Scene at the Béguinage church, one of the sites in Brussels where undocumented migrants are on hunger strike. Photo via The Left / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The current state secretary for asylum and migration, the christian-democrat Sammy Mahdi, refuses to open any negotiation on this basis. He resorts to a hefty argument to justify his rigid stance: the undocumented migrants have received an order to leave the territory, issued by the state, to which they did not comply. They are therefore individually responsible for their administrative situation.
Is this juridical formalism enough to justify denying the undocumented migrants any legal status? It conveniently sweeps under the carpet the fact that Belgium (and more broadly the European Union) often produces the migrants’ irregular situation. There are 150,000 persons living and working in Belgium without papers. According to a study produced by the Pew Center, around 3.9 to 4.8 million persons are undocumented migrants within the EU. This massive number is the result of a deliberate shift in the design of migration policies.
Over the past 20 years, European states have collectively and drastically reduced the legal migration pathways to Europe. They promoted restrictive and arbitrary practices within their public administration, toughening for instance the conditions to renew temporary residence permits — which pushed many migrants into an irregular status. They externalized the sensitive task of controlling the European external borders, delegating this responsibility to neighboring states such as Turkey and Libya, whose records with regards to migrants’ welfare is poor, to say the least. They also allowed their labor markets to become segmented between the workers with and without papers, which further fuels social dumping into economic sectors that cannot be outsourced — construction, food and hospitality, care, etc. — while facilitating the exploitation of an insecure workforce.
This juridical formalism also overlooks the peculiar history of Belgium’s migration policies. Roughly every ten years for the past decades, Belgium becomes aware that there are many undocumented migrants living on its territory and that this situation is unsustainable in the long term. Belgium then proceeds to large-scale but temporary regularization campaigns — the first in 1999-2000 and the second in 2009-2011 — swearing each time that this is would be the last.
In contrast, France and Spain have long concluded that this erratic management of migration led to a political dead-end. They opted to set up some clear and permanent criteria — such as the length of the stay, a stable job, proven social ties, etc. — in virtue of which undocumented migrants can be regularized on a continuous and individual basis.
The Belgian government — like many other governments across Europe — commits a grave political mistake. It is petrified by the rise of right-wing nationalist parties. It attempts to demarcate itself from this political offer, while nevertheless appealing to its electorate, by implementing migration policies that are “firm but humane.”
But, pragmatically, this means that the Belgian government is currently implementing a watered-down version of the migration platform promoted by nationalist parties while claiming to hold in high esteem the human rights and the norms of international law. Such an approach amounts to a double failure. It implies that xenophobic parties have the right political answers to migration while tainting the universal values it refers itself to. To fight back against the far right, one does not co-opt its political agenda. To fight back against the far right, one contests its ideas, be it through its rhetoric or its actions.
For all the reasons above, we urge the Belgian government to resume as soon as possible the dialogue with the hunger strikers in the perspective of their regularization and to launch a political reform setting up some clear and permanent criteria of regularization for the future.
Michele Ray Gavras
Ai Wei Wei