Belgium is a federal state, governed by a parliamentary monarchy. It is a member and one of the founding states of the European Union; Brussels, its capital city, hosts the headquarters of several Community institutions.
While immigration to Belgium appears to be rather low, with net migration for 2019 at 50,000 more arrivals than emigrants, immigration is still a key factor. In 2018, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, 87.5% of population growth was linked to people who migrated to the country, most of them because of the free movement permitted within the EU. The majority of migrants in Belgium, now a destination country, are in fact Europeans, followed by people from Africa, Asia, America and Oceania. In 2019, there was a particular increase in asylum seekers, with an increase in applications for international protection of 18% compared to 2018 and 40.9% compared to 2017. In 2017, however, only 20% of applicants denied international protection actually left the country, while the remaining 80% remained. As a result, there was an increase in populations at Belgian detention centres and shelters, which caused quite a few protests, mainly due to the high number of unaccompanied minors detained in them.
Moreover, Belgium offers resettlement opportunities every year to a number of vulnerable refugees in need of international protection under the European programme in which it has participated since 2013: in 2019, for example, the programme enabled 239 refugees to come to Belgium, thanks also to the support of the IOM. In addition to this programme, the Humanitarian Corridors opened in 2018 following an agreement signed between the Belgian government, the Community of Sant’Egidio and all the religious authorities of the country to promote the reception and integration of 150 Syrian refugees from Turkey and Lebanon.
In addition to migration, Belgium is also a transit and destination country for men, women and children trafficked for economic or sexual exploitation. Victims are mostly from Asia, Eastern Europe and North and Sub-Saharan Africa, including Thailand, India, Romania, Morocco and Nigeria. While the Belgian Government continues to work to prevent human trafficking, it has been encouraged to step up its efforts to proactively identify victims and to create a robust data system on the phenomenon that would make it possible to analyse the efforts undertaken as well as policies in this area.
Belgium is a federal state, governed by a parliamentary monarchy. It is a member and one of the founding states of the European Union; Brussels, its capital city, hosts the headquarters of several Community institutions. It is bordered to the north by the Netherlands, to the east by Germany and Luxembourg, to the south and south-west by France and to the north-west by the North Sea. It has a land area of 30,528 km2, divided into three regions (Flanders, Brussels and Wallonia), and is mainly flat. The climate is Atlantic, characterized by moderate seasonal variations as well as climatic differences in relation to altitude and distance from the sea.
The population is 11,720,716 inhabitants (2020), of which 58% in Flanders, 32% in Wallonia and the remaining 10% in the city of Brussels region. Belgium has a growth rate of 0.67% and a life expectancy of up to 77 years for men and 82 years for women. GDP per capita is USD 51,408: thanks to its central geographical location and highly developed transport network, the country has a diversified and advanced economy offering good transport, services, manufacturing and high-tech. Finally, Belgium, with a HDI of 0.896, is 18th in the world rankings.
According to data from 2019, the country is mainly inhabited by Flemish and Walloons, followed by Italians (450,000), Moroccans (220,000) and Germans (75,000). In reality, rather than being comprised of different ethnic groups, the population comprises different communities linked to language as well as to geographical location. There are three main linguistic groups: Flemish (Dutch-speaking), Walloon (French-speaking) and German (German-speaking). The official languages are Dutch (60%), French (40%) and German (less than 1%). Thus, Flanders, where Dutch is the official language, has administrative bodies covering the Flemish Community; Wallonia, where French is the official language, is also home to the German-speaking Community; and finally there is the Brussels region, an officially bilingual French/Dutch enclave, but mainly French-speaking.
The predominant religion is Christian-Catholic. About 58% of the population adheres to the Roman Catholic Church while members of the Protestant and Orthodox Churches together make up 7% of the population. Next come Muslims (7.5%), Buddhists (0.4%), Jews (0.3%), atheists (9.3%) and some 20.5% non-believers.
Immigration is a key factor in Belgium as the country has become a destination country: in 2018, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, 87.5% of population growth was linked to people migrating to the country. In the first half of 2019, according to data provided by the World Bank, the number of migrants in Belgium amounted to 2 million, of which 50.6% were women and 49.4% men, making up 17.2% of the entire population.
