Belgium hunger strike: Why are hundreds of migrants refusing food and water?

Belgium: Undocumented migrants discuss hunger strike

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Belgium has seen around 450 men, predominantly from the North African countries of Morocco and Algeria, protesting at three sites in Brussels since the end of May. Since Friday, about 300 of these hunger strikers have also been refusing to drink, with some reportedly near death. Four of the protestors have also stitched their lips together or harmed themselves in other ways. Several political parties in Belgium have urged Prime Minister Alexander De Croo to intervene, with leaders of the governing coalition warning in a weekend statement that a fatality was imminent.

According to the Flemish broadcast VRT, the Socialist deputy Prime Minister, Pierre Yves Dermagne, told members of his inner cabinet on Monday: “We will leave the government within the hour if anybody dies.”

Belgium’s Secretary of State for asylum and migration Sammy Mahdi said on Sunday “nobody wants a tragedy” to happen and he was following the situation closely.

But he insisted the government would not enable a collective action to stay, saying “that would trigger hunger strikes in churches up and down the land”.

Two United Nations (UN) special reporters have written an open letter to Mr Mahdi, calling for a resolution to this crisis.

UN special reporter on extreme poverty and human rights Olivier De Schutter said: “The information we are receiving is alarming and several strikers are between life and death.”

Felipe González, special reporter on the human rights of migrants, added: “In order to respond to this emergency situation, the government must immediately confirm that the state of health of the hunger strikers in an obstacle to any expulsion, and that is considering granting a temporary residence permit, allowing the exercise of an economic activity to anyone who applies for regularisation of residence.”

In a letter replying, Mr Mahdi defended Belgium’s right to make political choices regarding the status of non-citizens with no right to reside in the country.

Doctors of the World told local media it feared the hunger strikers risked “sudden cardiac arrest” as they physical condition had deteriorated”, adding that “a death becomes possible at any moment”.

Why are hundreds of migrants refusing food and water?

The hunger strikes are happening because the migrants want the collective right to enter the formal economy as legal residents.

Many of the hunger strikers have been living and working in Belgium for years.

The Government has refused their demands up until this point, arguing each case would be considered on its own merit.

Mr Mahdi said: “The use of a hunger strike will not change the rules.

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“Those who are without papers are invited to come and sort out their dossiers [files] individually.”

Mr Mahdi has also refused a call by activists for the illegal immigrants to be given temporary residence permits on humanitarian grounds.

The hunger strikers, who collectively refer to themselves under the ‘We are Belgium too’ banner, wrote to the country’s king to ask him to intervene.

They pointed out that “no one survives thirsting for more than three days” as their hunger strike was ramped up over the weekend.

They said Belgium’s government is guilty of an unwillingness to compromise, adding that they were asking for the right to “live with dignity in a country they have helped build”.

Bringing them into the formal economy would cost the state less than locking them up in jail, they argued.

The hunger strikers are four-fifths men, and while most are North African a few come from Bangladesh and Nepal.

Many have lost their hospitality jobs as a result of the Covid crisis, they were working in the informal economy without contracts and so had no right to government compensation.

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