Why undocumented migrants went on hunger strike in Belgium
Nearly 500 migrants and refugees held a two-month-long hunger strike in a bid to obtain the right to live and work legally in Belgium. But what was achieved and what comes next?
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Brussels, Belgium – As a decorated kickboxer and kung fu athlete, Chouaib Lakoighet is not accustomed to his legs just giving out on him.
But one day in July, his atrophied muscles could no longer hold him upright. After more than a month on hunger strike, the 27-year-old Algerian, who has lived as an undocumented migrant in Belgium since 2014, collapsed on the floor.
Lying on a hospital bed a little while later, Lakoighet recalls the emergency doctor speaking to him while she administered fluids via IV.
“She said, ‘Why are you doing this hunger strike? Belgium is small. We can’t accept all of you.’”
Lakoighet is one of about 470 undocumented migrants in Brussels who participated in a nearly two-month-long hunger strike as part of a dramatic bid to obtain the right to live and work legally in Belgium, or at least to convince the government to clarify its conditions for obtaining legal residence.
The strike, which began on May 23 following months of protests, was put on pause on July 21 after a series of closed-door meetings between organisers and government representatives. It is a pause that no doubt saved lives; medical experts had begun to warn that deaths among the protesters were imminent. It may have even averted governmental collapse; two parties had threatened to pull out of Belgium’s fragile coalition government within hours of a first death among the protesters.
But it is also a pause that comes on the back of months of pushback from the government, sometimes accompanied by rhetoric that seemed intended to appease Belgium’s increasingly powerful anti-migrant far right.
Commitments from the government remain vague, and the protesters’ most concrete demand – a set of clear criteria on which people’s residency applications on humanitarian grounds will be evaluated – has so far been rejected altogether.
Now, as the weeks pass and the protesters regain their health, many of Belgium’s estimated 150,000 undocumented migrants are left asking what exactly has been achieved, and what comes next.
‘We went from providing advice to providing food’
One thing that is for certain is that the strike managed to draw attention to the plight of undocumented people in Belgium and elsewhere in Europe.
Since the coronavirus pandemic first swept this continent in early 2020, many European residents have been able to weather the crisis by relying on state social services. Government furlough schemes for businesses and workers, for example, have kept many afloat who might otherwise have lost their footing from lack of income, either because they got sick with the virus itself or as a result of closures due to lockdowns.
No such safety net has been available for those without legal residency documents in Belgium and many other European countries, however, despite the fact that the majority of undocumented people work in sectors hit particularly hard by the pandemic, such as restaurants, home and office cleaning and small-scale construction.
Even before the pandemic, Europe’s approximately 3.9 million undocumented migrants routinely worked long hours for little pay in the informal economy. Like elsewhere in Europe, most of Belgium’s undocumented migrants, many of whom have lived here for years or even decades, have long managed to survive under such exploitative conditions, albeit barely.
But the pandemic was a breaking point, explains Lilana Keith, a senior advocacy officer at the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM), an organisation that advocates for undocumented peoples’ rights in Europe.
“Overnight, our [organisation’s] members had to change from providing advice to providing food,” she says.
Some European countries have responded more practically than others during the COVID crisis, according to Keith. Portugal, for example, granted temporary residency status to people with pending applications, thus avoiding swaths of people falling into irregularity due to bureaucratic slowdowns caused by the pandemic. Other states have extended employment protection benefits to undocumented people during the pandemic or taken other measures to help ensure people do not fall through the cracks due to their irregular residence status.
Belgium, meanwhile, is among the states that have, for the most part, resisted both one-off and structural policy changes to accommodate its undocumented population during the pandemic. With the notable exception of healthcare and vaccine access, the country’s undocumented have largely been left to fend for themselves during an unprecedented global crisis.
Undocumented in Belgium
So desperate was the situation for undocumented people in Belgium that, in January this year, around 200 people, including Lakoighet, set up camp on the stone floor of a 17th-century church in central Brussels in an effort to gain greater visibility. As more undocumented protesters joined in, the group spread out to two other locations across the city.
