To Live Legally, Or Die

To Live Legally, Or Die

By David Cronin

BRUSSELS, Feb 11 (IPS) – In a dark corridor, an emaciated man named Toufiq sits against the wall, his face contorted with pain. Medical workers angrily insist that a photographer put his camera away as they lift Toufiq — originally from Morocco — into a wheelchair. Well-wishers gather around; one woman urges Toufiq to keep his spirits up. He is carried away to an ambulance outside.

A few floors down a row of men lie motionless on mattresses. Above them a banner reads: 'Regularisation or Death'. Only the heads of many of them are visible; the rest of their bodies are covered by bedclothes.

Some 150 immigrants have gone on hunger strike in this 170 square metre building near Brussels city centre. Their fast, which entered its 40th day Feb. 9, is designed to put pressure on the Belgian government to legalise their status. Known as 'sans-papiers' (without papers), they lack any permit to live or work in Belgium.

Fernando, a hunger striker from Ecuador, came to Belgium to escape poverty. He has lived here for eight years now but because he has had no job for most of that time, he has depended on the kindness of fellow immigrants to survive.

In some of Belgium's main cities, police can often be seen stopping non-whites to ask for their identity cards. Fernando has been apprehended three times for not having any authorised documents, and has been transported to Zaventem, a detention centre close to Brussels international airport. “They arrested me as if I was a thief,” he told IPS.

Fernando has suffered severe weight loss, and has to wear a tight bandage around his knee because his strength has declined. His stomach feels constantly unsettled. He decided to join the strike after a symbolic 48-hour fast he undertook last year elicited no response from the government. “Like everybody else, I am putting my life in danger because it is the only way to find a solution,” he added. “I hope it will not happen but maybe people will die here.”

Nobody is sure how many clandestine migrants Belgium has. Leaflets pasted on the notice board in the building's hallway cite figures ranging from 50,000 to 150,000. But one thing the hunger strikers and their supporters agree on is that Patrick Dewael, the country's interior minister, is demonstrating a callous indifference to their plight.

Some other European Union countries have issued general amnesties for undocumented migrants. In 2005 Spain announced that 800,000 immigrants could remain in the country, in an effort to transfer them out from the informal, unregulated, economy to the formal, tax-paying one.

Dewael, though, has refused to countenance that idea.

He has faced severe criticism from anti-racism campaigners for invoking a 1980 law that makes the provision of shelter to a clandestine migrant a criminal offence. He has also been accused of lacking compassion by defending the detention of migrant children and for adopting a tough stance towards asylum-seekers.

“It is not in my character but I must be strict,” Dewael said in 2006. “I must say 'no' to those who are among the most disadvantaged in the world. It hurts me but I cannot do otherwise.”

Instead of grappling with the human consequences of people starving themselves, Dewael, a Dutch-speaking Liberal, has entered into a row with French-speakers over the hunger strike. Rue Royale 91, the building where the strikers have gathered, is owned by a public authority representing Belgium's francophone community. Dewael has expressed his regret at how Marie Arena, the minister-president of the francophone community, has declared her support for the protest.

Sans-papiers have been known to occupy public buildings such as churches in protest actions for many years. In November, a different group of hunger-strikers in Evere, a town in the Brussels region, was granted the right to stay in Belgium for six months — with a possible extension on medical grounds — after depriving itself of food for over 40 days.

“We have asked ourselves if going on a hunger strike is the only way to be regularised in Belgium,” said Myriam Wezel from UDEP, the union for the defence of people without papers. “The attitude of the minister is very discouraging.”

While the hunger-strikers — who hail from India, Mauritania, Algeria, Pakistan, Niger, Iran, Burma, Guinea and Angola — say they have received much goodwill from ordinary Belgians, they are less than impressed by media coverage of their action.

Last weekend a march was held to mark the strike's 40th day. Editors of La Libre Belgique, a Belgian daily, and the country's most popular free paper Metro decided that the demonstration warranted no more than a paragraph.

Among the women taking part in the strike was Gley Cakmak, a Turkish Kurd, single mother of two children. Her application for asylum has been rejected.

Yet not all the women on the first floor of the building are going without food. Hafida Bachir, president of the feminist organisation Vie Fminine, complains that the press has tried to minimise the female contribution to this strike.

“Some women are taking part in the hunger strike,” said Bachir. “Others are not: there are children to collect at school, the rent that they will have to still pay, money to be found. Those women who are not taking part in the hunger strike nonetheless support the strikers 100 percent.”

Bachir is perturbed, too, over the effects the hunger strike will have on children accompanying their parents in Rue Royale 91. “It is scandalous that in a state of law, rich and democratic, the political authorities are displaying the height of irresponsibility by pushing despondent people to take the only action they can in order to have their voices heard,” she said. (END/2008)