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BELGIUM: THE UNDOCUMENTED WORKERS’ CALL FOR JUSTICE IS YET TO BE HEARD – Interview with Ahmed Manar

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L’USPR represents a movement of undocumented people in Belgium, who started occupying the Béguinage Church and sites at ULB and VUB Brussels universities in January 2021. From 23 May 2021 to 21 July 2021, over 400 undocumented workers have been on hunger strike to demand clear regularisation criteria, and the establishment of a commission to process regularisation requests. Despite large mobilisations around the strike, demonstrations, petitions and international pressure, national authorities failed to start a dialogue. In July 2021 the government promised to add new clarification elements in the assessment of the regularisation files and the hunger strike came to an end. More than 400 applications have been sent, but the majority were rejected. The movement continued the mobilisation and brought a case against the Belgium state, which was rejected by the court. The story of the Sans- Papiers is a symbol for how underrepresented communities do not have access to civic space. Nevertheless, they are determined to continue standing up for their rights. 

The interview with Ahmed Manar, spokesperson, L’Union des sans-papiers pour la régularisation (UPSR) was carried out in the summer 2021 as part of the report Activizenship #6.

 

 

How did the undocumented worker’s movement for regularisation start?

The undocumented worker’s movement is an informal movement that started 6 years ago. We have as a project to organise ourselves by creating a more permanent structure through registering the association to strengthen our credibility. We started with small demonstrations without much impact on government policies. Undocumented workers were not heard. We needed to establish a balance of power, mobilise the media, the public opinion and work with academics to make politicians accountable.

One of the most significant events was the opportunity that the collective created to challenge the Minister of Employment. Activists presented a report that explained how undocumented workers could fill the structural shortage in certain sectors of the economy. When the Minister did not react, activists demonstrated in front of his office and met with him to question the lack of action. He replied that he was not prepared to shock public opinion. This clearly meant that he did not want to alienate a part of the electorate that supports racist views. It is important to distinguish between people and ideology. People who hold this type of opinion and refuse, for example, to support the regularisation of undocumented workers are themselves victims of such ideology. These people must be given the opportunity to understand the situation of undocumented workers, and for this to happen they must meet with them, listen to them and speak to them.

A second important moment in the history of the movement is the health crisis that we are experiencing. Undocumented workers have been particularly affected as the pandemic was the channeling event that pushed and abandoned them into extreme precariousness. Yet they were at the forefront of the response to the COVID-19 crisis. They made and distributed masks on a voluntary basis for example. Additionally, most of their jobs that required them to continue working, exposing them to higher sanitary risks (personal assistance, delivery, construction, etc.). However, this did not change the government’s position.

There is a real paradox: authorities and society in general appreciate the work of undocumented workers and benefits from it, but they do not recognise them.

When undocumented workers are employed on a construction site they are exposed to accidents as any worker. However, contrary to other workers, if they have an accident, they are not covered by the health system. Another situation that illustrates the precarious situation of undocumented workers is in case of forced return to their country of origin. When authorities take these decisions, they do not take into account the life that undocumented workers created in Belgium, their personal situation, their relationships and the roots they have developed.

Another key step of the movement is the beginning of the occupation of the Saint Jean Baptiste au Béguinage church, the campus of Université Libre de Bruxelles, as well as the national theatre together with artists and sex workers.

What was needed to mobilise people to join the movement?

During the global health crisis, authorities and media did not question the fate of the most vulnerable, including undocumented workers. The impact of the crisis on undocumented workers was made invisible. This is one of the reasons we decided to make our cause visible.

The 2009 regularisation did not provide the expected results. Undocumented workers were given a 1-year residence permit and a special work permit that requires the person to work for the same employer for 5 years. The fate of the person is therefore linked to the fate of the company. For that reason, many were unable to keep their residence permit.

These are some of the reasons we mobilised. We are 475 people, and we created an electroshock that alerted international press about the situation of undocumented workers in Belgium. 475 people remains a small number, however we manage to stir the media and the public which helped to mobilise people for our actions.

In general, were members of the movement active in civic actions? What motivated them to act, and do they consider themselves to be human rights defenders?

In the occupations the majority of people were not militants before joining the movement, simply undocumented workers. The occupiers became activists out of necessity. Joining the movement was a question of survival for them. We carried out awareness-raising work with activists. These past few months really taught them to see themselves as activists and rights defenders.

A question about your personal background, how did you join the occupation organised by the Union of Undocumented Workers for Regulation movement? What was the most difficult part?

I also became an activist despite myself. I was an undocumented worker for 10 years with no experience in activism. I have a job but whenever I have time, I answer calls from collectives. After hearing about the occupation, I joined the activists. I started as a simple occupier, then organically others asked me to take part and represent the movement at meetings with supporters. A lot of this representation work is done alone, but the consultation process for the decision making is very important for the movement. Indeed, decisions have always been taken democratically by the occupiers. Finally, I continued to respond to calls from activists from other causes such as sex workers, health workers because I believe in the convergence of struggles.

Did you see any negative narratives circulating about undocumented workers especially at the level of political parties and the media?

We have suffered several forms of blasphemy, insults, slander from individuals on social media but it has been minimal in terms of numbers.

Moreover, some media identified us as homeless people looking for a roof over our heads, to delegitimise our cause and our political demands. However, after our actions, the media relayed our message in a pragmatic and honest manner. We managed to be very present in the media as our struggle was mentioned in the media in 32 countries.

How did you experience demonstrations? Have you seen any forms of repression during the mobilisations, if so, what were they and by whom?

The first thing to say is that the declaration to submit in order to lawfully demonstrate was a simple procedure. We only had to respect the health protocol and declare the route of the demonstration and in the majority of cases the declaration was approved.

