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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Belgium : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date May 2011
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Belgium : Overview, May 2011, available at: [accessed 5 September 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Last updated May 2011


Belgium is in north-western Europe bordering the North Sea, the Netherlands, Germany, Luxembourg and France. Flanders lies in the west and north, Wallonia in the south and east. The German-speaking community is in the eastern border area with Germany.


Main languages: Dutch, French, German

Main religions: Roman Catholicism

Population groups include Flemings 6 million (57.2%), Walloons 3.4 million (32.4%), Italians 175,692, French 123,236, Dutch 113,670, Moroccans 81,322, German-speaking Belgians 71,000, Spaniards 43,241, Turks 42,666, Germans 37,865, Jews 45,000-55,000, Luxembourgers 4,358 and Roma/Gypsies 10,000-15,000. [1]

In 2006 there were 1 million members of new minorities in Belgium, predominantly from other EU countries. The largest group was Italians, followed by French, Dutch, Moroccans, Spanish, Turks, Germans, Portuguese, British, Congolese (former Zaireans), Greeks, Yugoslavs, Americans, Russians, Romanians, Algerians and Chinese.

About half of the Moroccans were in Brussels and the rest mostly in French-speaking cities, but also in Antwerp. Half of the Turks were in Flanders, especially in Antwerp.

The largest number of foreigners have settled in Wallonia, but the highest proportion of the total population is in Brussels, 28.5 per cent, compared with 10 per cent in Wallonia and 4.9 per cent in Flanders, in 2000. The total foreign population was 9.5 per cent of the total Belgian population in 2006.

Foreign nationals occupy a wide range of jobs from highly paid professional work to low-paid manual and seasonal work. Many have set up businesses.

The Belgian state recognizes six religions and one secular philosophical group. It pays for the construction and upkeep of religious buildings, and the salaries and pensions of clergy. The six religions are Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Anglicanism, Orthodox Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

According to the 2001 Survey and Study of Religion, jointly conducted by a number of Belgian universities and based on self-identification, around 47 per cent of the population (4.8 million) said they were Roman Catholic, while Muslims were around 400,000, with an estimated 328 mosques. Protestants numbered between 125,000 and 140,000. The Greek and Russian Orthodox churches had approximately 70,000 adherents. Jews numbered between 45,000 and 55,000. The Anglican Church had 10,800 members. The larger non-recognized religions included Jehovah's Witnesses (25,000 baptized, 50,000 church-goers). Estimates for other bodies included the independent Protestant congregations, 10,000; Buddhists, 10,000; members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), 4,000; Seventh-Day Adventists, 2,000; Hindus, 5,000; Sikhs, 3,000; Hare Krishna, 1,500; and the Church of Scientology, 1,000. A further 18 per cent of the population did not identify with any religion, approximately 7.4 per cent of the population described itself as 'secular' (members of non-confessional philosophical organizations), and 1.1 per cent belonged to organized laity that received funding for their programmes.


The present-day geographic area of Belgium has been divided roughly between the Germanic and French languages since the early Middle Ages. As part of the Low Countries (with present-day Luxembourg and the Netherlands) it was one of the most prosperous trading and cultural areas of Europe until the mid-seventeenth century and the conclusion of the 80-year rebellion against Hapsburg rule. In 1648 the provinces north of the River Scheldt gained independence, while the rebellion failed in the south, in Flanders and Wallonia. In 1648 France annexed southern Flanders, including the city of Lille. The new Republic of the Netherlands took part of north-west and north-east Flanders. Rich Flemish merchants moved north from the key Flemish cities of Antwerp, Ghent and Bruges, to Amsterdam and other Dutch cities, and Flanders went into decline. French revolutionary forces annexed Belgium in 1794 and imposed French language and culture. After the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 Belgium was given to the Netherlands. By 1830 it gained its independence under a new German king although many Flemish wanted to remain under Dutch rule.

