One year after the murder of Semira Adamu
From crocodile tears to massdeportations
Refugees and migrants in detention camps
Slaves of the modern economy
The outcasts of the world
The big sell-out: regularisation in exchange for mass deportation?
Update April 2000 - Regularisation by the architects of Fortress Europe arouses suspicion
From crocodile tears to massdeportations
Tuesday September 22nd 1998, early in the morning. A 20-year-old girl is woken up by the guards of the Detention Centre 127 bis, near Brussels airport. She has twenty minutes to collect her gear. Next, she is chained hand and foot and transported to the airport in an armoured van. She knows quite well how it works now. It is the sixth time she has suffered the deportation ritual. On July 21st, on an earlier occasion, a pillow was pushed on her face in the plane, to stop her from shouting. In August, she wrote a letter on the events of that day. Apparently she was well aware what could happen next time: "Everything became normal again by now in the Centre, except for the surveillance, which is much more strict than before, and at the airport, where, I think, they might kill someone". But she knows even better what will happen if they ever succeed in repatriating her (repatriating is not the right word, however, since in fact she is Nigerian) to Lome in Togo. She has been given in marriage to an old man. So she starts shouting again, just as on previous occasions. She cries for help. Two of the eleven carefully picked policemen escorting her push the pillow on her face again. For fifteen minutes the ordeal goes on. The policemen joke about it. Semira Adamu's breath stuck in her throat. We won't hear her voice again, except in our memory. Belgium has just killed the third deportee in its deportation history and completes the ever longer list compiled by the international organisation UNITED, which contains thousands of victims of Fortress Europe.
As in other European countries, special prisons for refugees and migrants arose in the Belgiun in the early nineties, some years after the state took over the asylum procedure from the United Nations. There are six such detention centres now. Next to imprisonment in detention, deportees are put in ordinary prisons too. Each of these centres has its own specific category of illegals as its main objective, as in the darkest part of our history, when there were the Gypsy camps, the camps for Jews, the division between political prisoners and ordinary criminals. [back to top]
Refugees and migrants in detention camps
First, there is the centre for inadmissibles (INADS). Everybody who arrives at the airport or at any other Belgian border post (the sea ports, for example) without necessary documents such as passport and visa, can be locked up in this centre, as long as they do not apply for asylum. About one third of the 10,000 repatriations and expulsions, both in 1997 and 1998, pertained to those INADS. Testimonies confirm that many of them are in fact asylum seekers who do not know and are not informed how to apply for asylum. Some of them do, but the customs officials act as if they did not hear. Some people, especially those coming from African countries, are kept in the plane, to stop them from entering the airport hall and asking for asylum. These practices are in contradiction to the Convention of Geneva and other international treaties which Belgium subscribed to. But expulsions are a higher priority to the authorities than obedience to international treaties. Another part of the immigrants are not refugees, but can be repatriated simply because it is deemed that their papers are false, they lack transit visas or have not enough money on them. Do not think, however, that those who do apply for asylum are better off. If they do not have legal identity documents and visas, they are imprisoned in Centre 127. Officers of the Service for Foreigners interrogate them about their motives in applying for asylum. Mostly these interviews focus on the identity of the person, on how they succeeded in coming to Belgium, details about the town or region people claim to come from. Over half of the refugees get a negative decision and are deported to Centre 127bis. Mainly Africans and Eastern European refugees are held in that camp. It is situated near the airport runway and composed of a prefab building encircled by three rows of barbed wire and steel fences about four metres high, equipped with security cameras. Every two to three minutes, the noise of a plane landing impedes normal conversation. There, a second interview takes place by people from the Commissariat General. Again, a large part of the refugees get a negative decision, mostly because of small details differing from their answers during the first interview, such as the colour or make of the car which brought them to the local airport. These unfortunate people have to wait in Centre 127bis until authorities try to expel them, one, two, three, up to six times or more. If you resist, or simply if they claim you resisted during the attempt to deport you, you are brought to an ordinary prison, or another centre. The main objectives of this move are to stop people from getting into closer contact with each other, to impede an exchange of information on how to escape deportation, to give the impression that everybody who leaves the camp is effectively expelled. According to the law, you can be imprisoned for at most five months. But they can restart the procedure whenever they claim the failure to deport is your own fault; many refugees are detained for longer than five months.
Finally there are three camps, two former prisons and a modern camp, built in 1998 and in use since March 1999. Mainly people from all over the country, arrested in the street and without legal documents, are held in these centres. Life in closed camps is boring and miserable. Moreover, if people don't want to accompany guards or gendarmes for deportation, special riot police are called. This often causes trouble; people are beaten up. At the end of October 1998, a pregnant woman was beaten in the stomach, which provoked a miscarriage.