Statistics also show that the proportion of migrants present in the population varies significantly from one region of Belgium to another. In fact, as of 2017, 45% of the population of the city of Brussels region was made up of migrants, compared to 15% in the Walloon region and 12% in Flanders.
The majority of migrants in Belgium are European (54%), followed by people from Africa (25.8%), Asia (15.6%), America (4.2%) and Oceania (0.1%). Moreover, the majority of migrants in Belgium come from middle-income countries (50.5%), followed by migrants from high income countries (about 45%) and finally, a very limited portion from low income countries (about 5%).
Free movement within the EU was the most important access channel for migration to Belgium in 2016 (54.6% of migrants). This was followed by family migration (27%), humanitarian arrivals (16%) and labour arrivals (2.6%). People moving to Belgium for family reunification and students are part of what can be called economic and legal migration.
In order to obtain citizenship in Belgium, there is a process of naturalisation. Among the main requirements for this is to be at least 18 years old and to be resident in Belgium for at least 3 years and to have friends, work and family, investments and debts; to be born in Belgium or to be a parent of a Belgian child and to have spent at least 3 years living together. The process of naturalisation will eventually become part of a legislative act sanctioned by the King and then published in the official journal of the national legislature.
As far as irregular immigration is concerned, the available data are much more unreliable and unpredictable. The OECD has estimated that currently (2019) in Belgium, irregular migrants could make up between 6.6.% and 13.9 % of total foreign residents in the country on average. The number of people who were apprehended without papers and subsequently detained has increased from 13,800 in 2008 to 18,285 in 2018.
To date (2019), there are about 600 people in Belgium who are defined as “migrants in transit”, as they are temporarily in Belgium without having completed any application for international protection and can therefore be considered as undocumented. The reasons why they do not initiate the necessary procedures are: the lack of information on their opportunities and rights; the fact that they have already been identified and registered in another Schengen member country to which they do not want to return; and finally, that they have a destination other than Belgium (e.g. the United Kingdom).
There was a notable increase in the number of political asylum seekers in 2019, with 27,742 applications for international protection: 18% more than the 23,343 received in 2018 and 40.9% more than the 19,688 asylum seekers in 2017. The main countries of origin have remained the same over time: Syria (25%), Afghanistan (6.5%), Palestine (5.3%), Guinea (5%) and Iraq (4%). In particular, people from Afghanistan are now becoming the largest group of asylum seekers in Belgium, with 70% more applications for political asylum between 2018 and 2019. Finally, in 2019, decisions were taken on 18,554 applications for international protection, granting refugee or subsidiary protection status to 6,719 people: the rate of approval dropped from 57.7% in 2016 to 36.9% in 2019.
Finally, Belgium offers resettlement opportunities every year to a number of vulnerable refugees in need of international protection, as part of the European Resettlement Programme in which it has participated since 2013. In 2019, for example, the programme enabled 239 refugees, all of them Syrian nationals, to come to Belgium, thanks also to the support of the IOM. Most of them (215) came from Turkey while the others came from Jordan and Lebanon. In addition, the Humanitarian Corridors opened in 2018 following an agreement signed in 2017 between the Belgian government, the Community of Sant’Egidio and all the religious authorities of the country has facilitated the reception and integration of 150 Syrian refugees from Turkey and Lebanon. These Corridors, financed by the sponsor associations, have ensured the arrival of these refugees in complete legality and safety, as well as their accommodation in special facilities or houses and the possibility of applying for asylum.
Many of the member countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, of which Belgium is a member, have low emigration rates, especially in Northern Europe. People who migrate from Belgium almost always remain within OECD member countries and most of them are students who migrate mainly to the United States and England. Moreover, in 2018, according to the Migration Data Portal, only 1% of Belgians express a desire to emigrate.
According to the United Nations, in 2017, there were about 162,626 Belgian emigrants, most of whom (76%) moved to another EU country: to France (28%), the Netherlands (10.5%), Italy (8.4%), Spain (7.9%) and the United Kingdom (6.5%). Among the most common reasons for emigration are work, education, the acquisition of language skills, family reasons and, lastly, discrimination: some young people of foreign origin have in fact left Belgium, usually to go to Maghreb countries or the United Kingdom, due to the difficulties encountered on the labour market and resulting from discrimination linked to their ethnicity and religion.