The 1831 Constitution guaranteed the use of the Flemish, French and German languages by their respective communities. However, in practice, and particularly from 1839 when the Netherlands gave up its claim to Belgium, French was used exclusively in politics, administration, the law, and in secondary and higher education. The aristocracy and educated classes, whether Flemish or French-speaking, spoke French. French became the only official language. In 1839 the German-speaking canton of Eupen was separated from Belgium and became part of the German Confederation. The German-speaking canton of Sankt Vith and other territory was taken from Luxembourg and given to Belgium. In 1842 primary education was required to cover the basics in all three languages as the need arose. The 1846 Census showed that 57 per cent of the population was Flemish, 42.1 per cent French-speaking and 0.8 per cent German-speaking. Language laws in 1898, which recognized newly standardized Dutch as an official language, made Flanders bilingual in French and Dutch, while Wallonia remained unilingual. Brussels was a largely Flemish-speaking city at this time. In 1914 the law required teaching at all levels to be given in the child's mother tongue, but this was not consistently applied. The language law of 1932 established unilingualism for public administration in Flanders and Wallonia and bilingualism in Brussels. The linguistic boundaries were reset, particularly in Brussels, after each census.

Separatist Flemish and Walloon movements began at the turn of the century and gathered pace with increasing bitterness through two world wars and the collaboration of some Flemish and Walloon nationalists with the German occupying forces. Parts of the nationalist movements have advocated union with the Netherlands and France respectively. The northern German-speaking canton was restored to Belgium definitively after the end of the Second World War.

In 1962 the cultural and linguistic border was drawn for the first time between the Flemish and French-speaking areas. In 1963 language laws established Flemish (Dutch), French and German as the official languages for their geographical areas. When the Constitution was amended in 1970 it set up three cultural communities (Flemish, French-speaking and German-speaking) and three regions (Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels). The new constitution provided guarantees for the French-speaking minority, in particular the national parliament was divided into language groups and a special majority of the two main groups, French and Flemish, was needed to alter laws affecting the constitutional rights of the people. In addition, the national government should be composed of equal numbers of Walloon and Flemish ministers, excluding the prime minister. Subsequently the main political parties, Christian Democrat, Liberal Democrat and Socialist, split into Flemish and French-speaking groups.

In 1980 the powers of the communities and regions were more closely defined, and extended, and they were endowed with governments and parliaments. The Flemish region and community combined their structures and adopted Antwerp as the regional capital, but Wallonia had no such cohesion. French-speakers were still hoping to make Brussels their cultural capital, as the structures for the Brussels region had not yet been set. The Walloon region set up its government and parliament in Namur, which also included the German-speaking community. In 1989 the details of the Brussels region were agreed, in particular the arrangements for the suburban districts with significant French-speaking and Flemish minorities. The constitution was amended again in 1993 to reflect these changes. The French-language community subsequently set up its parliament and government in Brussels. The Flemish parliament and government then moved from Antwerp to Brussels. Brussels itself has a regional parliament and government. Therefore the capital city has four parliaments and governments, federal and regional.

Guest workers or economic migrants have been a feature of Belgian industry since the nineteenth century. After the First World War Belgium absorbed 170,000 new immigrants from 1920 to 1930. In the 1930s many Jews fled from Germany to Belgium to avoid Nazi policies. With economic depression, the government sought to restrict immigration. In the late 1930s work permits, the concept of 'illegal immigration' and deportation centres for Jews were introduced. This pre-war legislation became the basis for the post-war control of refugees.

After the Second World War the government signed guest worker agreements with Italy (1946), Spain (1956), Greece (1957), Morocco and Turkey (1964), Tunisia (1969), and Algeria and Yugoslavia (1970) to cope with the economic boom. Other migrants came from France and the Netherlands. The guest worker policy ended with the oil crisis in 1973. The total number of immigrants fell in the 1970s. Although many immigrants settled in Belgium, there were and still are many who stay for short periods. From 1990 there has been a constant flux of foreign workers with net immigration of around 20,000 a year.


The 1831 Constitution and its subsequent amendments in 1970, 1980, 1989, 1993 and 2001 guarantee basic human rights and freedoms, and equality before the law. The different language communities have been recognized in the constitution from the start, with later amendments setting up the political structures to protect their rights.

The communities are responsible for education, culture, health care and welfare. From 1980 the communities have also had responsibility for integration, education and welfare of foreign nationals. The federal level remains responsible for immigration and asylum policy and deportation. The regions are responsible for economic development, employment, public works, planning and the environment. The financial share of national tax revenues was apportioned to each region and community in the 1989 Constitution.