Suicide attempts and hunger strikes regularly occur. At the end of last August, a rebellion in 127bis ended in the destruction of a part of the camp. But mostly the resistance is poorly organised because of the lack of lasting contacts among the refugees. [back to top]
Slaves of the modern economy
About 25% of the refugees are released from the camps with an order to leave the country. If they don't leave the country effectively, they join the large group of paperless migrants living in the country. These people are forced to survive by illicit work. Some sectors in the economy make big money by exploiting them. It concerns mainly the textile industry in Brussels, the fruit picking business, the building industry and catering. Working conditions are severe. Long working days, lack of medical insurance, low wages and absence of insurance against industrial accidents allow employers to make fat profits. There are testimonies of people working in the fruit picking business who are not paid at all at the end of the week. The official anti-migration ideology claims that massive immigration would undermine the social security system, but in fact illegal work might be a greater danger to social insurance and minimum wages than the allowance of free migration. Moreover, the official anti-migration ideology is in open contradiction to daily practices. Some years ago, the fruit picking industry was mainly dominated by Sikhs. In 1994, the Belgian government decided to put an end to this practice. Raids took place and the Sikhs were chased off Belgian territory. The day after the operation was completed, coaches with Spanish migrants arrived and took over the Sikhs' jobs.
Western societies are based upon the exclusion of massive parts of the population to safeguard the wealth and privileges of a small elite. The control of migration is part of that policy: when certain migrants are judged to be necessary to resolve shortages on the labour market, import is organised. When it is however more profitable to delocalise industries towards Eastern Europe and Asia, factories are closed down here. To break social resistance, a racist debate is started and foreigners are said to be responsible for the crisis. It is claimed that the boat is full, but at the same time the freezers of Europe are full of food, and while thousands of people are homeless, many houses owned by the rich, who possess more than they can ever consume, are unoccupied.
The myth of being able to control migration movements also conceals the real causes of this problem. Since 1993, asylum laws have become stricter and stricter in Belgium. The official target was to deter possible entrants and to diminish the number of applicants in this way. During the period from 1994 to 1997, the number of applicants indeed diminished from 26,000 to 11,000; the Belgian authorities claimed victory. But in 1998 figures rose again to 22,000, and from January 1st till the end of August 1999, about 18,000 persons applied.The main causes are the ethnic clash in Kosovo, the ongoing discrimination of ethnic and religious minorities in Eastern Europe (among them Roma) and Turkey (mainly Kurdish people and to a lesser extent Allevites), dictatorships (mainly supported by the West and armed by the renowned Belgian arms industry), and mass poverty in Africa and Asia. Asylum seekers are treated as liars and profiteers, without evidence. On one occasion, Belgian officials were asked if they could give a good reason why hardly 25% of the refugees coming from Somalia were recognised here as refugees, while the same figure for Great Britain was over 75%. The incredible answer was that apparently only Somali liars came to Belgium, while the Somali refugees arrived in England. Not that England is so much better. Take the figures for Ruandan refugees and the reverse would apply. Exclusion policies are always partly arbitrary, and partly determined by the international political and economic agenda of the super-rich countries.
The figures just quoted on the influx give, moreover, a biased picture, since in the end less than 10% of them obtain the status of refugee. The rest are doomed to live clandestinely or are deported. By its very nature, the number of migrants is unknown. But there are some methods to make estimates. So, we know that from February 1, 1988 till the end of 1997, 118,500 demands for asylum were dealt with. 107,939 of these demands were definitively rejected (before, the United Nations had decided whether someone was recognised and hardly anyone was rejected). Part of these people were expelled, some were regularised by another procedure. The remainder live without legal status in Belgium. Besides these, we should add migrants who entered Belgium not as asylum seekers, but for example as students,in family reunion, or as tourists, and whose permit to stay expired without them leaving the country. Finally, there is the group which never claimed any legal status at all. Estimates of migrants range from the rather low figure of 50,000 to the possibly exaggerated 100,000 and even more. For comparison,let us recall that the Belgian population is slightly over 10 million.