According to the National Bureau of Statistics, 166,894 people immigrated to Belgium in 2018 compared to the 116,714 who left the country, for a net gain of about 50 thousand. This was fewer than in the recent past; for example in 2010 and 2011, the net gain figure was 79,446 and 62,157 respectively. It was also less than neighbouring Netherlands, whose net gain via migration was a very positive 86,000.
In a ranking of Belgian emigration published by the National Bureau of Statistics of Belgium, the nationalities at the top are: Belgians, Romanians, French, Dutch, Polish and Italians.
According to data provided by the General Commission for Refugees and Stateless Persons in Belgium, there were 23,443 applications for political asylum in 2018, including 880 resettled refugees and 57 persons who arrived through the relocation programme, with 6,743 who had not received any response by the end of the year, 8,706 persons granted refugee status and 1,777 applications denied. There was an increase in applications for international protection of 20% compared to 2017.
Nevertheless, those who are asked to leave the country often do not follow this order: in 2017, only 20% of applicants denied international protection actually left Belgium, while 80% remained. According to the government, this has led to the need to expand the number of places available in the so-called “closed centres” by at least 446 places as well as in new centres, reaching at least 1,100 places overall, twice as many as there were in Belgium formerly. This decision has in fact provoked quite a few protests, especially since the Belgian detention centres and shelters are also meant to accommodate entire families, including children.
The number of unaccompanied minors arriving in Belgium is particularly high. In 2016, there were 1,076 applications for political asylum submitted by unaccompanied minors from Guinea (92), Syria (76), Albania (49) and Eritrea (46). In 2018, there were 7,779 minors arriving mainly from Eritrea, Afghanistan, Algeria, Morocco and Sudan with a high prevalence of boys: 89% in 2015; 84% in 2016; 86% in 2017 and finally 82% in 2018. Evidence shows that the majority of foreign unaccompanied minors (60-70%) do not apply for political asylum but are apprehended by the local authorities: these minors are often Roma, from countries such as Serbia, Bosnia and Romania, who arrive in Belgium with the aim of transiting and going further, towards the United Kingdom or Scandinavia. The remaining 30-40% apply for international protection because they are fleeing persecution in their country. Belgian legislation in this regard is a specific law for the protection of Unaccompanied Foreign Minors (2004) that defines who is an Unaccompanied Foreign Minor and specifies the identification process, the right to immediate care, the appointment of a guardian and safe placement. Experience shows that these provisions do not systematically translate into effective protection of unaccompanied refugee and migrant minors.
Finally, according to the Asylum Information Database, the importance of Belgium as a transit country for asylum seekers who are denied international protection in the Netherlands, Germany and France has been growing since 2017. Thus, when these people receive a negative response from one of the European states where they have applied, they arrive in Belgium, together with those who are only waiting to get to the United Kingdom. According to the procedures established and adopted by the European Union, in fact, an asylum seeker should seek international protection in the first EU country where he or she arrives, without continuing his or her journey elsewhere (which is usually referred to as “secondary movement”). It is this clause together with the Dublin Convention that causes many people to remain in Belgium without applying for asylum: mostly from Sudan, they have come from Italy with the United Kingdom as their ideal destination, but as a result they run a serious risk of being sent back to Italy.
According to the US Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report 2019, while Belgium fully meets the requirements and standards required for the elimination of human trafficking, there are still human traffickers targeting victims from Belgium as well as from abroad, for sexual or labour purposes.
Indeed, according to the State Research Department, around 300 or 400 cases of victims of trafficking are registered each year. In 2018, for example, the Federal Police detected 339 trafficking cases. Among the most vulnerable are asylum seekers whose applications for international protection have been denied and migrants transiting through Belgium to the United Kingdom.
