United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1998 - Belgium, 1 January 1998, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a8be0.html [accessed 3 December 2016]
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At the end of 1997, Belgium hosted more than 14,100 refugees and asylum seekers in need of protection, according to the Belgian government and UNHCR. These included 10,671 asylum seekers pending a first-instance decision on their applications, 1,870 refugees granted asylum and 40 refugees resettled in Belgium during the year, and 1,533 Bosnian refugees still in need of a durable solution at the end of 1997. During the year, 11,787 persons applied for asylum in Belgium, a 4 percent decrease from the 12,232 applicants who applied in 1996. The number of asylum seekers applying in Belgium dropped substantially after 1993 (26,882 people applied in 1993), the year Belgium introduced a series of restrictive amendments to its law on foreigners. During 1997, the largest number of asylum seekers came from the present Yugoslavia (1,290), followed by Congo/Zaire (1,230), Albania (1,007), Romania (641), Armenia (604), and Rwanda (565). Asylum Procedure With the Schengen and Dublin Conventions entering into force in January and September 1997, respectively, Belgium moved to a three-step asylum procedure. First, the Aliens Office of the Ministry of the Interior determines whether another state is responsible for deciding the asylum application. This was done for most of 1997 in accordance with the Schengen Convention, implemented in a subset of Western European countries. When the Dublin Convention became effective for the entire EU in September, however, it superseded the asylum provisions of the Schengen Convention. Generally, both conventions stipulate that the member state permitting the asylum seeker entry, or the member state where the asylum seeker first sets foot in the event of illegal entry, is responsible for reviewing the asylum application. If the Aliens Office determines that Belgium is responsible for reviewing the application, it then decides on the admissibility of the asylum claim. Manifestly unfounded claims can be rejected at this stage. The Commissioner General for Refugees and Stateless Persons (CGRA) may review negative admissibility decisions. Belgium may detain insufficiently documented asylum seekers pending a decision on admissibility. Of the admissibility applications reviewed during 1997, the Aliens Office and CGRA together deemed 33 percent admissible to the normal asylum procedure. The third step of the procedure is for the CGRA to render decisions on the merits of admissible claims. Either the government or the applicant may appeal CGRA decisions to the Permanent Commission of Appeals for Refugees (PCAR), an administrative appeals tribunal. In both first-instance status determinations and the appeals process, the CGRA and the PCAR granted asylum to 29 percent of the 6,479 persons who received a merits hearing during 1997. Rwandans had the highest approval rate (94 percent), followed by nationals of Burundi (90 percent), Ethiopia (70 percent), Bosnia (43 percent), and Croatia (43 percent). After a PCAR review, no further appeal on the merits is permitted. However, asylum seekers in Belgium may "appeal for annulment" administrative decisions on questions of the 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. Recognized refugees in Belgium receive one-year renewable residence permits. After five years, they may apply for Belgian citizenship. Refugees receive work permits limited to specific jobs for their first three years of residence, after which they receive an unlimited work permit. Restrictions Relaxed During 1997, the Belgian government took modest steps to relax restrictive provisions of several amendments on asylum enacted in 1993 and 1996 that had significantly reduced the number of persons applying for asylum in Belgium. In September, the government revoked a provision of the 1996 amendment on asylum that had permitted the authorities to detain indefinitely insufficiently documented asylum seekers arriving in Belgium, imposing in its place an eight-month limit. In October, the government also decided to grant temporary residence rights to rejected asylum seekers who cannot return to their home country. That same month, the government instructed the Aliens Office to consider regularizing the status of asylum seekers who had requested asylum before January 1992 but had not yet received a decision. However, the 1995 and 1996 laws on carrier sanctions remained in place during 1997. These laws aim to enlist the support of transport companies to prevent insufficiently documented foreigners from arriving in Belgium. Transport carriers are fined for each passenger whom they transport to Belgium without the requisite travel documents. However, 1996 legislation exempts from such fines carriers that sign a "protocol agreement" with the government, under which they agree to carry out of tasks related to immigration control. Congolese/Zairians On July 1, Amnesty International strongly criticized PCAR's handling of the appeals cases of applicants from the newly proclaimed Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, formerly Zaire). Following the change of government in Congo/Zaire, the PCAR instituted an accelerated appeals procedure for Congolese applicants, most of whom had initially applied for asylum in Belgium when the Mobutu regime was still in power, according to Amnesty International. In a July 22, 1997 letter to the Belgian government, USCR raised its concern that the PCAR had initiated the accelerated appeals procedure based on the assumption that the human rights situation in Congo/Zaire had fundamentally improved. Pointing out that Amnesty International continued to document human rights violations under the new government's rule, USCR urged the Belgian government to "consider the complex situation which continues to prevail in the DRC" when reviewing the appeals of Congolese asylum seekers. In a July 30 response to USCR's letter, the Belgian interior ministry rejected Amnesty International's characterization of the PCAR's approach to reviewing the appeals of Congolese asylum seekers, saying that it dealt with all asylum applications thoroughly. When asked whether they fear the new government headed by Larent Kabila, "most asylum seekers actually answer in the negative," the interior ministry said. Bosnians The Belgian government announced two separate initiatives concerning Bosnian refugees in September and October, respectively. On September 5, the government offered an assistance package of 100,000 Belgian francs (about $2,700) for each adult Bosnian refugee and 50,000 francs per child choosing to return to Bosnia. Returnees' travel expenses were also to be covered. In announcing the repatriation assistance scheme, Belgian interior ministry officials said that Belgium had no plans to forcibly repatriate any Bosnian refugees. On October 27, the Belgian government announced that Bosnians with "displaced person" status (a temporary status accorded to most Bosnians who sought asylum in Belgium between 1992 and 1995) wishing to integrate permanently in Belgium and willing to learn French, Dutch, or German would be granted permanent residence permits. As of September, about 4,400 Bosnians held displaced person status in Belgium.