It seems Fascist methods are in again. The murder of Semira provoked a brief delay in Belgian expulsion policy. The minister responsible resigned, shedding crocodile tears. Semira became a symbol, and more and more refugees started to resist expulsion. Large parts of the Belgian population also no longer accepted the expulsion policies. Consequently, the expulsion figures risked collapse, so new deportation methods had to be invented. During spring 1999 two private jets brought six refugees back to Africa (to Cameroon and Nigeria). But this solution, which cost about 49,600 Euro per flight, was judged to be too expensive. At the end of 1998, it had already been discovered that Eastern European refugees, and especially the Roma, were the weakest group and could not rely upon much support. A massive campaign in the press was launched to depict this group as bandits and liars. The Kosovo war caused a little interruption, but a huge expulsion program of Roma was prepared in the summer of 1999 and finalised in September.
On September 21, a meeting was organized the two officials mainly responsible for deportation policy, Roosemont and Schockaert from the Service for Foreigners, and the police chief of the city of Ghent. A night raid in the district of Ghent where many Roma lived was envisaged. On Wednesday September 22, exactly one year after the murder of Semira, a list of 150 addresses of Slovakian Roma was compiled.
On Friday 24,the government decided that mass deportation by special flights, charters or military planes could take place. In the night from 29, to 30, September,the police visited a large number of people on the list of 150 addresses and posted a letter ordering people to the means-testing benefits agency to complete their asylum file. People who presented themselves were arrested and transported by bus to the closed camp at the airport runway (Centre 127bis). In the meantime, riot police patrolled the area, and city police raided schools to arrest their children, too.
Fortunately for the protagonists of mass deportations, the e cologists have been in charge of government since July 1999. On October 1st, about two hundred people gather at the closed centre. They reclaim freedom for all refugees and are determined to resist the deportation of refugees. Only the Green members of parliament can convince them to desist, using the argument that they will not allow massive deportation of Roma, because this invokes bad memories from the past. On Tuesday October 5, 52 Roma are transported from the closed centre to the airport and another 22 from Ghent. At the airport, the gendarmes inscribe with indelible ink a number on each person's arm, to indicate their seat on the Slovakian Airlines plane. In the afternoon the international court for Human Rights in Strasbourg decides that the flight should not take 20 place, because a family is still being processed. But at 18.15 the plane nevertheless takes off. It lands during the evening in Slovakia. The Roma are transported to the ghettos they escaped from months ago. Massive discrimination and even physical elimination by fascist groups, approved by the good old conservative friends of Western European leaders in charge in Eastern Europe, continue.
We certainly know what is going on! Resistance and civil disobedience is the only possible answer. On October 3rd and October 9, small sections of the wires encircling the closed camp 127bis and the camp in Vottem (Liege) are destroyed. [back to top]
The outcasts of the world
This massive expulsion programme was accompanied, again thanks to the ecologists in power, by a new ideology. They claimed that too many errors had been committed in the past: the asylum procedure was too long, they said. But from 1993 onwards, all ministers, independently of the political faction they belong to, had successively claimed this. A short procedure led, however, to an acceleration of negative decisions. As a consequence, people could not make social contacts during their stay in Belgium. Many of them saw only the inside of the closed camps, so they were much easier to expel. In the past, many refugees, especially families who lived for years in Belgium, could count on warm support from neighbours and friends when Belgian authorities tried to expel them. To avoid such scenes, which mostly end in the regularisation of the family (if social resistance is strong enough), is the main objective of quick decisions.
The purely individual struggle for permission to stay in the mid-nineties was completed last year by a more collective approach. In different cities (Liege, Brussels, Verviers, Mons, Antwerp and Ghent) groups of Sans Papiers occupied churches. The movement took off after the example in France, where a similar campaign led to the conditional regularisation decision by the French minister Chevènement. But specific Belgian circumstances also caused this eruption. Indeed, after the murder of Semira, the Belgian authorities claimed that they would follow a new asylum policy. On October 4, 1998, a government decree was issued. It contained in fact plans for continuation of the old policy, with new, even more efficient means. So a lot of illegals - with the example in mind of Semira, who never obeyed Belgian expulsion verdicts - thought that they had to do something to retain any hope of regularisation. A first group started to occupy a church in Liège, shortly after the government decree. They asked for massive regularisation. The example was soon followed by Brussels. The political programme was vague, however. An already existing officially recognised organisation (Movement for People without Papers, MPWP), therefore got the opportunity to distribute their own political demands. They defended a conditional regularisation of people who had to wait for a decision for longer than three years or for people living in Belgium for longer than five years, on a case-by-case basis. The latter meant that only the conditions for regularisation were necessary. An in-depth investigation by employees of the Service for Foreigners, endowed with a notorious tendency towards expulsions, would be conducted before making the final verdict. This caused a big debate among the church occupants and finally led to a split in the group. But actions around churches continued to go on and gained in force: demonstrations around churches, discussions in the districts, parties in the churches, big debates. During the days following the murder of Semira, asylum policy and the situation of Sans Papiers was a hot topic in Belgium. Finally, in December 1998, the first government counter-attack took place. They indeed promised a regularisation of asylum seekers who had to wait a long time for their decision. In fact, the minister at that time, Van den Bosche, did nothing more than resume some practices initiated a year or more before. Immediately after, the MPWP tried to convince the asylum seekers to leave churches. The financial aid to accomplish their activities was frozen. Some people ,who believed that they would be legalized, started a tour through the country to explain the government decision. A group of some thousands of people without legal status applied for regularisation, thereby revealing actual places of residence. Even now, only a small part of them obtained a permit to stay. Around the churches of Verviers and Mons, demonstrators who got less media attention than the rest were arrested and detained.
