Brussels (Brussels Morning) Belgium, considered by many migrants to be a destination offering prospects of permanent immigration and settlement, faces multiple new challenges given its size and potentially new flows of migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and other regions.
Brussels Morning spoke to Belgium’s Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration, Sammy Mahdi about the current situation regarding migrants in Belgium and Europe in general, as well as the weaknesses of Europe’s migration policies, plus the lessons that have been learned to date, and future prospects.
Sarhan Basem (S.B.): Given that Belgium is a very small country, one that is viewed as a safe destination offering permanent immigration, is this sustainable situation or might there be changes in the future?
Sammy Mahdi (S.M.): Well, we are a country that attracts migration, but migration is a fact of life in countries all over the world. When you don’t have any kind of migration, you can have problems like what’s happening right now in the UK, for example, where a lack of migrant labour means people are waiting for gas at the gas station for hours, because there’s no one working there. Or when you go to the supermarket you get exactly the same problems. So, there’s always a need for migration… And of course, there’s a need for solidarity in the world. Belgium will always do its fair share, but it needs to be a fair share. And right now, there’s pressure on some European countries – especially on Belgium — which makes it difficult for the international system to stay as it is. Belgium does a lot, in fact, you could say it does a bit more than it has to.
S.B.: After the Taliban took over Afghanistan, a lot of Afghan people have been trying to migrate to Europe, especially to Belgium. Does Belgium have a quota for receiving Afghans seeking asylum?
S.M.: We don’t work with a quota in Belgium. I often say that I am jealous of Justin Trudeau. Canada is a country where you can easily say that you will take 10,000 to 15,000 people in and do your fair share. The problem is that we live in a small country where you have a lot of asylum seekers coming here in different ways. It presents quite a challenge for a small country such as mine when, on average, you have 25,000 people applying for asylum every year. So you need to have a system in which Europe protects its borders from the huge amount of people who are seeking protection but are not in need of protection. And if you do that, if you strengthen your borders, you can do whatever you have to do to help those who are in real need of humanitarian aid. And regarding Afghanistan, I think that we need to make sure that we don’t make the same mistake as the one we made with Syria.
We do need to see to it that people get protection as fast as possible. When someone has to cross over six, seven, eight or nine countries before having protection, then clearly you don’t have a good international system. So, ensuring that people have protection in their own region is better all around.
S.B.: You mentioned Syria. What about the lessons learned from the deterioration of the security situation there in 2015 and the impact that had on the overall immigration situation and in Belgium?.
S.M.: The first lesson is that you shouldn’t wait before handling it. When we talk about Syria, we often talk about 2015, but actually, problems in Syria started way before 2015. Had the European Union handled the Syrian issue immediately in 2011, you wouldn’t have the same problems as those we faced four years later. And that’s what we are trying to do right now with Afghanistan, by not waiting for four years, by making sure that people can seek protection in the region rather than going to a second or third or fourth country. We must also make sure that the European system is fixed because right now, the way that we’re handling migration is putting a lot of pressure on the European countries. As for myself, it is important that everyone in need of international protection should receive it, but the way that happens right now is not as it should be. People shouldn’t have to cross seven countries before asking for asylum. You need to have a system where people receive protection as soon as possible in their own region. There’s got to be protection at the border, screening at the border, so that people who are really in need of protection inside the European Union are screened there. There must be solidarity among all European countries. And that’s not the case right now. Even inside the EU, there are some countries that do more than others. If you look at the numbers, a small country such as mine is proportionately taking in more migrants, taking in more asylum seekers than some of the frontline countries at the borders of Europe.
S.B.: Belgium is among the countries that decided to reduce the number of visas to people. Why this sudden change?
S.M.: I don’t know about the visa decision. Not as far as I know, but in any case, you need to have a good collaboration with all European countries. What we see nowadays is that Europe is not working together as a group. We often work individually, even when we talk about overall returns. You have to know that of all the people asking for asylum in any European country, two-thirds of them don’t need international protection. So, they receive a negative answer. And then we have to try to send them back to their country of origin. And that’s a tough job. If you want to make the job less tough, then, first of all, let’s make sure that we screen people at the border, and secondly, let’s make sure that when we negotiate return agreements with countries of origin, that all European countries negotiate together. I don’t want to negotiate alone with countries of origin, and see the same job being done by the other 26 EU member states. Let’s work as a European Union, so that at some point, when there are countries of return for example who don’t want to collaborate, then there would be the possibility of having sanctions or visa sanctions. Countries that don’t work like they should, that ignore international law, should be liable for sanctions.
S.B.: Do you foresee any specific impacts from the German or French elections on the migration situation in Europe?
S.M.: Let’s see. You have elections in all the European countries all the time. In the Netherlands, they’re having negotiations right now to form a new government. Certainly any member state election can have an impact on the EU as a whole. My analysis is that there’s a shift happening in Europe regarding the vision of migration. In 2015, looking at countries like Greece, the situation was completely different than the one you have right now. I think a lot of European countries are learning from what happened six years ago. Many want to do their work in a proper way. We need to have a realistic and a strict approach to migration, lest we get swept up by populist views such as those now prevalent in parts of the east of Europe about migration and refugees. You’ll see a shift in any European country. That’s why you really need to fix the migration issue, because, of course, elections in France, Germany, Poland, Belgium could always affect the way Europe is looking at migration and the way Europe is looking at itself.
