U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2001 - Belgium
|Publisher||United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants|
|Publication Date||20 June 2001|
|Cite as||United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2001 - Belgium , 20 June 2001, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3b31e15e10.html [accessed 27 March 2017]|
At the end of 2000, Belgium hosted about 46,400 refugees and asylum seekers in need of protection. These included approximately 45,000 claimants with pending asylum applications, and 1,381 refugees granted asylum during the year.
During 2000, 42,691 asylum seekers submitted applications, up about 19 percent from 1999. Belgium received the fourth most applications of all European countries (second relative to its population). During 2000, the largest number of asylum seekers came from Yugoslavia (4,921), the Russian Federation (3,594), Iran (3,183), and Albania (2,674).
Of 4,325 applications admitted into the formal asylum procedure in 2000, Belgium granted asylum in 1,381 cases, a 30 percent approval rate. This figure overstates Belgium's generosity toward asylum seekers, however, because it is based only on applications that pass a preliminary admissibility procedure. The nationalities with the highest approval rates in 2000 were from Rwanda (54 percent), Burundi (34 percent), and Congo-Kinshasa (25 percent).
Belgium referred 1,615 asylum requests to other Schengen member states under the terms of the Dublin Convention (see box, p. 198), of which 1,200 were accepted and 189 were rejected.
The asylum system in Belgium consists of an admissibility phase and a substantive phase. When an asylum seeker requests asylum, the Aliens Office of the Ministry of the Interior first determines whether another European Union member state should be responsible for the asylum application, in accordance with the Dublin Convention. Although the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) noted Belgium's relatively liberal interpretation of the Dublin Convention, nongovernmental organizations reported cases of family separation.
After determining that Belgium is responsible for reviewing the asylum application, the Aliens Office rules on the admissibility of claims within eight working days. Manifestly unfounded claims are rejected at this stage.
In February 1999, the Aliens Office began automatically placing applications from Czech, Romanian, Bulgarian, and Slovakian nationals into accelerated procedures. Proposed revisions to Belgium's asylum law would allow the authorities to introduce accelerated asylum procedures for certain nationalities arriving in large groups at the border.
The General Commission for Refugees and Stateless Persons (GCRS) reviews appeals of negative admissibility decisions (within five working days at the border, or 30 days in-country). The country's highest administrative court, the State Council, is the last recourse for the suspension or annulment of orders to leave the territory.
GCRS issues decisions on the merits of admissible claims. Applicants may contest negative decisions before the Permanent Commission for Appeals. This review is the last recourse on the merits of the case. UNHCR plays a consultative role through this stage of the procedure.
Recognized refugees receive one-year renewable residence permits. Authorities can also issue residence permits to rejected asylum seekers on humanitarian grounds.
Asylum seekers in Belgium are entitled to a further, nonsuspensive appeal on procedural grounds to the State Council. Those rejected asylum seekers who can afford the legal cost of this procedure most often use it to seek to annul orders to leave Belgian territory, or to try to win release from detention.
A law introduced in September (effective January 3, 2001) terminated financial assistance for asylum seekers in Belgium who are waiting for a decision on the admissibility of their applications, or who were rejected in the first instance and are waiting for a decision on their appeal. Applicants awaiting a decision on the merits of their claim will continue to receive welfare benefits. The new law replaced cash benefits with in-kind assistance (food and shelter).
Belgium also adopted a "last in, first out" policy for processing applications, in an attempt to reduce the length of the asylum procedure to one year (from an average of three years in 1999). The government planned to use the new policy to issue decisions on the simplest cases within two months and eventually reduce the large backlog of applications.
In November, the Minister of the Interior issued a proposal that would dramatically alter asylum and immigration procedures in Belgium (many policies must still be approved by the Council of State). The proposal seeks to reduce the length and complexity of the current asylum system by merging the admissibility and substantive stages into a single decision-making process. A new Administration Fédérale de l'Asile would replace existing authorities.