Belgium is mainly a transit and destination country for men, women and children trafficked for the purpose of economic or sexual exploitation. Foreign victims come mainly from Asia, Eastern Europe, North and Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly Thailand, India, Romania, Morocco and Nigeria. Labour traffickers mainly exploit male victims in restaurants, bars, horticulture, construction and retail stores. On the other hand, sex traffickers exploit Belgian women, some recruited by local people, and foreign minors, including Roma, who are also very prevalent among the victims of forced begging. Finally, there are also traffickers who exploit foreign workers for domestic servitude. The identification of trafficked and exploited children is an even greater challenge, and remains so for Belgium today: according to the 2017 annual report of the European Council’s Expert Group on Action against Traffickers in Human Beings (GRETA), for example, only 13 trafficked children were identified in the period from 2013 to 2015.
Although the government has continued its efforts to protect victims, with the identification of 137 victims in 2017 (61 related to labour exploitation, 59 sexual exploitation and 17 other forms of exploitation) and 139 victims in 2018 (80 related to labour exploitation, 38 sexual exploitation and 21 other forms of exploitation), according to the report published by GRETA, there are still some improvements and some actions that Belgium needs to take. First of all, with regard to trafficked children: GRETA has encouraged the Belgian authorities to step up their efforts to proactively identify these victims, especially through additional courses and training for those working at the borders, as well as urging the country to take more action to prevent the disappearance of unaccompanied foreign children.
The Belgian Government also continues its efforts to prevent human trafficking. The Inter-Departmental Coordination Platform (ICP), led by the Minister of Justice, has added an addendum to the National Action Plan 2015-2019 which gives top priority to improving the identification, reporting and protection of all child victims of trafficking. The Federal Centre for Migration (MYRIA), the acting secretariat for the ICP, subsequently provided an annual report on the government’s efforts in combating human trafficking, highlighting the lack of a robust data system on the phenomenon. This makes it difficult to analyse the impact of the efforts undertaken as well as the policies. In 2018, for example, the government tried 339 defendants, including 174 accused of sex trafficking crimes, 148 for labour exploitation, 11 for forced crimes and 6 for forced begging. In the first six months of 2018, the government sentenced 71 individuals under the Trafficking Statute, 67 of whom received prison sentences (but 28 of these received total or partial suspension of their sentences), while others received no prison sentences at all. Of those sentenced to imprisonment, one was sentenced to one year, 10 from one to three years, 14 from three to five years and 13 five years or more.
As Belgium is a federal state, there are competencies that fall within the mandate of the federal state itself and those under the remit of the Regions and the Communities. Immigration and political asylum issues are usually the responsibility of the federal government, while integration is the responsibility of the Communities (although in Wallonia, the Region is responsible for integration).
The main law on migration and asylum issues in Belgium is the so-called Aliens Act and dates back to 15 December 1980. This law relates to entry into the territory, residence, settlement and removal of foreign nationals and also covers international protection procedures. The conditions for the reception and treatment of asylum seekers and other categories of foreigners are regulated by the Act of 12 January 2007, the Reception Act. In 2012, the concept of “safe country of origin” was also inserted into the Alients Act: in 2019 this list was reconfirmed with countries such as Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro, India and Georgia. Applicants for international protection from these countries must therefore submit strong grounds explaining the reason for their request.
Also important are the 2017 legislation which decreed of the Asylum Procedures Directive 2013/32/EU and the Reception Conditions Directive 2013/33/EU, which entered into force in 2018. There was an attempt to impose a daily limit on the number of political asylum registrations at the temporary registration centre “Petit-Château”/”Klein Kasteeltje” in Brussels. However, this led to hundreds of people, including families and children, standing in line for days outside the centre, and as a result this measure was officially suspended at the end of 2018. That same year, on 24 March 2018, the government decided to introduce a plan to further reduce reception capacity to 6,454 places. In the second half of 2018, however, Belgium’s reception network came under heavy pressure precisely because of this reduction, so that in September 2018 the federal government decided to postpone the previously-agreed closure of seven temporary reception centres, with the addition of 1,500 more reception places.
The high number of so-called transit migrants then led to the presentation in 2018 by the Minister of Security and Home Affairs and the Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration Policy of a 9-point Action Plan on Combating Irregular Transit Migration. This action plan resulted in police action against migrants stationed near Brussels North Station who were arrested and forecefully transferred to detention centres.