S.B.: In countries like Sweden, certainly five or six years ago, an application for asylum would be dealt with in a period of six months. In Belgium, it takes up to three or four years. Why not shorten the waiting time? Surely it would ease the financial and social burden on the system?
S.M.: Well, the ambition of Belgium is to reduce the time to have the desired procedure here at Belgium as well. However, in order to do so, we need to take some steps. First of all you need to have enough employers, making sure that files can be treated as fast as possible. So, we invested in our services to make sure that the job can be done. Secondly, you need to have a good migration framework. And that’s why we’re working on a migration code, a new migration law, where the rules are as clear as possible. On average, people wait for one year to see if their application is successful. True, some wait for two or three years and yes, some have waited 10 or 12 years. And why is that? Well, often because the framework is not as clear as it should be. And people go to the court because they don’t agree with the decision that has been taken. And when an applicant goes to appeal, that can lead to a series of appeals, the accumulation of which is breaking the system. We need to make sure that applicants get the answer as fast as possible, and when the answer is negative, the decision needs to be as fast as possible, and when I talk about the decision, it is a return. That needs to be effectuated as fast as possible as well.
S.B.: A few months ago, people from Gaza were refused on grounds that they were registered with UNRWA, which affords them protection. Now UNWRA-affiliated applicants are being prioritised. Why the change? Is it for technical or political reasons?
S.M.: Regarding the procedures in Belgium, it is the CGRA who takes care of all the procedures. We are one of those countries in Europe where the decision is not political. It is an independent service. CGRA is taking care of every asylum procedure, taking full account of the risks in the countries of origin, as they conduct the interviews with asylum seekers to ensure that the procedure is done in a proper way. Of course they have to look at the situation in the country of origin, and into the way that organisations in the field like UNRWA, are doing their job. When UNRWA doesn’t receive funding from some donor countries, like when the US reduced its contributions in the past, that can impact on the decisions CGRA takes. When there’s a new investment in UNRWA, as happened under the new US President, that also has an impactl. But all of this happens independently of the politics in Belgium. CGRA is always independent in the decisions it makes.
S.B.: Might Belgium at some point in the future adopt the Canadian model of skilled immigration?
S.M.: Of course. When you mention Canada, again, I love Canada. But to become like Canada, I have to protect my borders. Canada has protected its borders without doing anything. They have the ocean. The ocean is their border, so it is easy for them. I’d love to do the same, but first of all, we need to protect our borders. Once they are protected, of course, for me personally and for my country, it is extremely important to work on intelligent migration, being neither against migration nor in favour of every kind of migration. You need to have intelligent migration. And there are some jobs where we really are in need of people from across the globe who could reinforce and strengthen our laboir market.
S.B.: Some countries are considering sending asylum seekers back to Greece. Will that be the case with Belgium, or does it depend on individual cases?
S.M. Of course we always look at individual cases, but they’re still needs to be a possibility to send people back to Greece. The court has confirmed that there still is a possibility of sending send asylum seekers back to Greece. There’s a Dublin procedure in Europe, and it is important if you look at it. If I ask you what are the first countries to receive the most asylum seekers? If you look at it rationally, most of them would be at the border of Europe, the frontier states, and then those who are next to the frontier states, and then countries next to them, but that’s not the case. If you look at it, Belgium is in the top five proportionally of the countries with most asylum seekers. I don’t understand it. I want to do my job, and I want to make sure that we do our fair share, but we do more than our fair share. And that gets problematic. We need to make sure that countries such as Greece, which is under a lot of pressure really, receive help from the EU. That includes making sure that there are possibilities for asylum seekers in front-line countries to be well-educated, to receive the integration procedure like any other person, to be protected like any other person, and we need to invest in those countries. But the system is broken at the moment. Someone who receives protection in a front-line country must be treated properly so that they don’t come to Belgium and ask for asylum again because they don’t want to stay in Greece or Italy. The fact that they want to be at Belgium gets problematic. I want to make sure that someone who really is in need of protection receives it, but when you are granted the status of refugee in a country and you are safe, you shouldn’t come to Belgium.
S.B.: What are the gaps in the EU’s migration policies?
S.M.: First is the fact that two-thirds of all asylum seekers don’t need international protection. We need to make sure that it is not two-thirds. This is not a good thing for migrants as well. Crossing an ocean, crossing six or seven countries in order to ask for asylum? Waiting for one year and then receiving a negative answer and then going back to your country. It shouldn’t happen. So you need to strengthen your borders. Secondly, return agreements should be fixed on an EU level, not on a national level. We all negotiate individually, and Europe is harming itself by not working together. So that’s what we need to do. And thirdly, we need to work on better relationships with countries of origin. We shouldn’t only talk with them about return policies and keeping people in other countries. We need to look at how we can establish relationships in which we strengthen these countries as well. Europe needs to work on a Marshall Plan, but for Africa. Europe needs to work on better relationships with neighboring countries such as Turkey and with the Middle East. If we do so, and if we strengthen these countries, there will be less need for people to migrate to Europe.