At the end of 2001, Belgium hosted about 42,160 refugees and asylum seekers in need of protection. These included 24,000 awaiting an admissibility decision on appeal, 17,000 awaiting a decision on the merits of their claims, and 1,160 granted asylum during the year.

During the year, 24,549 asylum seekers submitted applications, down 42 percent from 2000. The top five countries of origin were the Russian Federation (2,451), Yugoslavia (1,932), Algeria (1,709), Congo-Kinshasa (1,371), and Iran (1,164).

The Aliens Office deemed 2,481 claims admissible, and 33,135 claims inadmissible. The General Commission for Refugees and Stateless Persons (GCRS) confirmed 20,689 of those negative decisions and reversed 5,580. The GCRS granted 901 cases refugee status and rejected 2,551. The Committee of Appeals (CPRR) granted refugee status in 259 cases and rejected 1,705.

Asylum Procedure

The asylum system in Belgium consists of an admissibility phase and a substantive phase. When an individual requests asylum, the Aliens Office in 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 (see box, p. 190). In 2001, Belgium referred 961 requests to other Schengen states (see box, p. 190) under the terms of the convention, of which 733 cases were accepted and 113 cases refused. At year's end 94 cases were pending a decision, while 21 cases were withdrawn during the year. Other Schengen states requested transfer of 1,161 asylum seekers to Belgium. Belgium accepted 735 requests and refused 185. Another 183 cases were pending decisions at year's end, while 58 cases were withdrawn during the year.

If the Aliens Office decides that Belgium is responsible for examining an asylum application, authorities have eight working days to rule on the admissibility of the claim. Manifestly unfounded claims are rejected at this stage. Since February 1999, the Aliens Office has automatically placed applications from Czech, Romanian, Bulgarian, and Slovak nationals into accelerated procedures.

The CGRS reviews appeals of negative admissibility decisions (within five working days at the border, or 30 days in-country), and issues decisions on the merits of admissible claims. Applicants may contest negative decisions before the Permanent Commission for Appeals, the last recourse on the merits of the case. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) plays a consultative role through this stage of the procedure. Belgium's highest administrative court, the State Council, is the last recourse for the suspension or annulment of orders to leave the territory.

Asylum seekers in Belgium are entitled to a further, nonsuspensive appeal on procedural grounds to the State Council. Rejected asylum seekers who can afford the legal costs of this procedure most often use it to seek to annul orders to leave Belgian territory, or to try to win release from detention.

Recognized refugees given unlimited leave to remain must renew their residence permit annually. The authorities may also issue residence permits to rejected asylum seekers on humanitarian grounds.

New Legislation

The Belgian parliament passed a ministerial instruction in January that replaced cash financial aid to asylum seekers with food and shelter. Some observers attributed the significant drop in asylum requests during the year to this change; asylum applications dropped from some 1,500 per week in December 2000 to about 470 per week in 2001. Asylum seekers whose claims are in the admissibility stage of the procedure but who choose not to live in an open reception center are not eligible for assistance.

In 2001, readmission agreements were finalized with Albania and Hungary. Belgium also has readmission agreements with Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia and Ukraine. The Belgian government returned 5,722 persons to their country of origin, and 5,350 to a third country. The number of registered persons who returned voluntarily reached 3,633. There are no available data on whether these persons applied for asylum or not, or whether they were readmitted to other countries under readmission agreements.

Restrictive Practices

Since 1988, Belgium has declared only 27 percent of all asylum claims to be admissible. In 2001, approximately 70 percent of all new asylum claims were rejected as manifestly unfounded. Processing time for the remaining claims was one year on average.

In addition to the replacement of financial aid by material assistance, the significant decline in the number of asylum requests filed in 2001 compared to previous years has been attributed to stepped-up measures to prevent organized human smuggling, and a policy of dissuasion in the countries of origin.

Following a September 2000 incident in which 45 Kosovars were allegedly "dumped" into Belgian territory by a French police unit, the Belgian Minister of the Interior and his French counterpart met in the southern Belgian town of Tournai on March 5, 2001 to sign an agreement on cross-border police and customs cooperation. The agreement establishes a joint police station, initially staffed with about 20 police officers from the two countries, for the purpose of exchanging information on illegal immigrants. France has already signed similar agreements with Germany and Spain.

On February 18, a German-based group, the Ethiopian Political Prisoners Joint Committee, accused the Belgian authorities of forcibly repatriating an Ethiopian asylum seeker without examining the merits of his claim of persecution. The man was returned on February 13, allegedly after he was denied the opportunity to put forward his claim for political asylum. According to the Ethiopian Committee, Belgian authorities attempted to send him to Egypt, but Egyptian security officers in Cairo refused to grant him entry. After being sent back to Belgium, he was repatriated to Ethiopia.

Reception and Integration

Undocumented persons arriving at ports of entry are detained in closed centers for up to five months. Asylum seekers who require assistance must live in one of 27 open receptions centers throughout Belgium pending an admissibility decision. Although they receive food, medical aid, and education for their children, they are not permitted to work. The open centers have a total capacity of 5,000 beds, and overcrowding is a recurrent problem. Those allowed to enter into the asylum procedure are moved to local communities where they are provided housing and allowed to work.

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.

Roma Asylum Seekers

The Belgian government does not record the ethnicity of asylum seekers. However, nearly all asylum seekers from the Slovak Republic and the Czech Republic are believed to be of Roma origin. In 2001, 898 asylum seekers from the Slovak Republic and 370 from the Czech Republic applied for asylum. Nearly 700 Romanians also sought asylum in Belgium in 2001.

Most Slovak Roma asylum seekers claim to be escaping discrimination in their country of origin, but nearly all are rejected on grounds of being economic migrants, since Belgium considers the Slovak Republic to be a safe country. The rate of recognition is estimated to be under the 5 percent mark. The Belgian government first introduced an entry visa requirement for Slovak nationals in April 2000 to curb the influx of Slovak asylum seekers. Belgium suspended travel visa requirements for Slovak nationals on March 20, 2001, and in April and the beginning of May 2001 the number of claimants increased. The subsequent drop has been attributed to the new stricter asylum conditions, in particular the abolition of financial aid for claimants.

Numerous Roma reportedly arrived in Belgium without claiming asylum. Instead, they stayed with relatives or friends who helped them find accommodation, many in the town of Gent, west of Brussels.


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