Finally, only a small section of the people in Brussels succeeded in continuing their action. For a while, it seemed that a fresh wind would begin to blow when a group of Sans Papiers occupied a church in Ghent in February this year, as a counter-reaction to the conditional regularisations. They claimed "papers for all". But there too, the government succeeded in spreading discord, by separating out the so-called regularisable people. Finally, many people and organisations had to invest a lot of energy in the relief of those who would never be regularised. [back to top]
The big sell-out: regularisation in exchange for mass deportation?
In the meantime, resistance against repatriations was apparently more successful. During the months preceding the murder of Semira, a group of people went almost daily to the airport to inform passengers on the deportations. They asked people to support deportees when they asked for help. Passengers can impede take-off, for example by refusing to sit down and fasten seat belts. Also pilots were informed that transporting hand-cuffed passengers was against international conventions (such as the Tokyo convention). More and more repatriations failed, due to this resistance.
For the first time in Belgian history, effective resistance against closed centres also started. In March 1998, about 3,000 people held a protest march in Vottem (Liege) against the new closed centre, at that time still under construction. In May of the same year, the building yard was occupied by a group of activists. The police had to knock down some walls to remove the people. At the end of June, a van transporting a young Somali boy (17 years old) to the airport was stopped, but unfortunately, the deportation could not be impeded. On July 21, the Belgian national holiday, early in the morning, the fourth deportation attempt against Semira, which was already extremely violent, was undertaken. In the afternoon, Semira was enclosed in one of the special isolation cells in the closed centre 127 bis. In the evening, several dozen people gathered at the fences to support her. And then suddenly, the situation escalated: the fence was cut, and refugees succeeded in breaking the wired glass. About thirty could escape, but about ten were arrested again shortly afterwards, together with some of the activists. Finally, 21 refugees succeeded in gaining liberty, even if they are forced to live without papers up till today.
The government reacted by accelerating the repatriation of the arrested refugees. Precious was deported on August 17. Despite an attempt to stop the van, the deportation was successful. Two people were however arrested and put into jail for several days, simply because they opposed the deportation policy.Two more deportation attempts against Semira were undertaken, on August 11, and on September 22, with the well-known consequences. Shortly afterwards, resistance increased further. There was an occupation of the Belgian parliament on Wednesday September 23. Over 3,000 people demonstrated on the 24, in the centre of Brussels and on September 25, the closed centre 127 bis was temporarily closed down, because new troubles were feared in reaction to the murder. Indeed, a march was planned to the centre on September 26, after Semira's funeral, to support the friends of Semira, who were still alive, but because of imprisonment unable to to attend the funeral.
But these friends had been transported and dispersed over other centres the day before. Finally, on October 4, the day the government proposed a new asylum policy, about 10,000 people marched again in Vottem (Liege).
The government was not afraid of a confrontation policy at that time. The camp in Steenokkerzeel came into use again on October 12th. Several hundred people protested two days after, and the electricity supply to the camp was inactivated during the action. The day after, the minister of justice ordered prosecutors to repress any further action against expulsion policies. During the International Action Day against closed camps on October 24, cars were stopped and searched all round the country and more than thirty people were arrested in the centre of Brussels, on their way to a new demonstration at the Steenokkerzeel camp. One of them was in jail for six days. Reinforcement works were started at the camp in Steenokkerzeel to prevent new escapes. Violence during repatriations continued. In January 1999, some new cases of extreme violence were detected. Ironically enough, many deportees at that time were Sierra Leonian. While people tried to escape from a violent civil war there, Belgium went on importing diamonds from this country. Even worse, there are indications that the civil war was financed by profits from the diamond industry. At the beginning of July 1999, the news spread that another refugee, the young woman Francine Inamahoroo from Burundi, was beaten up so badly that she lost consciousness during repatriation (the events took place at the beginning of May, but everything had been kept quiet until then). A few days later, the bodies of two Guinean boys who had tried to flee by hiding themselves in the landing bay of a plane were found at Brussels Airport. The limit was reached, and pilots refused to co-operate further in forced repatriations.
