At the end of 1998, Belgium hosted more than 25,800 refugees and asylum seekers in need of protection, according to the Belgian government and UNHCR. These included 23,373 asylum applicants pending a first-instance decision, 1,670 refugees granted asylum, 14 refugees resettled in Belgium during the year, and 765 Bosnian refugees without a durable solution at year's end.

During the year, persons representing 21,964 cases applied for asylum in Belgium, a dramatic 86 percent increase over the 11,787 cases filed in 1997. Still, the number of asylum applications filed in 1998 is slightly smaller than those applying in Belgium in 1993 (26,882 applicants filed claims in 1993), the year Belgium introduced restrictive amendments to its law on foreigners. During 1998, the largest number of asylum seekers came from Kosovo (5,626), followed by Congo-Kinshasa (1,714), Romania (1,572), Albania (1,147), and Rwanda (1,049).

Belgium suspended processing Kosovo Albanian asylum applications in 1998. The authorities did not, however, deport Kosovars during the year because of concerns for their safety in Yugoslavia.

Of the 3,659 asylum applications decided on the merits in the normal procedure during the year, 1,446 cases were granted asylum, an approval rate of 39.5 percent. Rwandans had the highest approval rate (93 percent), followed by nationals from Burundi (86 percent), Algeria (65 percent), and Bosnia (64 percent). Of the 2,492 cases decided at the appeals stage in 1998, Belgian authorities granted asylum in 224 cases, an approval rate of 9 percent.

However, these approval rates tend to overstate Belgium's receptivity to asylum seekers because the authorities traditionally have deemed as many as two-thirds of all asylum cases as inadmissible to the asylum procedure, denying them a full merits hearing.

Asylum Procedure Belgium has a three-step asylum procedure. First, the Aliens Office of the Ministry of the Interior determines whether another European Union (EU) member state is responsible for deciding the asylum application, according to the Dublin Convention. Generally, the Dublin Convention stipulates 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.

In 1998, Belgium requested other EU member states to assume responsibility for deciding 1,621 asylum applications, of which other EU members accepted 1,331. Other EU members requested Belgium to take responsibility for deciding 1,029 asylum applications during the year. Belgium accepted 671 of these requests, of which 251 transfers actually took place. Belgium reportedly interprets the Dublin Convention's provisions liberally, allowing family members to apply together for asylum in Belgium even if the convention's terms would allow for the return of family members to another EU country. Authorities reportedly also permit other asylum seekers to remain for humanitarian reasons in Belgium even if the convention's terms normally would call for the asylum seeker's transfer elsewhere.

If the Aliens Office determines that Belgium is responsible for reviewing the asylum 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. Although no data were available for 1998, in past years the authorities ruled that as many as two-thirds of asylum applications filed were inadmissible to the 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.

After a PCAR review, no further appeal on the merits is permitted. However, asylum seekers in Belgium may "appeal for annulment" of 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 all stages of the asylum procedure.

Asylum seekers

requiring assistance must live in one of 20 reception centers throughout Belgium pending a decision on admissibility. Once in the normal asylum procedure, asylum seekers are free to choose their own place to live.

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.

Recent Developments

The well-publicized death on September 22 of a 20-year-old Nigerian woman whom Belgian authorities were attempting to deport compelled the Belgian government to take stock of its deportation methods and treatment of undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers in general. During the deportation attempt, Belgian police held a pillow in front of the woman's face to prevent her from yelling. The woman collapsed, fell into a coma, and died several hours later in a hospital. Authorities determined asphyxiation to be the cause of death. Although the government charged the responsible police officers with manslaughter, the government later acknowledged that the use of pillows to subdue deportees was standard procedure.

The incident gave added impetus to the Belgian government to institute several administrative changes – most recommended by a Senate Commission in June – intended to make the treatment of undocumented foreigners and asylum seekers more humane. Some of the changes, however, were designed to prevent undocumented asylum seekers and other foreigners from reaching Belgium.

Among the changes announced on October 4, the government banned the use of cushions to subdue deportees, reduced from eight to five months the maximum time a foreigner could be detained, and gave the Center for Equal Opportunities and for Combatting Racism, an independent organization, unlimited access to, and an increased role in, monitoring detention facilities. Other changes included an increase in reception center capacity, augmented staffing to decide asylum claims, and additional training for those involved in the asylum procedure and in deportations. The government also promised to be more transparent in its decision-making on granting residence permits to rejected asylum seekers who cannot be deported.

At the same time, however, the government announced that it would negotiate a new agreement with Sabena, the national airline, to carry out more rigorous immigration checks to prevent insufficiently documented foreigners from boarding planes to Belgium. The government also said that it planned to station immigration officials at "sensitive" airports abroad to conduct pre-flight document checks.

On December 15, the Belgian Interior Minister decreed that certain categories of foreigners would be eligible for residence permits. These included asylum seekers whose cases have been pending a decision for five years or more, undocumented foreigners unable to return safely to their countries of origin, stateless Bosnians, foreigners who are seriously ill, and foreigners whose individual situations are cause for humanitarian concern.


In September 1997, Belgium offered Bosnians with "displaced person" status (a temporary status accorded to most Bosnians who sought asylum in Belgium between 1992 and 1995) a choice between voluntarily repatriation and permanent integration into Belgian society. Some 72 Bosnians repatriated from Belgium with IOM assistance in 1998.

Between September 1997 and mid-November 1998, authorities granted permanent residence permits in 594 cases to Bosnians wishing to stay in Belgium and demonstrating a certain level of integration, including a proficiency in French, Dutch, or German. It granted temporary residence permits in 237 cases to Bosnians unable to demonstrate that they were well integrated into local life. Their cases will be reassessed after one year. Authorities denied residence permits in 28 cases to Bosnians who had applied for asylum in other countries, mostly in Germany, or had been convicted of a criminal offense. Some 528 cases remained pending as of midNovember.


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