As regards human trafficking, a first anti-trafficking law was adopted on 13 April 1995 and amended in 2005, 2013 and 2016. Five purposes of exploitation are described therein: sexual exploitation, labour exploitation, forced begging, organ removal and cases of coercion to commit a crime. Trafficking in persons is punishable by a custodial sentence ranging from 1-5 years and a penalty ranging from 500 to 50,000 euros, applicable depending on the number of victims: in proportion, therefore, to the profits obtained through trafficking in persons. Since 1993, a scheme for assistance and help to victims of human trafficking has been in force, resulting from the implementation of European directives in the Belgian legal system; in 2008, it was integrated into a ministerial circular on the introduction of multidisciplinary cooperation for victims of human trafficking, which was adopted in 2016 and published on 10 March 2017. This cooperation therefore involves the police services, the Immigration Office, specialised centres for the reception of victims of human trafficking and the magistrates specialised in human trafficking cases with the aim of defining the procedures for the identification, reception and assistance of potential victims as well as the conditions necessary to obtain the status of victim.
Finally, with regard to citizenship, with the adoption of the Law of 18 June 2018, a number of amendments and provisions have been introduced concerning the Law on Citizenship for the acquisition of Belgian nationality. For example, with regard to the calculation of the period of time of residence required to apply for nationality: with the amendments made to this law, the time between applying for political asylum and obtaining refugee status is now also included in this calculation.
In Belgium, issues relating to migration policies all fall within the competence of the federal government. Among the government bodies involved in anything related to migration and political asylum are the Ministry of Security and Interior, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which deals with forced return agreements for example, and the Ministry of Asylum and Migration.
The institutions working in the field of asylum and migration are primarily the Department of Immigration, the Office of the Commissariat General for Refugees and Stateless Persons and the Council for Disputes on Aliens Law. While the first deals with the receipt of the applicant’s application for international protection and handles all matters relating to that application, the Office of the Commissioner General for Refugees and Stateless Persons remains the independent and central authority for asylum in Belgium, and has investigative powers and respnsibility for the final decision. Finally, the Council for Disputes on Aliens Law is responsible for appeals against decisions concerning asylum procedures.
There is also the Federal Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers (FEDASIL) which is responsible for the reception and treatment of asylum seekers and coordinates the various
voluntary return programmes and the Federal Migration Centre (MYRIA), an independent public institution which has become the national rapporteur on human trafficking. Their mandates include promoting the fight against trafficking and exploitation of human beings, informing the authorities of the nature and extent of migration flows, and protecting the fundamental rights of foreign nationals.
The Belgian Episcopal Conference established the Episcopal Commission Pro Migrantibus and entrusted it with the pastoral care of migrants. Under the chairmanship of the Bishop, the Commission brings together the vicars or episcopal delegates responsible for the dioceses of Belgium, the delegates of the Catholic communities of foreign origin, the delegates of the Eastern Rite Churches, Kerkwerk Multicultureel Samenleven, Missio and the coordinator of the Polish mission in Belgium.
The Episcopal Commission Pro Migrantibus exercises its mission through:
The Catholic Church in Belgium has always been particularly attentive to the issue of migration. Caritas Internationalis, for example, has three organisations in Belgium: Caritas International Belgium, Caritas Vlaanderen (Catholica Flanders) and Caritas Francophone (Caritas Catholica en Belgique).
The first is the largest of the three and is responsible for international solidarity, including care, development aid and assistance to migrants and asylum seekers. Its main office is located in Brussels and has about 100 employees and 200 volunteers working there on behalf of its services and mission. Caritas Vlaanderen and Caritas Francophone are regional organisations that on the one hand manage everything related to identity, pastoral care, voluntary work and the fight against poverty, while on the other hand they bring together the organisations of the diocesan Caritas, solidarity organisations (including Caritas International Belgium) as well as other federations for access to health and social care services (hospitals, retirement homes, childcare facilities, etc.).
Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) is active throughout Belgium through JRS Belgium. Established in 2001, JRS Belgium became a non-profit association (ASBL) on 4 December 2007: the Board of Directors is responsible for the management and operation of the association and consists of six members elected by a General Assembly. Its objectives include promoting hospitality and accompanying and defending refugees and forced migration in detention centres. With permission from the Aliens Office to visit the detention centres, JRS Belgium has weekly access to 4 of the 5 detention centres, where they can listen to detainees, offer them psychological and mental support and provide them with information in defence of their rights.
