Dying to be regularized: migrants on hunger strike

  • July 15, 2021

Borders & Beyond

For the past 50 days, nearly 500 undocumented migrants have been on hunger strike in the Belgian capital of Brussels, demanding to be regularized.

Scene at the Béguinage church, one of the sites in Brussels where undocumented migrants are on hunger strike. Photo via The Left / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Farida is 51 years old. She was born in Belgium. Her entire family has the Belgian nationality. Farida has a steady job. She cleans offices and public buildings, for €6-8 per hour. Her last application for a regularization of her administrative status got rejected and she has received a state-issued order to leave the territory.

Kiran fled a civil war in Nepal 16 years ago and applied for asylum in Belgium. While his asylum request was still pending, he got a job that paid €10 an hour. When his asylum claim got rejected, his wage fell to €2.5 an hour. His daughter, born in Belgium, is now five years old and speaks fluent Flemish, which she learned at school. The family submitted five applications to be regularized, they were all rejected.

Mohamed has been living in Belgium for 17 years. He treasures an old picture of the inauguration of the new Brussels’ metro. “I worked on public construction sites. […] We dug the metro tunnels linking the four lines. It was tough. What I recall most vividly, is that we were always gasping for oxygen.” Mohamed worked for a shady subcontractor “without any insurance or protection.” He adds: “If we got lucky, they would pay us €3 an hour.”

Farida, Kiran and Mohamed are part of a political collective made up of 475 undocumented migrants. For the past 50 days, they have occupied and conducted a hunger strike at three different sites in Brussels; two universities and a church. Having first engaged in more traditional forms of political actions — lobbying, demonstrations, occupations, etc. — and pushed to the edge by the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, they decided to turn to a political action of last resort: they rendered visible on their own flesh the violence to which they are subjected on a daily basis. Reduced by their economic exploitation to the status of pure bodies, they turned their organisms into the site of the struggle for their legal recognition.

According to the physicians who look after them, their hunger strike entered the “critical” phase two weeks ago. Their bodies, having burned all of its sugar and fat, start to consume its own organs, including the heart. Death becomes then a real and imminent threat.

Simple demands

The undocumented migrants’ demands are simple. First, they want the hunger strikers to be regularized. Second, they want the definition of clear and permanent criteria of regularization, that would be applied by an independent commission, to be put on the government’s political agenda.

The current state secretary for asylum and migration, the christian-democrat Sammy Mahdi, refuses to open any negotiation on this basis. He resorts to a hefty argument to justify his rigid stance: the undocumented migrants have received an order to leave the territory, issued by the state, to which they did not comply. They are therefore individually responsible for their administrative situation.

Is this juridical formalism enough to justify denying the undocumented migrants any legal status? It conveniently sweeps under the carpet the fact that Belgium (and more broadly the European Union) often produces the migrants’ irregular situation. There are 150,000 persons living and working in Belgium without papers. According to a study produced by the Pew Center, around 3.9 to 4.8 million persons are undocumented migrants within the EU. This massive number is the result of a deliberate shift in the design of migration policies.

Scene at the Béguinage church, one of the sites in Brussels where undocumented migrants are on hunger strike. Photo via The Left / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Over the past 20 years, European states have collectively and drastically reduced the legal migration pathways to Europe. They promoted restrictive and arbitrary practices within their public administration, toughening for instance the conditions to renew temporary residence permits — which pushed many migrants into an irregular status. They externalized the sensitive task of controlling the European external borders, delegating this responsibility to neighboring states such as Turkey and Libya, whose records with regards to migrants’ welfare is poor, to say the least. They also allowed their labor markets to become segmented between the workers with and without papers, which further fuels social dumping into economic sectors that cannot be outsourced — construction, food and hospitality, care, etc. — while facilitating the exploitation of an insecure workforce.

This juridical formalism also overlooks the peculiar history of Belgium’s migration policies. Roughly every ten years for the past decades, Belgium becomes aware that there are many undocumented migrants living on its territory and that this situation is unsustainable in the long term. Belgium then proceeds to large-scale but temporary regularization campaigns — the first in 1999-2000 and the second in 2009-2011 — swearing each time that this is would be the last.

In contrast, France and Spain have long concluded that this erratic management of migration led to a political dead-end. They opted to set up some clear and permanent criteria — such as the length of the stay, a stable job, proven social ties, etc. — in virtue of which undocumented migrants can be regularized on a continuous and individual basis.

Fear of the far-right

The Belgian government — like many other governments across Europe — commits a grave political mistake. It is petrified by the rise of right-wing nationalist parties. It attempts to demarcate itself from this political offer, while nevertheless appealing to its electorate, by implementing migration policies that are “firm but humane.”

But, pragmatically, this means that the Belgian government is currently implementing a watered-down version of the migration platform promoted by nationalist parties while claiming to hold in high esteem the human rights and the norms of international law. Such an approach amounts to a double failure. It implies that xenophobic parties have the right political answers to migration while tainting the universal values it refers itself to. To fight back against the far right, one does not co-opt its political agenda. To fight back against the far right, one contests its ideas, be it through its rhetoric or its actions.

For all the reasons above, we urge the Belgian government to resume as soon as possible the dialogue with the hunger strikers in the perspective of their regularization and to launch a political reform setting up some clear and permanent criteria of regularization for the future.


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ROAR Collective

The ROAR Collective published ROAR Magazine (2011-’22), an online journal of the radical imagination that provided grassroots perspectives from the front-lines of the global struggle for real democracy.

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