Key stages in the process Adnan must go through in Belgium, problems and proposed solutions
Adnan arrives in Belgium after an arduous journey. He doesn't know where to go. Other Syrians advise him to go to the Immigration Office (IO) to register as an asylum seeker. At the IO, he is "pre-registered", given a number, and his photo and fingerprints are taken. An association's information centre advises him to go to the Samu Social to find a place for the night.
- The authorities don't have a dedicated reception desk to receive, inform and guide new arrivals such as Adnan.
- Despite pre-registration, migrants aren't yet recognised as asylum seekers and don't have any rights in the country, especially with regard to accommodation. The pre-reception structures such as WTC2 and 3 aren't structural, which means that new arrivals may find themselves without any accommodation.
- Set up a dedicated reception and structural information desk drawing inspiration from initiatives such as Startpunt organised by Vluchtelingenwerk.
- Recognise asylum seekers at the pre-registration stage in order to offer them minimum accommodation, for instance, through "buffer" places in Fedasil's structural reception centres.
After three days' wait, Adnan can finally register at the Immigration Office (IO) as an asylum seeker. He is briefly questioned to understand his background and justify his application. He then receives a document giving him the status of asylum seeker4 and the right to stay in a public reception centre. Without consulting him, he is also informed that he will be supported in French but that an Arabic-speaking interpreter will be available.
4This document is Annex 26. If the IO decides that Belgium isn't the first country of asylum or pre-asylum, it asks the first country of asylum to assume or reassume responsibility for the person – Adnan then receives Annex 26 Quater and enters into the Dublin procedure; this can last from 8 months to a year and aims to determine whether he must be placed in a closed centre while awaiting expulsion to his first country of asylum or if he can become an asylum seeker in Belgium.
- With registration applications varying significantly in just a matter of months (having quadrupled)5, the IO is struggling to adjust its registration capacity when mass influx occurs.
- The registration procedure sometimes requires several visits, forcing asylum seekers to come back – which can take several weeks.
- Asylum seekers can't be accompanied by a lawyer during the so-called "Dublin" interview aimed at determining the country responsible for dealing with the application, even though these are often complex cases.
Increase flexibility in staff numbers at the Immigration Office, for instance, by training voluntary "reserve" officers who can provide extra support, and by arranging for the office to be open at weekends if necessary, as other European countries have done.
Push for procedures to be grouped together6 and a simplification of the registration procedure.
Improve information for asylum seekers on specialised law firms whose lawyers could attend the "Dublin" interviews with them.
5For instance, in 2015, there were 1,313 applications (first applications and multiple applications) in January, reaching 5,512 in September.
6By this we mean grouping together registration at the IO and the questionnaire that the IO must fill in for the Commissioner General for Refugees and Stateless Persons (CGRS) (see step 4)
Adnan must now register with the Federal Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers (Fedasil). He has to undergo a medical examination and then Fedasil will randomly allocate a place in a new centre in the province of Luxembourg.
He goes there and stays several months while awaiting his interview with the Commissioner General for Refugees and Stateless Persons (CGRS). The conditions in the centre are sometimes difficult because he has to share a dormitory with several other asylum seekers. To help him understand the procedure and the status of his file, Adnan is supported by an extremely busy social worker; he can also take language classes. He has to wait four months before he can work, hasn't got much money to go outside the centre (he receives EUR 7 a week) and there are no activities which means that Adnan sometimes sees fights breaking out.
- Conditions can be difficult in the centres that aren't managed directly by Fedasil, especially the recently-opened emergency reception centres which have little or no experience in receiving asylum seekers7.7.
- Assistance is often suboptimal because the social workers and interpreters are overworked, with more files to manage than anticipated (according to standards, social workers should have approximately 40 files).
- With nothing to do, tensions mount and activities outside the centre are often financially out of reach. Asylum seekers without money are blocked in the centre where "community services" are paid at the rate of EUR 1 an hour.