Throughout winter and spring, the group and its supporters staged protests calling for government attention to their plight. It was to no avail. Within just the first few weeks, Sammy Mahdi, secretary of state for asylum and migration, dismissed the church occupation as “blackmail”.
Mahdi and his team also consistently rejected the protesters’ demand for a set of clear criteria on which applicants for legalisation of residency would be evaluated. Such criteria, like long-term residence, integration, employment prospects and so on, are articulated by a number of other EU member states in their regularisation policies. But in Belgium, the working policy defers all humanitarian-based regularisation applications, which is the category into which most of the country’s undocumented people fall, to a case-by-case assessment procedure evaluated entirely according to government discretion.
Failure to satisfy the biggest piece of procedural criteria – that applications are made from one’s home country and not from Belgian territory – is often the only element of a rejected file on which an applicant receives feedback. And even then, it is not clear why some individuals or families are granted an exception to this requirement while others in similar situations are not.
The result, say experts, is a process that is profoundly lacking in transparency. For undocumented people, the lack of procedural transparency and written criteria for regularisation can mean it is impossible to make sense of one’s immigration prospects, which in turn renders an already uncertain existence even more precarious. And with virtually no insight into one’s chances for regularisation, most undocumented people are unwilling to risk leaving their life in Belgium to submit an application from their home country. With Europe’s ever-tighter borders, they may very well not get back in.
According to Alyna Smith, a senior advocacy officer for PICUM: “The government is really taking the extreme position by refusing to engage in something so basic.”
“It’s not an either-or between [government] discretion and something more systematic, clear and defined. There are countries that do this differently. Some of them have a structural process in place, and others have a [regularisation] programme periodically. So the mechanisms and the specifics of it can be discussed.”
But discussion has simply not been on the table here. And after months of demonstrations without progress, the protesters escalated to a hunger strike, and for a few days, even a thirst strike.
Even though Belgium has suffered some of the highest COVID-19 mortality rates in Europe, every undocumented person Al Jazeera spoke to for this article had more or less the same thing to say: Yes, the virus has been frightening, but it is nothing compared to the everyday fear of living without legal residence.
Locked down without money for food
For 20-year-old Nada Radouani and her mother, both of whom participated in the hunger strike, the lockdowns meant there wasn’t enough money for food.
Radouani is an upbeat Gen Z-er. A polyglot and makeup addict from Morocco, she blends in easily with the cafe-goers around her. But, she emphasises, she is not like the others, because she is undocumented.
“A lot of people when I tell them I’m undocumented, they’re like: ‘But you’re so pretty!’”, she says, laughing.
Radouani and her mother came to Belgium in 2017 after Radouani’s father died and the family lost its main support. With minuscule job prospects and the challenges of carrying on as a single mother, Radouani says her mom made the difficult decision to relocate the two of them to Europe.
Before the pandemic, Radouani’s mother worked as a cleaner in offices and private homes around Brussels. Radouani, meanwhile, worked to complete her high school diploma while earning an income as a French and Dutch interpreter for Arabic speakers who sought help navigating bureaucratic appointments. Like nearly all undocumented people, their work was “in the black”, or outside the formal economy.
When the pandemic hit, all but a few sporadic house-cleaning jobs screeched to a halt.
“It was so hard,” Radouani says. “There was just enough money to pay the rent and bills, but that’s it. No more.”
Mother and daughter avoided going hungry altogether thanks to solidarity organisations that distributed food during the lockdowns. Until, of course, the pair decided to join the hunger strike.
While the pandemic brought Radouani’s life to a point of desperation, she has long been aware of her vulnerability as an undocumented person. She was only 16 when she and her mother first flew to Brussels and moved into the apartment of an acquaintance. Soon, that acquaintance, an older man who is a legal Belgian resident, started demanding favours.
“He was like: ‘If you let me take your virginity, I can help you get your papers and you won’t have to pay rent,’ stuff like that,” she recalls.
Furious, Radouani threatened to go to the police. But then it dawned on her: “I got scared that if I go to the police, they’ll just say you’re not legal here anyway.”
Instead, Radouani and her mother found somewhere else to live.
