A group of asylum seekers on the street near the Klein Kasteeltje in Brussels, where they have to submit their asylum application. There is no bed for them and they have to sleep on the street. Olivier Mizeto (left) feels unsafe and humiliated.Statue Rebecca Fertinel

    You can see a bruise on his cheek, a stitch in the corner of his mouth, and panic in his eyes. Hassam Chenouga, a skinny 22-year-old boy from Libya, was robbed last night while sleeping in the street and robbed of his last money and his phone – his only possession. ‘I need a place’, says Chenouga distraught to a volunteer from Vluchtelingenwerk Vlaanderen. “I can’t sleep on the street again tonight.”

    While asylum reception in the Netherlands has been regarded as a national crisis since last week, the situation in Belgium has also come to a complete standstill. Since October last year, almost all 30,000 places in the reception centers have been permanently occupied and the scarce number of beds is reserved for women, children and the elderly. Single men who report to the gate of the Klein Kasteeltje in Brussels, the center where asylum seekers must register in Belgium, are told that there is no place for them.

    Come and see again tomorrow

    This means that they really have nowhere to go, not even on a chair or in a tent: the men are put out on the street and have to come again the next morning to see if a bed has become available.

    This often results in panic or anger and the atmosphere at Klein Kasteeltje is grim early in the morning. At 08.30 am the gate opens for half an hour and there is a lot of police on their feet to prevent chaos. A man from Senegal with a blue cap on his bald head, looks exhausted at a white piece of paper that has been pressed into his hand. It states in various languages ​​that unfortunately no reception is possible. “Now what?” he asks dully. ‘I have no money. I don’t know anyone here. I’m cold.’

    Hassam Chenouga from Libya has been living on the streets for eight days and was mugged and robbed last night.  He no longer dares to sleep outside, but there is no shelter available.  Statue Rebecca Fertinel

    Hassam Chenouga from Libya has been living on the streets for eight days and was mugged and robbed last night. He no longer dares to sleep outside, but there is no shelter available.Statue Rebecca Fertinel

    ‘Things have come to a standstill due to a combination of factors,’ says Joost Depotter of Vluchtelingenwerk Vlaanderen. ‘It is not very different from the Netherlands: the number of asylum seekers who come to Belgium has increased and the problem lies mainly in the throughput. In at least half of the cases, the procedure takes longer than six months, sometimes as much as two to three years, during which time the applicant keeps his place in the reception centers. Then there is the housing shortage. In Belgium, too, there is little affordable housing available that permit holders can go to, which means they have to stay in the center even longer.’

    Emergency solutions for Ukrainians

    What Depotter finds sour is that these people have to sleep on the street, while all kinds of emergency solutions have been found for refugees from Ukraine. ‘We have been hearing for months: ‘We are doing what we can, there is really not much else in it’, but Ukrainians have found space in empty offices or in social housing that still had to be renovated. Then arrange that for everyone else too!’

    An attempt is therefore made to enforce the right to reception through the courts. Since the beginning of this year, more than 1,400 lawsuits have been filed against Fedasil, the organization responsible for the reception in Belgium, and the agency has been convicted in 90 percent of the cases. However, this has not led to more reception places, because according to the Refugee Agency, about 200 asylum seekers still sleep on the street every day.

    For that reason, the court reported possible criminal offenses to the Brussels public prosecutor last week: it would appear from the hundreds of judgments in six months that Fedasil uses ‘a purposeful, coordinated and persistent practice’. This “seems desirable, considered and organized” by the Federal Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration, Sammy Mahdi. The Public Prosecution Service is still investigating whether it will turn this into a criminal case.

    Men under a blanket

    For the time being, Olivier Mizeto (32) has little use for this. The asylum seeker from Rwanda has been sleeping on the street for three nights. He points to the sidewalk around the corner from Klein Kasteeltje, where even late in the morning a line of men is still hiding under a blanket. “So there.”

    He does not want to say much about his reasons for fleeing, but Mizeto never expected that the reception in Belgium would be so cold. ‘Every morning I hope for good news, only to hear that there is nothing. It feels rushed. Unsafe. And also humiliating.’ He sighs and dives deeper into his black sweater. “I don’t feel like a man when I’m on that sidewalk.”

    Lawyers record the data of asylum seekers.  Normally, Jean-Francois Gérard (in black sweater) deals with employment law, but now he voluntarily helps people who just want a bed.  Statue Rebecca Fertinel

    Lawyers record the data of asylum seekers. Normally, Jean-Francois Gérard (in black sweater) deals with employment law, but now he voluntarily helps people who just want a bed.Statue Rebecca Fertinel

    A block away, a group of asylum seekers with numbers in their hands stands in front of a closed door. Every now and then it opens and someone is allowed in to speak to one of the three lawyers, who are sitting here with a laptop behind a desk. One of them is Jean-Francois Gérard. Normally he deals with labor law, but now he writes down the details of men who just want a bed. Gérard does this together with about 170 other volunteers from twenty law firms. “We reported to help Ukrainians around Easter, but are now committed to helping people from other countries.”

    Penalty sum of 1,000 euros per person per day

    The judge almost always honors the right to shelter, says Gérard, but the procedure does take time and during that period these people are left out in the cold. Moreover, since this week it has been so full in the centers that no bed can be found even after a court decision. ‘It contains a penalty of 1,000 euros per person per day – I wonder whether the state will now also cough up the money.’

    However, in the case of Hassam Chenouga, the boy who was beaten, no decision has yet been made. His legs trembling, he stands again at the door, rubbing his aching face. “I have to wait,” he says in a broken voice. ‘On the street.’

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