- Language classes aren't systematically taught in all the reception centres – this is not part of Fedasil's mission.
Harmonise the accommodation standards in non-structural centres, especially centres that are opening, and significantly increase the frequency of audits; encourage the conversion of reception facilities into individual reception structures8 ; allow residents to express themselves collectively through a residents' council.
Improve support and help with the integration of asylum seekers, for instance:
- Increase and make access to language classes systematic, and review their structure to make them immediately useful in the asylum procedure and the future search for employment
- Subsidise the development or completion of online portals accessible by smartphone, offering general information on the asylum procedure, language classes/translators and integration advice (like the 'Ankommen' application in Germany9))
As is the case in the Netherlands, formalise as a public mission and reinforce
- informal exchanges such as coaching/mentoring/sports activities between local volunteers and residents from the centres to allow cultural, linguistic and sporting exchanges (like the Singa Langue et Culture or Singa Sports initiative in France)
- the involvement of associations external to the centres to reinforce social support when necessary, and to deploy training workshops and fun activities
- Support and deploy an employment platform ("Workeer" in Germany) so that residents from the centres are aware of local job offers and can apply for them as soon as they receive a work permit
- Increase pay for community services in line with the hourly minimum wage
7The majority of centres meet or exceed international standards and provide several services. However, in some centres that aren't managed by Fedasil, different ethnicities and nationalities, as well as adults and unaccompanied foreign minors (MENA) are put together in the same dormitories, which leads to tensions between communities and vulnerable minors. Sometimes, the notifications for the follow-up of the file don't arrive, there is no social support, contact with lawyers is difficult and basic services (food and shelter) aren't fully guaranteed.
8Individual structures are housing units (apartment, small house) for individual families or individuals allowing asylum seekers to live within a local community and interact with it and thus facilitate their integration.
9The 'Ankommen' application in Germany, launched by the authorities, offers basic language classes, information on the asylum procedure, advice to find a job/vocational training, information on the country's values and social standards, and forums.
After 4 months at the centre, Adnan receives notification of his hearing with the CGRS, at 08:30 in the morning in Brussels. He takes the train the night before and sleeps on the street in order to be on time. Adnan is questioned for four hours, with the help of an interpreter, about his origins and his journey to check whether he is eligible for refugee status or subsidiary protection. Once the interview has finished, he takes the train back to the centre. Because the CGRS considers that his statement is incomplete and therefore can't take a decision, he is summoned again by post to come to an additional hearing three weeks later.
- File processing times: the time between registration with the Immigration Office and the interview with the CGRS varies between three months and several years depending on the file, due to the massive backlog among other things (6,800 files in December 2015).
- Managing the notifications: the time of the hearings doesn't take into account the distance between the reception centre and the CGRS. The hearings start late because of double appointments. The asylum seeker can't find any accommodation for the night.
- There is significant rotation among the protection officers who carry out the hearings, eroding expertise within the CGRS.
Improve management of the CGRS files by establishing a time limit between the first and second hearing and optimising the management of the hearings schedule.
Set up a task force to reduce the structural backlog once and for all.
Inform the asylum seekers and allow them to reside in existing reception centres if they have to spend the night in Brussels before a hearing.
Set up adapted staff management procedures within the CGRS in anticipation of extra workloads and manage departures within the CGRS through anticipation.
Three months after his second interview, Adnan receives a letter informing him of the CGRS' decision: he has received subsidiary protection status and a temporary residence permit. Adnan is reassured. He asks the centre's social worker how to proceed. He goes to fetch his residence permit from the commune, which takes time because Adnan still has difficulty speaking French. He is also obliged to attend a free integration programme to help him acquire basic knowledge of how Belgian society works. This helps a lot.
- The maximum time frame of three months between the last hearing with the CGRS and the decision isn't necessarily respected, sometimes leading to long waiting times.