The six-party governing coalition agreed on the guidelines of a new asylum law, which the Belgian Council of Ministers approved on November 10, 2000. Under the new proposal, refugees would apply immediately for asylum at one of ten new reception centers to be opened along the border. They would also provide detailed information about their country of origin and travel itinerary.
Since 1988, Belgium has declared only 27 percent of all asylum claims to be admissible. In 2000, only about 10 percent of all claims passed the admissibility phase. Undocumented persons arriving at ports of entry and asylum seekers whose appeal of negative admissibility decisions are deemed likely to be rejected are detained in closed centers for up to five months. Children detained in such centers cannot attend school.
In recent years, human rights organizations have widely criticized detention conditions in closed centers. In at least one reported case, loopholes in the appeals procedure allowed for such detention to exceed the five-month legal maximum.
An Albanian national died in October 2000 after attempting to escape from a closed detention center near Brussels. Officials claim the man died from injuries suffered after falling during his escape. Witnesses claim the man was handcuffed and dragged by police, who later ignored cries for help from his detention cell.
The number of repatriations from Belgium doubled in 2000. Belgian officials report that 5,382 rejected asylum seekers voluntarily returned to their country of origin and another 4,835 were deported.
Under the Schengen Convention, member countries may temporarily reintroduce border controls for specific situations. Belgium exercised this privilege three times during the year. Human rights organizations criticized border checks erected between Belgium and other Schengen member states before and during a three-week regularization period in Belgium. Increased border controls were meant to prevent an influx of asylum seekers into Belgium before new refugee and asylum policies were to take effect in January 2001.
In response to a growing number of asylum seekers from Slovakia, Belgium instituted several visa restrictions for Slovak nationals throughout the year. Reports indicate that 1,518 Roma from Slovakia applied for asylum in 2000, of whom 1,515 were denied.
Reception and Integration
Asylum seekers requiring assistance must live in one of 27 reception centers throughout Belgium pending an admissibility decision. Once past the screening procedure, however, asylum seekers are usually free to choose their own place to live. Although the open centers have a total capacity of 5,000 beds, the government has solicited assistance from the municipalities for an extra 1,400 beds because of overcrowding.
Belgium decided in 1999 not to require refugees to obtain work permits. Recognized refugees may apply for family reunification upon receiving their status. Rejected applicants who are granted residence "under exceptional circumstances" may apply for family reunification after three years, and must demonstrate that they can support their relatives. A three-week regularization period lasting from January 10 until January 30 allowed certain undocumented migrants and rejected asylum seekers to submit applications to the Belgian government for legal residence.
According to the Ministry of Interior, 32,662 individuals submitted applications during the January amnesty period, representing 50,600 individuals. (Up to 70,000 undocumented migrants are estimated to reside in Belgium.)
Those eligible for regularization included: asylum applicants with decisions pending more than four years (three years for families with small children); persons with medical conditions preventing them from returning to their country of origin; and persons living in Belgium for at least five years (four years for families with small children) who were unable to return to their country of origin for political reasons. The government also allowed persons who could prove they had established strong social ties in Belgium to apply.
Nationals of Congo-Kinshasa and Morocco made up the largest group of applicants, with 17.6 percent and 12.4 percent of all applications submitted, respectively. Belgian officials originally estimated that processing the applications would take between 14 and 15 months, but by December, only 1,570 applications had been completed.
Human rights organizations criticized Belgium for announcing the regularization period only three months in advance. There were also reports that local authorities discouraged qualified applicants from submitting applications.
Refugees from Yugoslavia
In 2000, 11.6 percent of Yugoslav asylum seekers in Europe submitted applications in Belgium, making Belgium the third leading country of destination for refugees from Yugoslavia after Germany and the United Kingdom.
The Belgian government did not renew temporary protection for Kosovo Albanians when it expired in March 2000 (June 2000 for families with children in school). However, the cessation of temporary protection did not affect the refugees' right to apply for asylum in Belgium.
Belgium paid travel and freight costs for Kosovo Albanians wishing to repatriate, and granted adults the equivalent of $2,255 for home reconstruction. Minors received half that amount. A total of 2,200 Kosovar Albanians returned under this program. Another 711 Kosovars returned under another program.