Regarding the repression, the only ones we have experienced were from the police forces, which implement instructions and techniques that constitute a hindrance to our right to protest. We have suffered excessive use of violence and tear gas. There have been arbitrary arrests, notably at the end of April 2021, 66 people were arrested at the end of the demonstration when they tried to join the occupation location. Indeed, Brussels police implemented techniques to make demonstrators take different a route to access the occupation in order to encircle them via the “nasse” technique and arrest them.

How would you describe your relationship with the authorities, in particular the national government? How did the negotiations with the government go? What arguments did they put forward to refuse your demands?

From the beginning, our demands were not welcomed. At the beginning of April 2021, we handed over our demands to the Secretary of State on asylum and migration but unfortunately, he did not follow up. He was stubbornly attached to a case-by-case policy which maintained the blockage. This is the reason that the occupiers decided to start our hunger strike. The government has called this action a suicidal act, yet in our view this hunger strike is a form of struggle and militancy to make our voice heard against a deaf government. Indeed, this hunger strike follows 6 months of demonstrations and 7 months of occupation which did not convince the government to open a discussion with us.

The effects of the hunger strike have been devastating for many and irreversible for some. We suffered neurological and psychological disorders, fainting, post-traumatic syndrome, kidney failure, depression, suicide attempts… All this happened as a result of the government’s declarations. When we made a step towards the Prime Minister by sending a letter in order to open channels of discussion and negotiation, he referred us to the Secretary of State despite the seriousness of the situation. Following this second rejection, the activists decided to close the doors of the occupations and to start a thirst strike. When we reached an agreement with the Secretary of State on the elements of clarification it was very difficult to convince the activists in each occupation to stop their thirst and their hunger strike as they wanted to continue the fight. They finally decided to stop their thirst strike and suspend their hunger strike.

What concessions did the government make on 21 July 2021? What are you planning now?

Our discussion with the government took place with a facilitator who unfortunately was specialised in issues relating to migrants and asylum seekers and not in the regularisation of undocumented workers. For this reason, the volunteer lawyers decided to approach the Immigration Office, with whom they were able to negotiate the inclusion of clarification elements in the regularisation files as well as the admissibility of claims made from Belgium’s territory and not the origin country. These clarification elements aim at showing the roots built in Belgian society. While non-exhaustive, these elements include familial and social ties, integration, the person’s abilities and potential.

Despite the political context and the reluctance of the government we obtained a discussion. The fact that we were able to secure these clarification elements is an important victory. Moreover, if we had continued the hunger strike there would have been deaths among the activists and our movement is not there to bury people but to help them live decently though regularisation. Our movement has shown bravery despite the constraints.

We hope that the people who will take over the movement will be able to continue on this basis to reinforce these gains and obtain further improvements for the situation of undocumented workers. We need to give hope to other undocumented workers around the world and show that it is necessary to take the issue in our hands and make the change we want to see.

On the basis of these clarification elements, we are creating the files for each undocumented worker wishing to ask for regularisation. We then submit them to the authorities and wait for the answers.[1] It was planned that we would evacuate the church on 15 August, but we convinced them to let us stay until the end of September.[2] Indeed, we decided to maintain the occupations until the files were answered. This allows us to retain a certain political pressure and nurture the solidarity that developed among activists. We hope that the occupiers will not have to resume the hunger strike which has only been suspended.[3]

The mental health aspect was especially difficult when it came to the creation of the files. Emotionally and psychologically, it was the most difficult part as it is an impossible task to summarise and prove a person’s life on paper. This paper file system does not express the reality of a person’s life, and the government does not understand this. While going through a difficult recovery journey both physically and psychologically, activists had to compile their file and get various documents from numerous administrative bodies. We were able to mobilise two coordinators to help us with the workload that was involved in carrying out initial checks of the documents before sending them to the volunteer lawyers. We were also available to answer the many questions that activists had (administrative, legal, etc.). Therefore, the creation of the files came in on top of the rest of the activities we were leading which led to a period of increased stress.

What kind of support did you receive from organisations at local, national or European level? Can you identify supports at European level that could help to move the cause of undocumented workers forward?

During the 5 months of the occupation, we had mostly local support and some support at regional level. When we had received media attention, we also secured some support at national and European level (France, Spain, Italy).

Undocumented workers are confronted with measures of repression and expulsion. The discussion often results in a dead end. We need to join forces with institutional support because, ultimately, the problem is structural, and all institutions need to be involved and take a stand on this problem.

People such as MEP Pietro Bartolo which has shown great solidarity with undocumented workers, can make things happen. He made an important step by coming to the church and standing with undocumented workers. His position as an MEP can help move forward the national discussion and pass this political blockage by working at a European level as it is a European struggle.

If we succeed, all our supporters succeed with us in advancing the undocumented workers cause.

The interview was carried out on 16 September 2021.


[1] Update: more than 400 applications have been sent. On 5 November, the Foreign Office announced it had sent a first package of replies. Of these 22, only 5 are positive, and the majority relate to applications for medical reasons, rather than residence and work permits under the mechanism of article 9bis of the 15 December 1980 law. The responses indicate that several of the government’s assurances around how the applications would be treated have not been respected. People whose applications have been refused have been given an obligation to leave the territory.

[2] The Béguinage church asked the activists to vacate the space before the 28 February 2022.

[3] Five former hunger strikers took legal action against the Belgian state, represented by the Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration, Sammy Mahdi, before the Brussels Court of First Instance. They argued a breach of the agreement reached on 21st July 2021 regarding the clarification elements. On the 2nd of February 2022 their claim was rejected by the court.