Just at that time a new government was installed, after the elections of June 13. In order to safeguard the deportation policy, the confrontation policy was abandoned, and replaced by something which seemed even worse. The old regularisation proposal of December 1998 was repeated, but now it was accompanied by a massive campaign, sustained by the MPWP and other big associations, to convince a large part of the illegal migrants to show up and declare themselves to the authorities. A "conditio sine qua non" for regularisation was the declaration of the place of residence by applicants. Policemen would check whether they actually lived in these places. It was not even guaranteed that people who satisfied the criteria would effectively obtain a permit to stay. On the contrary, this would be judged on a "case-by-case" basis and it was confirmed that those who were not recognised would be repatriated immediately. Therefore it was approved, with the support of ecologists, that special charters and military planes, besides special line flights, could be employed for the job. In the light of similar measures in France, which led to massive deportation of Sans Papiers in exchange for the regularisation of a handful, people should have been warned. Considering the first massive deportation of Roma described earlier, we know for certain what the address lists, gathered with the aid of the so-called regularisation campaign, would be used for. But it is difficult of course to warn people; for them, the chance of possible regularisation, offered as their last chance to stay on in Belgium, might be worth the risk of collective deportation.
But part of the refugees became conscious of the fact that in the end, "papers for all" would be achieved only after collective resistance. On October 26, 1999 the occupants of the church in Brussels celebrated one year of resistance against the exclusion policies. They are determined to continue, and to convince their brothers and sisters that they are all in the same boat, and can only win their battle collectively, not by negotiating agreements which split them up, but by direct and concerted action. [back to top]
Update April 2000 - Regularisation by the architects of Fortress Europe arouses suspicion:
Belgium on the edge of a new century, but continuing old policies. Just as in France or Italy, Belgium launched a so-called regularisation campaign for certain categories of undocumented migrants. The law was published by the end of 1999. During a period of three weeks in January 2000, undocumented migrants could hand in a file. On the basis of this file, a Commission, headed by one of the most important architects of Belgian deportation policies in the nineties, will decide to whom permission to stay will be granted. In fact this practice is not new at all, since already from the mid-nineties and certainly since the aftermath to Semira's murder, a similar practice was in operation. The categories of people who can be regularised are the same as before: people who have already stayed for a long time in Belgium, people who had people who cannot be repatriated out of their own free will, either because they are too sick or because a flight towards their own country of origin or any other country they passed through is by no means possible. For the first time, however, the government succeeded into convincing a considerable number of Sans Papiers to hand in a file. Finally about 35,000 files were handed in, covering about 50.000 individuals. Not all of them were documentless people, since one could hand in a file while still involved in another procedure to obtain permission to stay. The fact that the government said that this would be the last chance for anybody to obtain permission to stay, as well as the mainstream opinion in solidarity groups that the regularisation law was a step in the good direction, may explain this relative "success".
Another interpretation of this law is however equally valid. The government knows quite well that a some undocumented people cannot be expelled, whatever might be undertaken. Therefore as many people as possible are asked to hand in a file, containing all necessary documents to repatriate people. On the basis of this file it will be decided which people can be repatriated, and who can't. The latter category will eventually obtain papers. The rest will be repatriated for sure. So, the main aim of the law is to construct a database of all migrants staying illegally in the country, in order to organise massive expulsions much more efficiently than in the past. In the meantime most of the newcomers are stopped at the border, not allowed even to apply for asylum.
During the three weeks that people could hand in a regularisation file, borders were hermetically sealed. About 1,500 asylum seekers and other migrants were arrested at the border. Nobody knows what happened to them. Some of them, halted at the Belgian-German border, are in the infamous camp of Buren. To place this in its proper context: in previous years the Belgian authorities succeeded in stopping only 3000 people on a yearly basis in a similar way. The experiment of closing borders was judged to be successful and will be repeated in the future.
In different cities (Brussels and Leuven amongst others) raids take place and people without papers are actively sought, contrary to previous policies. They are held in the camps, while new deportations on military flights are prepared (another aspect of new policies!). Many new asylum seekers are held camps, especially people from Eastern Europe and Pakistan. We estimate that one of the next collective deportation flights will be to the latter country. It is planned to spend money from the development aid budget to finance these deportations. [back to top]
Andre Bergen, October 1999