They Want Me to Fly Like a Bird: Travels in the Belgian Asylum System

A four year old sits on a double bunk bed, his legs tucked under, assiduously scrubbing his remote controlled car with a nail brush. His older brother is crosslegged in front of a small television, watching Japanese cartoons dubbed into Dutch. His father, ginger beard framing blue eyes, offers us tea.

We’re squatting on small square stools around a small square table in the small square room that father and his two sons temporarily call home.

Fedasil Sint-Truiden, a Belgian government asylum centre, hosts around 550 refugees in concrete block buildings inside a secured compound. A dusty playing field has a set of swings and monkey bars, as well as a couple of football goals on an unfair incline. Anonymous doors with a Kafkaesque numbering system lead off the echo chamber hallways, punctuated by mouldering shower and toilet facilities.

Mother and two daughters live in another room of the complex, where they have access to cooking facilities, but father has a kettle. After pouring the tea, he pulls a folder from the metal locker that holds the family possessions, and takes out an identity card, issued by the International Red Cross, when he first left his home country in 2004. It bears his name, his date and place of birth: Chechnya.

In the twelve years since that card was issued, Andrei has been travelling, searching for a new home for the family that he has raised on the road. He shows us a passport for a Chechen Republic that does not exist and tells us that his lawyer made a mistake in his latest claim for asylum. Now he has two weeks to leave Belgium.

Andrei is phlegmatic. He has been through this process before and will appeal the judgement or reapply for asylum under a different part of law or in another country. He’s worried that he’ll have to move his children yet again and he and his wife want to get them back into school as quickly as possible.

Andrei and his family have been bumped around Belgium for the past two years, not always so lucky to have the basic food and shelter that this Fedasil centre offers. They once spent a month living on the streets.

When Andrei fled to Europe from what he calls a Russian ‘concentration camp’ in Chechnya, he was a strong, hopeful young man, about my age. He is now in his forties, lost in a system he can’t escape. His children will likely inherit his limbo: born in Belgium, but without Belgian citizenship.

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Sitting at the small square table with us is Nursultan, another refugee who has ended up in Belgium for no particularly good reason, other than being a man running out of options. Nursultan, also in his forties, is a bearish man with a smile that creases up the softness of his cheeks. His family isn’t with him here, but in Turkey, the second country in which they claimed asylum. Nursultan is on his fifth.

Nursultan is an ethic Uzbek who was born and was once a successful businessman in Kyrgystan. But since the 1990s there have been ethnic tensions between Kyrgys and Uzbeks and Nursultan was caught up in the latest wave of violence in 2010.

When violence broke out in Nursultan’s town, he moved into his business premises to protect them. After surviving three days, and several attacks by local Kyrgys with petrol bombs, Nursultan ran out of food. When he left the building, supposedly under the protection of the town elders, he was knocked unconscious, kidnapped and taken to a gymnasium, where he was tortured.

After refusing to pay $100,000 in exchange for his freedom, Nursultan was badly beaten and left for dead on the side of the road near his house. He tried to take the case to court, but the investigator took the side of his kidnappers. Nursultan returned home from court to find local police waiting for him. When they recognised him, they fired bullets.

Nursultan escaped in his car, and drove cross country to Kazakhstan, then flew on to Uzbekistan, where he claimed asylum. But after two months, he was told he and his family had to leave.

While the local Kyrgyz authorities tried to launch a bogus international police investigation against him, Nursultan applied for asylum in Turkey. But after four long years waiting he still had no country.

After protesting with other Central Asian refugees against the length of the asylum process in Turkey, the Turkish authorities ordered Nursultan out of the country, saying he should be thankful they weren’t deporting him back to Kygystan.

By this time, Nursultan had written to all the embassies of Europe, begging for refuge. Only Sweden replied, with what he calls an ‘invitation to claim asylum’ – but he had to apply in the country. So Nursultan left his family to make the dangerous crossing into Europe alone, hoping that soon he would be able to give them a home.

After three months in a foetid Greek prison, Nursultan finally arrived in Sweden. Invitation in hand, he stomped triumphantly up to the home office building. But once there he was told that because he had been fingerprinted in Greece, he could not apply for asylum in Sweden.

It reminds me of Catch-22 and Nursultan laughs at the absurdity of his situation. How could he possibly arrive in Sweden without going through some other part of Europe? ‘They want me to fly like a bird,’ he says with a despairing shrug.

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Fedasil Lubbeek

These are the forgotten refugees of Europe. In all the coverage of the refugees fleeing Syria, we overlook the others. In the emergency Fedasil centre in Lubbeek, opened by the army in December, there are ten different nationalities. Most are not Syrian; most do not receive favourable asylum verdicts.

The way the international asylum system has been created causes tensions between claimants of different nationalities. Syrians are often successful in their asylum claims for good reason, but even Baghdad is now considered ‘safe’ and, despite a decade of war, Iraqis are turned away.