- If the CGRS' decision is negative (refusal of refugee status or subsidiary protection), the asylum seeker often submits an appeal via an ad-hoc court: the French-speaking (CCE) or Dutch-speaking (RVV)10Council for Alien Law Litigation. The final decision varies depending on the language used.
- Whatever the decision, this procedure can be long owing to the backlog of work at the court and the lack of dialogue, coordination and exchange of non-sensitive information (general information on the country, data, files) between the CGRS and these authorities.
- The language classes – language being the first barrier to integration, aren't compulsory in 11.
Stick to the maximum three-month time limit to pronounce the decision.
Define the interpretation of appeal more strictly to prevent major variations in the outcome of the appeal according to the language used.
Urge representatives from the CGRS and the CCE/RVV to agree on more efficient coordination mechanisms, share the information in the files and grant them the necessary credit provided there is no conflicting information.
Make language classes compulsory in the integration programme in Wallonia and Brussels and adapt them to immediate needs.
1010 De ‘Conseil du Contentieux des Etrangers’ voor de Franstaligen; de ‘Raad voor Vreemdelingenbetwistingen’ voor de Nederlandstaligen.
11De taalopleiding maakt deel uit van de tweede, niet verplichte fase van het integratieparcours in Wallonië.
Adnan is worried: after having received the positive decision from the CGRS, the centre informs him that he has two months to leave the centre and find private accommodation. He is forced to remain at the centre longer than authorised because he isn't able to find any accommodation: he still doesn't speak French very well, has no savings to pay for a rental deposit and doesn't understand how to go about it.
He is told about the CPAS (social services provider), but the latter does not see him as long as he isn't registered as living in the commune. He accepts precarious temporary housing with people he knows in exchange for services. Starting a new life in Belgium is difficult: he isn't familiar with the bases of daily life in Belgium and is resigned to badly paid undeclared jobs.
- There is a legal void in support for housing: besides several existing support structures, refugees can neither ask for help from one of the centre's support workers since they are leaving it, nor can they benefit from support from the CPAS because they don't have an official place of residence. And yet the conditions and steps required to find accommodation make access to it almost impossible; hence, refugees spend more time in the centres despite pressure from the latter to leave them.
- Professional integration is made difficult: foreign diplomas aren't easily recognised in Belgium without certified proof despite the fact it generally takes a long time – or is even impossible – to send this from the country of origin. Companies apply strict criteria with regard to refugees or systematically require them to be bilingual in French and Dutch or have a European diploma, even if the job doesn't require this.
- There are very few subsidised social and community integration programmes besides the integration programme; and yet, creating social links with the Belgian community allows people to practice the language and find a job more quickly.
Facilitate the transition from the status of asylum seeker to that of recognised refugee by publishing a "get started kit" in several languages, clarifying the first administrative steps and key resources. It should be included in, but not be exclusive to, the integration programme.
Facilitate the search for housing for refugees by institutionalising and subsidising rental deposit assistance and inviting the CPAS to help look for and access housing even if the refugee isn't yet officially registered as living in the commune; formalise the reception plan in the communes and ensure social support is provided by the CPAS during reception.
Financially maintain a platform for citizens that would arrange for refugees to meet with citizens who would like to offer accommodation, and inform the latter (such as the "Refugees welcome" initiative, the online platforms being developed by associations or the Caritas International housing campaign).
Create or extend a supervised reception network that would allow temporary immersion (maximum six months) for refugees who are badly housed or with no fixed abode (such as the CALM [Comme A La Maison] initiative in France); adopt the gastvrijegemeente.be and Pleegzorg Vlaanderen initiatives in Wallonia and Brussels in order to set up a network of host and support families in the communes.
Raise awareness in companies through the FEB and the VDAB about employing refugees, distribute complete information on job opportunities/mentoring for refugees and deploy platforms such as the VDAB's hiapp.be to put refugees in contact with employers and citizens.
Review the criteria and requirements regarding the recognition of diplomas for refugees, taking into account the situation in the country of origin and the difficulty of obtaining the required proof.