The hunger strike, while worth it, was incredibly difficult, Radouani says. But it was especially hard on her mom and others.
“I was talking to the old women, they were saying: ‘I feel like this is my last day. I know I will die.’ Some of the women, they couldn’t even go to the toilet.”
Now that the strike is suspended and Radouani has completed high school, she wants to go to university to become a lawyer. But once again, not having papers is an obstacle.
So, spooked by rumours that the hunger strike has prompted extra immigration enforcement to patrol the streets, Radouani is sitting tight for the moment.
“I don’t want to move right now. “I’m just going to present my [residency application] to the lawyer, wait until the answer comes, and then when I get my papers I can go to the university.”
‘Being undocumented is more difficult than the virus’
One person who brought a note of sunshine to the long days and nights of the occupation and hunger strike is Chouaib Lakoighet, who, in addition to his kickboxing and kung fu prowess, also plays flamenco guitar.
In the church where he and other protesters have slept since January, his playing helps soften the sometimes hard edges of protracted protest. Music was especially helpful, say other protesters, when the hunger strike began and anxieties and tempers could run hot, as foregoing food for days on end will do to a person.
Like the soulful flamenco he plays on the guitar, Lakoighet has mellow, spiritual energy. He speaks freely of past heartbreaks and being “in the zone” during martial arts competitions.
Lakoighet came to Belgium from Algeria in 2014, when he was 19 years old, on a sports competition visa. In Belgium, he says, he saw the potential to pursue his martial arts dreams beyond what he could do back home. Life in Brussels was far more difficult than he expected, namely because legal residence was harder to obtain than he realised, but he managed to build a life for himself anyway. He started working as a barber, a trade he learned in Algeria.
Like some of the other hunger strikers, Lakoighet spent time in a detention centre for people without documents. Those eight months felt like 10 years, he says.
Especially traumatising was witnessing the suicide of a Congolese friend in the detention centre. The man, says Lakoighet, had been in Belgium for 20 years and was facing the prospect of being forcibly returned.
“They treated him like an animal, not a person,” recalls Lakoighet, who says he cannot shake the memory of seeing the man hanging in the bathroom shower.
Both closed migrant detention centres and forced returns are major issues for advocates for undocumented rights, who say there are more humane, not to mention more constructive, ways to enforce migration policies.
After his release from the detention centre, Lakoighet went back to working and martial arts training.
Before the pandemic, life wasn’t too bad. He was winning kickboxing competitions and working as a barber, a job he says he particularly loves even if he was paid below minimum wage.
But, of course, the coronavirus would put an end to this.
“Those people who have documents, it’s easy because the government helps them out,” says Lakoighet. “All the barbershops here were closed for like one year.”
Without an income or means to survive, Lakoighet joined up with other protesters to occupy the church and, ultimately, embark on a hunger strike in the name of earning the right to live in Belgium legally. He estimates he lost about 10kg (22 pounds) during the strike.
Asked if he was frightened to move into close quarters with 200 other people in the middle of a pandemic, Lakoighet laughs.
“Why would we fear? The situation when you don’t have documents is even more difficult than the virus.”
Now that the hunger strike is on pause, he is waiting, anxiously, for a decision on his freshly submitted residency application.
“I hope just that [Sammy Mahdi’s] office does what he promised,” says Lakoighet. “If he doesn’t, we’ll start again, of course. We won’t give up. Ever.”
‘Being tough on migrants is good for your polls’
What exactly those promises are, though, no one can say for sure. Nothing was committed to paper during the meetings between protest organisers and government representatives. Some of the hunger strikers seem to be under the impression that they will, as a group, be granted legal residency. Mahdi’s office, however, not only adamantly denies this but also reiterates that the secretary will not make any changes to current policy.
One thing the protests may have accomplished, but only for the 470 or so who participated in the hunger strike itself, is assurance that the substance of their residence applications will be considered despite the fact that they were filed from within Belgian territory and not the strikers’ home countries. Normally, one must first successfully make the case that travelling to one’s home country to file such an application cannot be done for one reason or another.
