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Why a migrant hunger strike could bring down Belgium’s government

The Week logo The Week 5 days ago The Week Staff

A two-month hunger strike by around 470 undocumented migrants is threatening to topple the Belgian government as ministers pledge to resign in the event of any deaths.

The migrants are being housed at a baroque church and two university campuses in Brussels, and some have begun refusing water as part of action “demanding a clear path to legal residency”, EUObserver reports. Many of the hunger strikers have “lived and worked in Belgium for years”, says the news site.

BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - JULY 20: A general view as migrant workers without papers rest in critical condition on day 58 of a mass hunger strike for legal status inside the Church of St. John the Baptist at the Béguinage on July 20, 2021 in Brussels, Belgium. Around 450 undocumented men and women, who said they have lived and worked in Belgium for years, stopped taking fluids 3 days ago. Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration Sammy Mahdi has been urged to grant them legal status.The political situation in Belgium is tense. Francophone socialist party PS announced to exit the government if a hunger striker should pass away. (Photo by Olivier Matthys/Getty Images) © 2021 Olivier Matthys BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - JULY 20: A general view as migrant workers without papers rest in critical condition on day 58 of a mass hunger strike for legal status inside the Church of St. John the Baptist at the Béguinage on July 20, 2021 in Brussels, Belgium. Around 450 undocumented men and women, who said they have lived and worked in Belgium for years, stopped taking fluids 3 days ago. Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration Sammy Mahdi has been urged to grant them legal status.The political situation in Belgium is tense. Francophone socialist party PS announced to exit the government if a hunger striker should pass away. (Photo by Olivier Matthys/Getty Images)

The government has so far refused their demands, “arguing that each case would be considered on its own merits”, The Telegraph says. But ministers from the Green and Socialist parties in Belgium’s federal coalition this week said they would resign “within the hour” if any of the protestors died – an act that could trigger the fall of the government.

‘We are not slaves’

The strike is being led by migrants who “lost their hospitality jobs as the result of the Covid crisis”, and began in May, The Telegraph reports. Images from inside the church show that some protestors have stitched their mouths closed to avoid taking in any food during the demonstration.

The group are “demanding the collective right to enter the formal economy as legal residents”, the paper continues, and are arguing that “they were working in the informal economy, without contracts, and so had no right to government compensation” when the pandemic shut down the economy.

But after more than two months of stalemate, “doctors fear some are close to death”.

“Tensions rose over the weekend as ambulances drew up in front of the Saint John the Baptist church at the Beguinage in Brussels to evacuate the more serious cases”, the paper adds, “some of whom were taken out on wheelchairs”.

The protestors, who are part of the group “We Are Belgium Too”, have written to Belgium’s king stating that they are asking to “live with dignity in a country they have helped build”, adding: “No one survives thirsting for more than three days.”

Members of the European Parliament have also lent their support to the demonstrators, with “90 European Parliament left-leaning and liberal MEPs… requesting those on strike gain legal status by the state”, EUObserver says.

In a joint letter to Belgium’s Prime Minister Alexander De Croo and Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration Sammy Mahdi, the group of MEPs said “the hunger strike weakens them considerably” and that “suicide attempts have taken place in recent days”.

“As members of the European Parliament, we ask you to accept their requests for regularisation through residence and work permits,” they added.

However, Mahdi appears unmoved, telling the BBC over the weekend that “you cannot just believe that by being here for a few years, you have the automatic permission of staying here”, adding: “The rules will remain the ones we are developing right now.”

Ahmed, a 53-year old electrician who is not among the protestors refusing water, told EUObserver that the demonstration is simply a call “to be treated with humanity and not like slaves”.

Kiran Adhikeri, originally from Nepal, told Sky News: “I cannot explain in a word how I'm feeling. I am begging to them, please give us access to work, like others. I want to pay the tax, I want to rise up my kids here, in this modern city.

“We need our dignity, identity of our work and the fundamental rights of our children. Every night I sleep with the depression and the frustration, every morning I wake up with the hope.”

Divided parliament

As “fears continue to grow for the health” of the demonstrators, several of Belgium’s political parties have urged De Croo to intervene, warning “that a tragedy was imminent”, InfoMigrants says.

The Socialist Deputy Prime Minister Pierre-Yves Dermagne told his cabinet on Monday that “we will leave the government within the hour if anybody dies”, while Mahdi has continued to state that “nobody wants a tragedy”.

However, the immigration minister has remained resolute that the law will not be changed due to the protests, warning that such action “would trigger hunger strikes in churches up and down the land”.

Two United Nations special rapporteurs have written to Mahdi urging him to bring an end to the collective action which they warned was hovering “between life and death”.

“The government must immediately confirm that the state of health of the hunger strikers is an obstacle to any expulsion,” said Felipe Gonzalez, special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants. 

He added that Belgium must also show “that it is considering granting a temporary residence permit, allowing the exercise of an economic activity, to anyone who applies for regularization of residence.

The government has been accused of “an unwillingness to compromise” amid the stand-off, The Telegraph says, with some arguing that “bringing them into the formal economy would cost the Belgian state less than locking them up”.

But as the demonstration continues, “the risk of this protest… producing fatalities is very real,” The Brussels Times says, imperiling not only the lives of the hunger strikes, but also the Belgian government’s stability.

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