What Belgium wants, says Shila Hadji Heydari Anaraki, “is not allowed at all.” Anaraki, a German anthropologist from the Catholic University of Leuven, is clear: there is no legal basis for the decision of State Secretary Nicole de Moor (Asylum and Migration, CD&V) to no longer offer reception places to male asylum seekers for the time being. The shelters are so full that families are given priority.

According to the Belgian Reception Act of 2007, asylum seekers are entitled to “shelter, food, clothing, medical, social and psychological guidance, a daily allowance and access to legal assistance and to services such as interpreters and training”. In fact, the government is already violating that law with every asylum seeker who has to sleep outside. “Let alone that the law provides for a distinction between different categories of people,” says Anaraki, who conducts research into reception centers for newcomers in Belgium and the Netherlands.

But even if it is not allowed, Belgium does it anyway. De Moor’s decision, says Anaraki, is a continuation of the practice that has been visible on the streets of Brussels for two years. Dozens of people regularly sleep outside the gate of the Klein Kasteeltje, the ‘Belgian Ter Apel’. “And those people are almost always men.” De Moor said on Tuesday evening VRT NWS news that she “absolutely wants to avoid children ending up on the street.”

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De Moor has already lost eight thousand lawsuits over the inadequate asylum reception under her responsibility. She categorically refuses to pay the fines imposed. And there is no one who can force the Belgian state to follow court decisions. However, a bailiff knocked on De Moor’s office. Some furniture was removed, some of which was donated by activists to the asylum seekers on the street.

Not in a vacuum

The decision to no longer offer shelter places to men was not taken in a vacuum: Belgium is experiencing the consequences of European migration patterns. Because relatively many migrants cross the Mediterranean in the summer, August is a month in which many asylum seekers come to Belgium. Like the Netherlands and Austria, Belgium persistently has too few reception places for asylum seekers.

For this reason, outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte, for example, has pushed for the Tunisia deal, with the aim of limiting migrant numbers and easing the pressure on reception centers. But since that deal was concluded on July 16, the number of boat migrants from Tunisia to Italy has increased sharply. In six weeks, almost thirty thousand migrants managed to reach Italy.

Dozens of people regularly sleep outside the gate of the Klein Kasteeltje, the ‘Belgian Ter Apel’

According to Anaraki, the lack of shelter places is a political choice. “Belgian municipalities often reduce reception capacity as soon as there is a dip in the number of asylum seekers. I call that yo-yo politics. When so many Ukrainians came to Belgium, none of them had to sleep on the streets. So it is possible.”

It also suits some politicians well, those images of full reception centers and waiting men, according to the anthropologist. “It is a strong signal, for example in the negotiations on a new solidarity-based European migration policy: we are already full, no one can join us anymore.”

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De Moor is under considerable pressure from parties such as Vlaams Belang to reduce the number of migrants. And the asylum seekers who are already there should not have it too wide. The result, says Anaraki, is that those people are “pushed into the precariat.” “And then you get stories about nuisance, and about asylum seekers who are useless to the state. They are not properly cared for, let alone allowed to work and provide for themselves.”

Dublin Guidelines

The reception crisis in Belgium does not necessarily have to have immediate consequences for the Netherlands, says Giselle Schellekens, migration and asylum program manager at research organization TNO. “After all, they have already applied for asylum elsewhere, so the Netherlands could not accept them as asylum seekers in accordance with the Dublin guidelines.”

There is the example of an asylum seeker in Belgium who came to the Netherlands and challenged his mandatory return to Belgium. He got right by the judge: The Netherlands was not allowed to send him back to a country where asylum reception is so poorly organized. Belgium thus joined a list with countries such as Hungary and Greece. Shameful, says Anaraki: “We used to look at those countries and say: that would never be possible here.”

And the men who sleep on the streets in Belgium? They will still have to be taken care of, says Schellekens. “The responsibility for this will fall to private foundations. It is always only a short-term solution.”

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