Until the 1980s new migrants were considered as temporary guest workers who would return to their home countries. At the federal level an integration policy was drafted in 1989 and since 1993 the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism (CEOOR) has had the task of overseeing policy direction and its enactment by the communities. From 1990 the federal government has sought to resolve problems of immigration, including illegal immigration and asylum seekers, with the governments of the migrants' countries of origin.

In Flanders policy changed from employment guidance for guest workers to care for integration and welfare of migrants and their families. In the mid-1990s the policy was broadened to include refugees and travellers. A strategic plan to fight discrimination and to improve communication between the autochthonous community and new immigrants was formalized in a 1998 decree. From 2000 the Flemish government has operated an integration programme for newcomers consisting of language learning, community information and support to find work. This programme was formalized in a 2003 decree.

The French-language community set up an advisory body for migrants in 1981 to facilitate integration of new immigrants, recognition of their cultural identity and cultural exchange with the autochthonous community. From the early 1990s policy focused more on fighting social exclusion. In 1996 the French community transferred responsibility for immigrant welfare to the Walloon region and to the French Community Commission of the Region of Brussels-Capital, while maintaining the direction of policy. In 1996 the Walloon region enacted a programme for teaching the language and culture of new immigrants. A 1998 decree provides for positive discrimination to give new minorities equal opportunities in primary and secondary education. In Wallonia there is also a reception and integration policy for immigrants targeted against social exclusion.

In Brussels the Flemish Community Commission aims to foster the ties with Flanders and the Flemish minority policy, while the French Community Commission (COCOF) promotes the social integration of so-called problem neighbourhoods through the integration policy.

The main anti-racist legislation dates from 1981 and a 1994 amendment strengthening it. Incitement to hatred and dissemination of racist ideas is banned in a 1999 law. A 1995 law bans denial of the Nazi Holocaust. The EU directives on equal treatment in employment and of race were enacted in federal, regional and community laws in 2003. The remit of the national Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism was broadened to include registering complaints of racist incidents.

Until 1967 only the children of Belgian fathers could become citizens. From 1967 to 1985 children with either a Belgian mother or father acquired nationality. From 1985 citizenship is automatically granted to children born in Belgium of foreign parents who had also been born in Belgium. It can also be claimed for children of foreign nationals who have been resident in Belgium continuously for 10 years. Foreign nationals who have lived in Belgium for five years can become naturalized Belgian citizens if they renounce their former nationality. In 2004 a law was passed allowing foreign citizens to vote in local elections from 2006.

Political parties are funded by the state and may not receive donations. One of the criteria for eligibility for state funding is that parties must not conduct racist campaigns. The Flemish nationalist anti-immigration Vlaams Blok fell foul of this rule in 2004 and was dissolved. Its members subsequently formed a new party, Vlaams Belang.

Belgium's linguistic rift continues to blight politics. By March 2011 Belgium had been without a government for ten months. The governmental crisis was initiated by the resignation of Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt in June 2007 following which Belgium did not manage to form a government until Yves Leterme was sworn in nine months later in March 2008. However, the government continued to experience difficulties in the midst of the financial crisis and Prime Minister Leterme resigned in December 2008. Leterne resumed his position after Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy stood down in November 2009. The current political stalemate is a result of a dispute over voting rights in Dutch-speaking areas of Belgium, which prompted the resignation of the liberal Flemish party, the Open Vlaamse Liberalen en Democraten (VLD) from the coalition. The results of the June 2010 elections were testament to separatist tendencies in Flanders, with the centre-right separatist Nieuwe-Vlaams Alliantie (N-VA) gaining 27 seats. The Socialist Party was the most successful party in Wallonia, gaining 26 seats.

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

Federalism is an ongoing process with an adjustment of laws and responsibilities for the various levels of government. Tensions between the different indigenous linguistic groups continue, both in politics and especially over the spread of Brussels businesses and suburbs into Flemish territory, and Flemish antagonism over what they consider an unfair amount of federal tax payments going to Wallonia. In late 2006 the federal parliament debated the issue of independence for the regions. 77 of the 78 Flemish members of parliament voted in favour of the debate, while 51 Walloon members voted against. Some members of the German-language community want German-speakers to have their own region.

