Gazan asylum seekers in Belgium have launched a protest movement to decry what they describe as unfair treatment by the Belgian authorities processing their asylum requests.
The Palestinian Refugees Movement/Belgium held a number of marches over recent weeks in asylum seeker receptions centers across Belgium, and also organized several “hunger strikes” — where the Palestinians symbolically rejected the meals offered to them in the facilities. Organizers also performed Dabke (Levantine folk dance) sessions and emphasized that their protests are “peaceful.”
During the marches, the protesters — who numbered hundreds overall in the dozen or so marches — waved Palestinian flags, while banners in Arabic, French and Flemish delivered messages such as “Don’t change asylum procedures for Palestinians”; “We didn’t flee suffering to get more suffering”; and “We have a right to protection in Belgium.”
Haaretz reported last month that Belgium is now Europe’s most popular destination for Gazans fleeing the Hamas-ruled enclave. The number of asylum applications has soared since the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt started opening on a regular basis last year.
However, following the large influx of Gazans, at the end of 2018 the Belgians decided to stop accepting Palestinian asylum applications by default, and instead started considering them on a case-by-case basis.
“The situation in Gaza is still precarious and problematic for many inhabitants but not for all. Hence the need to assess in depth every asylum application on its individual merits,” Belgium’s Office of the Commissioner General for Refugees and Stateless Persons said in a statement last December.
Ali Mansour, who reached Belgium in 2016 after a long and arduous trip from the Bureij camp in eastern Gaza, is one of the movement’s organizers. “The rate of rejections is increasing and the explanations they give are unacceptable,” he said of what he labeled a “crackdown.”
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According to official figures compiled by the Office of the Commissioner General for Refugees and Stateless Persons, Palestinians were the second-largest national group of new asylum seekers in the first nine months of 2019, with over 1,980 first applications for international protection filed in September. However, according to the same report, only about 30 percent of the applications processed during those nine months were successful, making Palestinians only the 10th largest national group to successfully obtain asylum.
On its Facebook page, the Palestinian Refugees Movement/Belgium complained of “great injustices in the way our applications are being handled, multiple postponements of our hearings, unjustified rejections of our demands and very long delays until our second hearing at the Office of the Commissioner General for Refugees and Stateless Persons.”
The office’s spokeswoman, Gabrielle Baes, told Haaretz that the Gazans’ protest is “out of place, since applications are evaluated on an individual basis.” Dominique Ernould, a Belgian Immigration Office spokeswoman, dismissed the notion that the Palestinians were participating in a “hunger strike,” as reported in the local Belgian media last week.
“Several marches are taking place, but there is no real intention to refrain from eating and drinking,” she said. However, she conceded that “over the last few months, a large inflow of asylum applications has made the handling of all procedures more lengthy” — an assertion the Office of the Commissioner General for Refugees and Stateless Persons’ official figures seemingly back up.
An internal Office of the Commissioner General for Refugees and Stateless Persons report, seen by Haaretz, suggests that the main reason Palestinians are being turned away is Belgium’s belief that they have the means to return to the Gaza Strip. “Many conditions need to be satisfied for Palestinians in Belgium to go back to the Strip … but according to all sources (consulted for the report), such return is viable,” the report stated.
A report in Arabic last month on InfoMigrants, a news and information website for migrants, said that Gazans in Belgium are also seeing their applications rejected because they are already under the protection of the UN Relief and Works Agency (the UN agency in charge of assisting Palestinian refugees). About 70 percent of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are descendants of refugees from the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and are therefore eligible for the agency’s services.
According to Article 1D of the 1951 Refugee Convention, “This Convention shall not apply to persons who are at present beneficiaries of protection or assistance from organs or agencies of the United Nations other than the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.” However, the same article adds a clarification: “When such protection or assistance has ceased for any reason, without the position of such persons being definitively settled in accordance with the relevant resolutions adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations, these persons shall ipso facto be entitled to the benefits of this Convention.”
Julie Lejeune of the Belgian nongovernmental organization Nansen, which helps Palestinians with their asylum requests, said that having renounced UN Relief and Works Agency services by leaving Gaza, these Gazans should therefore be eligible for protection in Belgium.
Mansour said that the typically lengthy waiting times necessary to complete all the steps of an asylum review, compounded by the lower chances of success because of the new Belgian policy, is “affecting the psyche of the Palestinian youth in Belgium.”
He added: “It’s so many of us, and the positive responses are so few.”
Tens of thousands of Palestinians have left the Gaza Strip since the Rafah crossing reopened in July 2018. Their most common journey takes them from Egypt to Greece via Turkey, and then onto Western Europe through what is know as the Western Balkan route.
In a recent article published on InfoMigrants, a 19-year-old Gazan described reaching Turkey via Egypt and then crossing nine countries over 10 months. He recounted crossing mountains between Albania and Montenegro in the freezing cold, where he saw snow for the first time. For many of these young men, this is their first time outside of the Gaza Strip.
The archetypal Palestinian asylum seekers reaching Belgium are “independent youth, rather than people traveling to join families,” said a Harvard University research fellow studying migration out of Gaza, who asked not to be named for this story.
Sources in Gaza and Belgium claimed that some of the leaders of the anti-Hamas We Want to Live protest movement — whose street protests calling for better living conditions were quelled by Hamas last March — have also made their way to Belgium in recent months.