A year later, the occupation of immigrants who briefly took over the Belgian government – at the request of the host – officially ended, leaving some debate about what had been achieved.
In January 2021, nearly 200 illegal immigrants moved into a historic church in Brussels, hoping to draw attention to their struggles as long-term residents who were unable to fully reach Belgian society.
Within months, their local work had blossomed into a global discussion. Protesters organized a hunger strike that nearly broke the Belgian government and became an issue for artists around the world. Then, as soon as the strikers’ health entered a precarious area, the protest was called off. Belgian officials had agreed to speed up processing of the strikers’ legal residence applications.
After that, the occupation began to shrink until only the age of twenty without papers Survivors – those who lost their homes over the past year. Now, church officials say the 17th century Church of St. John the Baptist in Beguinage, in central Brussels, is no longer safe with the onset of winter.
“It’s not humane: There’s one faucet and one toilet, that’s it. And there’s no heating,” said Daniel Allitt, a church priest, who has spent his career speaking on behalf of immigrants and is a member of the House of Compassion, an organization that supports the occupation. .
However, the majority of residents, past and present, have not received an answer to their residency requests. Most of those who got an answer were denied legal status. This outcome has left some protesters frustrated, wondering what they can do next to keep up the pressure.
But for now, church management said the final occupiers should leave – a request they made to the local peace judge, who is expected to rule at the end of January or early February. The church administration said it “hopes for a calm resolution of the situation.”
Support organizations and volunteers are looking for housing for the remaining residents. Karen Nessens, also of the House of Compassion, said they were “confident” of finding solutions with an existing network of people willing to open their doors.
“We always try to find solutions,” said Tarek, a Moroccan protester still in the church, like other passengers. “We were able to find housing for many of them so they could go there and rest. During the day, they come back here.”
Over the summer, protesters did their best to demand legalization and highlight the difficulties they faced – such as lack of access to Social Security and labor rights, and problems exacerbated by the pandemic. Some sewed their mouths. Others stopped drinking water.
However, after several months, the apps haven’t moved as quickly as they would like.
Of the 442 residency applications, the government made a decision on 79, involving 93 people, according to figures from the office of Sami Mehdi, Belgium’s top immigration official. The government granted residency to 24 of those, while the remaining 69 refused.
Muhammad, who is also still in the church, said he was one of 69 people denied residency. He said he was considering another hunger strike, arguing that the government had not kept its promises.
A spokesman for the Mahdi responded to the allegations: “The foreign minister has always been very clear about some people’s accusations: no false promises were made.”
Those who worked with the church during the occupation say that during the protest, it was acceptable for people to live in substandard conditions – that was part of the political work.
“For a political act, it’s okay to have circumstances out of the ordinary,” Nessens said. “But for someone who has nowhere else to go, it’s an inhumane place to stay.”
However, some protesters see the church itself as an important platform, even six months after reaching an agreement with the government.
“The Béguinage Church is our influence,” Tarek said. “We are already here, in the church, and there are only negative decisions [on residency applications]. If we leave, that’s it, we are immediately buried.”
Tariq is not homeless. His mother is Belgian-Moroccan and has a legal residence permit in Belgium. Tariq officially submitted his residency application on August 20, and the police stopped by in late October to confirm his address at his mother’s home. But after several months, he did not receive a final decision.
Priest Aleit said most of the women who had children at school or were pregnant women had their applications accepted.
Many others did not even get a police check like Tariq.
Their address must be checked before they can get an answer to their request,” Nessens said. “For many of them, this simple step of a policeman coming to check didn’t even happen.”
For Alliet, the protesters leaving the church doesn’t mean the fighting has to end.
“They were disappointed that it didn’t work very well,” he said. “But it is still important for some politicians to realize that this situation is not okay – even if it has not changed directly.”