The Flemish nationalist party Vlaams Belang (VB), which campaigns for Flemish independence, won over 24 per cent of the Flemish vote in the 2004 regional elections, making it the largest Flemish party. The party states that it is not anti-immigrant, but it is against immigrants who do not assimilate. It is against the spread of Islam in Europe and wants to limit the number of mosques. The federal Council of State initiated an investigation into the Party for racism and the case is still pending in June 2007. In the June 2007 general election the VB won 17 seats in the Chamber of Representatives and five seats in the Senate, and were only narrowly beaten by the Flemish Liberal Democrats Party. Since 2008, support for the VB has gradually decreased and in the 2010 general election they won 12 seats in the Chamber of representatives and three in the Senate. Much of their support has shifted to the centre-right separatist party, Nieuwe-Vlaams Alliantie (N-VA).

In the Walloon cities of Charleroi, Mons and La Louvrière, the far right Front National made significant gains against the Socialists. There are a number of French-language far right parties with different platforms and little cohesion.

The federal government requires each of the officially recognized religions to have a specific administration before it will provide funding. In 2002 the government recognized 75 mosques and began paying the salaries of imams assigned to these mosques, but there were disagreements with the Muslim Executive Council, set up in 2001, over the distribution of funds. The government prefers new imams to come from the Belgian Muslim community.

Since January 2005 the Flemish region has required mosques to meet certain conditions for public funding. Outside of Arabic rituals, Dutch must be used, there must be tolerance for women and homosexuals and no preaching of extremist ideas. These restrictions apply only to Islam. The Walloon region announced that mosques will be subject to the same rules as other religions, and the government of Brussels is considering the matter.

Belgium is yet to ratify the Council of Europe's Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM), which is the only legally binding treaty for the protection of minority rights. In its 2009 report, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) expressed its concern over racist, Islamaphobic and xenophobic discourses in both political and public life, and identified Muslim and Jewish communities, travellers, refugees and asylum seekers as vulnerable groups.

In September, 2009, a law banning the wearing of headscarves in schools was passed in Flanders after two schools imposed their own bans. The headscarf is now banned in around one fifth of all schools in the region. In March 2011, Belgium's lower parliament approved a law banning the burqa and other face coverings in public places, which is now pending backing from the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. The law was initially proposed in 2010, and received backing from the lower parliament and the Chamber of Deputies, but was stalled by the governmental crisis.

There are reports of more racist incidents against Jews and Muslims since the events of 11 September 2001. The categories for the incident-reporting database held by the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism were regarded as inadequate in the first two years of operation. The Centre changed its forms to include more questions on the perpetrators of attacks.

A 2009 survey by the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism at Leuven Catholic University revealed that 48 per cent of Flemish people considered the values of Islam to be a threat to Europe and 37 per cent believed that most Muslims do not respect European culture and way of life.

Belgium's nationalist Flemish party Vlaams Belang chose the sixth anniversary of the 11 September attacks to protest against the 'Islamization of Europe'. The event in Brussels, a city with a significant immigrant and Muslim community, led to party members clashing with police. Similar anti-Muslim sentiment remains strong in the Netherlands following the 2002 murder by Islamic extremists of right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn and that of film-maker Theo Van Gogh in 2004. A nascent movement of young former Muslims in the Netherlands, alienated by violence in the name of Islam, launched a campaign on 11 September 2007 to make it easier for Muslims to choose to renounce the religion. Although fractured between those advocating a strident anti-Islamic tone and those simply advocating freedom of religious choice, members of the Committee for Ex-Muslims fear that Islamic radicals could use violence in seeking to enforce literal interpretations of the Koran to punish apostasy.

Numerous regional and minority languages are spoken in Belgium including Picard, Champenois, Lorrain, Low Dietsch, Luxembourgish and Yiddish, as well as a number of languages of immigration. Nevertheless, Belgium has not yet signed or ratified the European Charter for regional or minority languages, which would provide these languages with legal protection.


[1] Data: Algemene Directie Statistiek en Economische Informatie/Direction Générale Statistique et Information Économique.

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