Or, at least, some professionals and volunteers working with the hunger strikers are operating under the impression that this has been accomplished. But like everything about the oral agreement between the hunger strikers and the government, rumours abound and clarity is nearly impossible to come by.
When asked for clarification on this point, a spokesperson for Mahdi’s office denied that the hunger strikers were “exempt from the condition to prove that the file cannot be introduced in the home country while others are held to give that proof”.
“To the organisations assisting the hunger strikers [it] is confirmed that, in case of denial, a motivation will be given on the reasons why a humanitarian stay cannot be given,” the spokesperson said.
But these are not the finer details on which the government wants public attention.
Instead, the act of government generosity intended for public fanfare, a short-lived pop-up immigration information office situated near the church occupied by Lakoighet and others, promptly flopped. Touted as a product of successful negotiations with protesters to end the hunger strike, the “neutral zone”, as the information office was called, was almost immediately overwhelmed by hundreds, and by some estimates thousands, of undocumented people from across Belgium seeking everything from status updates on their files to frantic pleas to get in on what was rumoured to be a one-off collective regularisation.
Just two days after the hunger strike was put on pause, Mahdi’s team closed the neutral zone’s doors to everyone but the hunger strikers themselves. Days later, the government closed the office altogether and installed officials outside to distribute multilingual flyers declaring that rumours of collective regularisation were “fake news”.
For many undocumented people who did not participate in the hunger strike, something seems fishy. Surely, the government must have promised some kind of preferential treatment to the hunger strikers in order to bring a pause to the strike. But what? The word “traitor” has been thrown around more than once.
According to Brenda Odimba: “The only thing that was achieved [by the hunger strike] was division.”
Odimba is an activist who is helping some of the hunger strikers prepare their immigration files, including Lakoighet. She interprets the moves by Mahdi’s office as being both manipulative of the country’s undocumented population, where some now resent one another over perceived privileges earned through the strike, and an effort to protect itself in the face of xenophobic Flemish politics.
She cites an interview with Mahdi published two days after the hunger strike was put on hold in which the politician claims it is too easy to live illegally in Belgium.
“I was so shocked when I read this. We fought for the rights of these people, and he’s basically saying we’re now going to make sure that life becomes even harder for them.”
Odimba’s conclusion? “Being tough on migrants is always good for your polls.”
Other politicians in Belgium were even tougher. Theo Francken, a far-right Flemish politician who served as secretary of state for asylum and migration under Belgium’s last full national government, argued that all hunger strike participants should be blacklisted from regularisation.
Mahdi, who is also a politician from Belgium’s Flanders region but is part of a different party than Francken, maintains his decisions are not influenced by his more far-right Flemish colleagues. But it is hard to interpret his hardline stance as entirely independent of the extraordinarily anti-migrant sentiment dominating Flemish politics these days.
In a survey published in May, the extreme-right nationalist party Vlaams Belang took the top spot as the most popular party in Flanders. Anti-migrant policies are among the strongest issues put forward by the party, whose members often lean on Islamophobic fear-mongering to rally constituents. As a crisis unfolded in Afghanistan following the United States’ withdrawal, for example, one prominent Vlaams Belang politician was accused of promoting genocide when he tweeted, “Someone once told me that Afghanistan can only become a prosperous, free society if 70 percent of Muslim males are exterminated (because they are essentially no better than the Taliban)”.
The hunger strikers are now compiling fresh residency applications. One by one, they are submitting their paperwork. But their fate remains unclear.
Juliette Arnould, a former lawyer hired to work with the hunger strikers for the next several months, worries about how the group will cope with disappointing news.
“I think for those who get a negative decision, it will be very, very hard for them,” she says. “Most of them tell me they can’t sleep because of the stress. There was a guy who tried to kill himself here during the hunger strike.”
A lifetime of struggle
No one is asking Belgium to simply open its doors and let everyone in, clarifies Mamadou, who asks that we not use his real name because he does not want friends and family back home in Gambia to know he is undocumented.
A veteran activist and organiser for undocumented people in Belgium, Mamadou did not participate in the hunger strike but supports the strikers’ general objectives. Although the strike yielded nothing in terms of practical progress, he says it was helpful in bringing domestic and international attention to the struggle of undocumented people in this country.