There seems to be no refuge here for Chechens or Uzbek-Kyrgys. The Fedasil centres are more like vast transit stations, where people wait for their plane or bus ticket home, or back to where they started. It’s like a great game of Snakes and Ladders, except there are snakes on almost every square.

One Fedasil employee (I’m keeping names to a minimum) looks pessimistic when I ask what chance these people have. Even those whose claims are successful have the odds stacked against them.

After a positive result, those granted asylum have two months to leave the centre and to find an apartment. After that, they have only another two months to find steady work before their financial support is cut off. Those without children stand a chance, Andrei reckons, but he has little hope of being able to support his family.

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The International Red Cross Centre at Sedoz sits on the banks of the Ambleve river near the pretty village of Nonceveux. The late evening sun breaks through the tall trees and the air is filled with the shouts and screams of a group of boys playing a boistrous game of football. Thirty different nationalities live here, an accidental United Nations of the unwanted.

The two friendly Red Cross employees I meet are happy to talk. ‘I love my job,’ says one middle-aged woman. ‘I meet people from all over the world.’ When I ask what the difference is between the Fedasil and Red Cross centres, she reacts almost in horror: ‘Fedasil is government!’ she exclaims. ‘We are independent, we are The Red Cross.’

Basically, she explains, this means that the police have a harder time gaining access to Red Cross centres. Legally, the Red Cross have different obligations and they can afford to be a little more free with their charges.

In a gorgeous rural setting, shaded by tall trees, with the sound of the river running past, this centre certainly feels very different to the institutional concrete block buildings of Fedasil in Sint-Truigen – and couldn’t feel further from the emergency container-shelters of Lubbeek. But the problems are still the same.

Outside in the late evening sunshine, a young Somali tells us his story, confirmed by the Red Cross employees. He’s been living in the centre for about a year since he had his asylum application interview. Every morning he’s checked the post for the result of his claim. Every morning for a year. In the last few days, he got his response: negative.

Things are particularly difficult for people from Somalia because they often lack official documentation proving their nationality. Instead, during their asylum interviews, they’re asked questions about Somali politics, geography – even the weather. Like some absurd quiz show, where a single wrong answer will end your claim.

But here the anger is directed more towards the agonising process than towards the result, positive or negative.

A former security guard from Baghdad, who used to work with the British and Americans in the Green Zone, has already been here for eight months, without even getting an interview. ‘I don’t mind to wait even one year for a positive result,’ he says. ‘But to wait without knowing whether positive or negative…’ His words trail off. ‘My whole life is on pause.’

Like us, he has a bicycle. ‘Sometimes I cycle in the mountains here,’ he says. ’20, 30 kilometers, all alone. I cycle and I sit and I smoke. It clears my mind.’ It’s certainly beautiful biking country, roads curling through steep sided valleys. But would I be happy cycling any road, no matter how beautiful, without knowing it had an end?

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Sometimes it seems to us that the only concrete thing Belgium can really offer is language lessons. Our new Iraqi friend feels silly sitting in school learning his alphabet again, squeezing alongside his eight year old classmates. But every week he attends, hoping that one day he’ll actually be allowed to put it to use.

In Brussels, we stayed overnight with Bert, an old travel buddy of mine and now working at the House of Dutch, part of the department of integration in Belgium. Among other services, House of Dutch offers free language courses to anyone who comes to live in Belgium. And, of course, refugees have been making up a larger and larger part of his student cohort.

I met Bert while studying Arabic in Tunisia. He also spent a month studying in Syria, where House of Dutch had a centre before the war broke out. I’m heartened that there are people like Bert working for the government, motivated by their genuine desire to understand and learn from other cultures.

Further down the road, on our last night in Belgium, we’re hosted by Anita, an English teacher who volunteers at the local Fedasil centre in Elsenborg, right on the border with Germany. Like Sedoz, this too commands a gloriously bucolic setting: cows lazily grazing, grass gradually growing. Imagine, then, 500 refugees popping into the quaint village shops. But the local community has overcome their understandable fears to make their temporary residents as welcome as we feel in Anita’s big old farmhouse.

It is people like Anita who bring a little relief to the sad stories of Andrei and Nursultan. While politicians do all they can to close the doors to Europe, ordinary folks open their arms. Anita’s walls are filled with photographs from a life spent travelling the world, and she only repays the hospitality that she has received. ‘I try to keep an open house,’ she says as she pours some more tea. ‘It’s better that way.’ If only our politicians agreed.

It’s not always easy to see the way ahead. Some of the people we have met will forge a new life in Belgium, helped by Fedasil, the Red Cross, and people like Anita and my friend Bert. Others will appeal their negative claims, or get bounced along to the next hopeful country: Uzbekistan, Turkey, Greece, Sweden, Belgium… Trying to find a new campsite every night is one thing; I can’t imagine what it must be like to have to find a new country.

What do you think?