Refugees and asylum seekers, mainly from Taliban-governed Afghanistan, have now been forced to live on the streets of Brussels for many months due to longstanding bottlenecks in EU migration policies.
Meanwhile, EU leaders are set to gather at the Europa building in the Belgian capital on February 9 for a two-day summit where issues surrounding migration will be deliberated on.
For Shinwari, an Afghan army captain who is fleeing the Taliban and who now lives in a makeshift tent camp close to Petit Chateau—a government reception center for migrants—the situation is not only desperate but is a reflection of the failure of the European Union’s policies geared towards migrants and asylum seekers.
“It is very cold. Some guys have different diseases, and many of us are suffering from depression because we don’t know what will happen tomorrow,” says 31-year-old Shinwari, who left behind his wife and four children in Afghanistan to flee the Taliban hunt for soldiers like him who worked with NATO countries.
“They search houses. No one’s life was safe. They have already once told my family, ‘your son has taken refuge in an infidel country.’”
Sadly, the reception that Shinwari—and tons of other refugees and asylum seekers in Brussels—has been given by the EU is largely characterized by indifference and even hostility.
“Unfortunately, no one gets to hear our voices,” Shinwari says as he sits inside his tent with a half-dozen other ex-members of the Afghan military currently seeking refuge in Brussels.
In the run-up to the February 9 EU summit, the vocabulary of EU leaders has been much more about “strengthening external borders,” “border fences,” and “return procedures” than about finding ways to make conditions better for people like Shinwari.
EU leaders had previously stated that a complete breakthrough on EU migration policies would not occur before bloc-wide elections, which are slated for June 2024.
Other Afghan ex-servicemen like Roz Amin Khan, who are taking refuge on the streets of Brussels, also feel the tangible uncertainty.
“The situation is not good here. If the Red Cross brings food, we will have something to eat, but if not, then many don’t have anything,” says Khan, who fled Afghanistan’s Laghman province and arrived in Belgium two months ago.
The lack of help for most refugees has been a cause of concern for nongovernmental organizations and the European Third Sector in general.
“Between the legal framework and the situation on the ground, there is a world of difference,” Clement Valentin, a legal advocacy officer at the CIRE refugee foundation. “There is this gap, and it is tough to understand — for the NGOs and for me.”
“But I cannot even begin to comprehend how tough it must be for Afghans here in Belgium, or other European nations, to understand this.”
The legal bottleneck is EU-wide and not just in Belgium. Last year, 330,000 unauthorized attempts were made to enter the EU, the highest figure in six years. In its latest report for November 2022, the EU’s Agency for Asylum announced that “the gap between applications and decisions had reached the largest extent since 2015” and was widening still.
It said more than 920,000 cases were still pending, a 14% annual increase.
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