Arriving in Belgium in 2008 in pursuit of political asylum, Mamadou says he was shocked when his claim was denied.
“I thought I was just waiting for a positive result, being a Gambian at that time. With a dictator, that stupid guy, in power.”
Since then, he has applied to regularise his residency a number of times but has yet to succeed.
Before the pandemic, Mamadou worked for a man who connected him with odd jobs around Brussels. He unloaded cargo, cleaned houses, and pinch-hit for construction companies. He used up nearly all of his savings when work stopped during the lockdowns. Now, gradually, work is coming back.
He says he makes sure he is paid at least eight euros ($9.48) an hour, which is more than many other undocumented people but is still less than the legal minimum in Belgium.
“I have no choice,” says Mamadou. “This is the situation of undocumented migrants. You accept any job you are given.”
His second job, though, is working on behalf of other undocumented people. As a founding member of the Coordination des Sans-Papiers de Belgique, an umbrella organisation connecting groups of undocumented migrants across the country, he has become something of an expert on the rights of the undocumented and bureaucracy in Belgium.
‘A failure in the system’
During the pandemic, the government has turned to Mamadou and his colleagues to help communicate critical health information to other undocumented people, like the importance of wearing a mask and how to get medical care, including the COVID vaccine.
One bright spot for undocumented people in Belgium is that the vaccine has been made available to everyone, and healthcare, in general, is accessible to people regardless of legal status. The vaccine, in particular, is not yet as easily available to undocumented people in many other European countries.
The discrepancy is frustrating for PICUM’s Alyna Smith.
“It’s really jarring to see, on the one hand, Belgium really standing out for all its terrific work around access to the vaccine, and on the other hand leaving people utterly behind by essentially refusing to engage on something so basic as trying to work to find solutions around what is clearly a failure in the system.”
Again, a lot comes down to the criterial ambiguity and the profound uncertainty this causes among an already marginalised population.
“There are people who are regularised in Belgium, it’s not that nobody’s using it,” explains PICUM’s Lilana Keith. “But the numbers are so much lower than they could be because people just don’t trust it, they don’t know if they will be eligible and they don’t know what the ramifications would be, what they’re risking [if their application is denied]”.
Mahdi’s office disagrees.
“Every year, thousands are given an exceptional staying permit after a decent investigation, and a possibility of appeal,” said a spokesperson for Mahdi’s office in an email. “There is no need to change this only because some people did receive a negative decision or because some people do not submit any application.”
Fear and uncertainty on the part of undocumented residency applicants seem warranted, however. The current government, formed in October 2020, comes in the wake of a governmental collapse precipitated by disagreement over Belgium’s participation in a global migration pact.
“The last government was very, very severe in terms of curtailing certain rights, increasing immigration detention, increasing deportations,” says Keith.
Francken, the Flemish politician who for four years served as secretary of state for asylum and migration under Belgium’s last full national government, made his name in part by taking an extremely harsh anti-migrant stance.
What we see now in Belgium, according to Keith, is “years and years of advocacy without movement since 2009”, which is when the government last opened a one-off period of regularisation for people who met certain criteria.
One person who knows this all too well is Mamadou, who submitted his own application for regularisation in 2009. He was rejected because he had been in Belgium for just one year, while one of the criteria for that temporary campaign required candidates to have been in Belgium for at least three years.
Ever since, Mamadou has campaigned on his own behalf and that of others. It has become something of a career, albeit a career he says he did not choose.
For him, political analysis is less interesting than practical action. He and his colleagues at the Coordination des Sans-Papiers de Belgique even made a pamphlet about ways the government can improve access to legal status “without compromising their voters”.
It has become a lifelong struggle Mamadou never expected, but one he says he is committed to fighting, even after he eventually achieves legal residence for himself.
For the hunger strikers, after filing their new applications for legal residency, they now anxiously wait to learn their fate. For the sake of keeping the government on notice, many still occupy the church and the other two locations in Brussels.
And if some of them receive a negative response?
They say they will return to the hunger strike once again.