The Belgian capital is also home to a number of other Catholic Church organisations that facilitate dialogue with European institutions, such as JRS Europe, which was established in 1992 with its regional office in Brussels and has provided assistance to 58,351 people in 19 European countries, including Belgium (through JRS Belgium). In addition to coordinating the various national offices, JRS Europe works on the defence of refugee rights as well as their access to political asylum procedures. Caritas Europa, part of the global network of Caritas Internationalis, is one of the main social actors in Europe with 49 member organisations and present in 46 European countries. The latter is very active among Brussels-based civil society and its collaborations include CISDE, which brings together 18 Catholic social justice organisations operating in 120 countries around the world, and COMECE, the Commission of European Community Bishops’ Conferences, made up of bishops delegated by the Bishops’ Conferences of the 27 EU Member States. The latter, with its Secretariat based in Brussels, monitors the political processes of the European Union in all areas of interest to the Catholic Church, including migration and political asylum with the defence of the rights of migrants and refugees. Migration and political asylum are in fact one of the five working groups of COMECE, made up of experts in the field elected by the Bishops’ Conferences with the task of monitoring and contributing with statements and activities to the European debate on EU policies related to these phenomena. To this end, COMECE analyses European policies on a daily basis in order to bring the contribution of the Catholic Church into discussions with the institutions of the European Union. Among its most recent contributions concerned the renewal of the European Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy (2020-2024) in 2019. COMECE’s position encouraged the European Union to increase its commitment to certain categories including the fight for the rights of asylum seekers and migrants and against trafficking in human beings.
COMECE is also among the Brussels-based partners of the Jesuit European Social Centre (JESC), which reflects and comments on the events of Europe from a faith perspective. It maintains relations with the EU institutions and partners in Brussels, and contributes to the events of Europe coming from the perspective of Catholic social thinking.
Among the other Catholic organisations based in the capital, there is Don Bosco International (DBI), an office of the Salesian Congregation working in defence of the rights of young people before European institutions, especially with regard to poverty and social inclusion, migration and transition from school to work. With specific regard to migration, Don Bosco International
promotes the reception of migrants and refugees arriving in Europe through inclusion and integration programmes.
The ecumenical organisation Churches’ Commission for Migrants in Europe based in Brussels has among its main objectives the promotion of awareness of the situation of migrants as well as of other ethnic minorities in Europe, providing information to Churches and public opinion on the situation so as to encourage an exchange of experiences between them and minorities, and the protection of the fundamental rights of migrants and other minorities.
Finally, in Brussels there is also the office of the International Catholic Migration Commission, a non-profit organisation active on matters concerning refugees and migrants. The organisation’s mission is to protect and serve uprooted people, such as refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons, victims of trafficking and migrants, regardless of their religion, race, ethnicity or nationality.
Among the organisations that actively operate in Belgium and of which the country is a member, there are the European Migration Network, the International Organisation for Migration as well as UNHCR.
The European Migration Network working for Belgium has staff members from the Immigration Office, the Office of the Commissioner General for Refugees and Stateless Persons, MYRIA, and Fedasil, which provide objective and reliable information on asylum and migration in Belgium and the European Union. The IOM in Belgium is represented by the National Office for Belgium and Luxembourg and deals with the development of programmes and projects, such as voluntary return, reintegration and resettlement of refugees, in cooperation with institutions such as Fedasil, the Immigration Office, the European Commission and the Ministry for Social Integration.
Other organisations There are several international organisations dealing with migration and asylum and the fight against human trafficking. NGOs include PICUM (the Platform for International Cooperation on Irregular Migrants), ECPAT International (which coordinates research, advocacy and action against the trade and sexual exploitation of children), Child Focus – Foundation for Missing and Exploited Children, Samilia Foundation (against slavery) and Flemish Refugee Action, which defends the rights and interests of refugees and asylum seekers while seeking to raise awareness of their situation. International NGOs based in Brussels also include European Women’s Lobby, Missing Children Europe, Save the Children Alliance, Terre des Homme Liaison Office with the European Union, and the EU Red Cross office.