 1996, the Aliens Office deemed 10 percent to be admissible to the asylum procedure, up from 8 percent in 1995. Negative admissibility decisions may be reviewed by the Commissioner General for Refugees and Stateless Persons (CGRA). The CGRA overturned 22 percent of the 11,432 negative admissibility decisions that it reviewed in 1996. The second step of the procedure is for the CGRA to render decisions on the merits of admissible claims. At this stage, the CGRA granted refugee status to 27 percent of the 5,932 persons whose cases it reviewed on the merits during 1996. Either the government or the applicant may appeal CGRA decisions to the Permanent Commission of Appeals for Refugees (PCAR), an administrative appeals tribunal. No further appeal on the merits is permitted. However, Belgian administrative decisions may be "appealed for annulment" on questions of law to the Council of State, the country's highest administrative court. This may apply to PCAR's rulings, but asylum seekers more often use it to annul orders to leave Belgian territory or to try to win release from detention. UNHCR retains a consultative role in PCAR. Restrictive Measures In June 1996, Belgium adopted several new restrictive asylum measures in an amendment to its 1980 law on foreigners. These legislative changes follow a series of restrictive amendments on asylum enacted in 1993 that are credited with significantly reducing the number of persons applying for asylum in Belgium. According to the 1996 amendment to the law on foreigners, asylum seekers are to be held in closed reception centers pending decisions on their admissibility to the normal asylum procedure. The amendment also authorizes the authorities to detain rejected asylum seekers indefinitely until their repatriation or deportation to a third country is possible. Beginning in 1998, however, the maximum detention period for rejected asylum seekers will be eight months, according to the Belgian government. In a May 20, 1996 letter to the Belgian ambassador to the United States, USCR expressed concern that the new detention provisions might translate into a system for discouraging people from applying for asylum in the first place and lead to inordinately long detention periods for some asylum seekers. The Belgian ambassador replied that the measures were necessary to ensure that asylum seekers would not remain in Belgium illegally. He added that the "asylum seeker is also guaranteed the right to swift and correct processing of his/her application." The 1996 amendment to the law on foreigners also introduced a provision aimed at enlisting the support of transport companies to prevent insufficiently documented foreigners from arriving in Belgium. Similar to a March 1995 law on carrier sanctions, the 1996 amendment stipulates that transport companies are to be fined for each passenger whom they transport to Belgium without the requisite travel documents. However, the 1996 legislation provides that carriers that sign a "protocol agreement" with the government, agreeing to carry out a number of tasks related to immigration control, are exempt from such fines. On October 11, 1996, the Belgian interior ministry announced that some 20 airlines had signed protocol agreements with the government. Former Yugoslavs From July 1992 though February 1995, Belgium granted temporary protection to 5,855 "displaced persons" coming from the former Yugoslavia, primarily Bosnian Muslims and ethnic Albanians from Serbia's Kosovo province. The status provided renewable, six-month residence permits with the right to work and access to social security or, alternatively, a subsistence allowance, including housing and medical care. On March 1, 1995, the Belgian government adopted a policy whereby new arrivals from the former Yugoslavia would no longer be eligible for temporary protection but would receive normal refugee status determinations. In practice, however, this has not applied to Bosnians. The authorities have continued to accord Bosnians temporary protection rather than review their cases under the normal asylum procedure. Of about 6,000 Bosnians present in Belgium at the end of 1996, only 146 have received refugee status. During 1996, the Belgian government pledged not to initiate any compulsory returns of Bosnians, in accordance with UNHCR recommendations. In September 1996, the Commissioner General for Refugees and Stateless Persons reported that an undetermined number of Bosnians who feared forced repatriation from Germany had traveled to Belgium and applied for asylum. The commissioner said that Bosnians who lived in Germany prior to their arrival in Belgium would be rejected on the basis of the Schengen Agreement. Another Belgian regulation stipulates that persons who lived three months or more in a third country are ineligible for asylum in Belgium.