People without residence permit are one of the most excluded and exploited groups in our society. Without papers, without rights and in full economic crisis, they’re left with only one choice: a hunger strike.
23 people without residence permit are already 72 days on a hunger strike in an abandoned building at the VUB. In front of the building hundreds of students walk by on their way to class. As well as thousands of cars, each day, riding on the Boulevard du Triomphe, driving in the direction of the Brussels ring. For all these people life goes on.
Not for the hunger strikers. Their life’s been on hold for months. Their life, they no longer dare to call a life. Hence they are on a hunger strike. They want to show us that they exist, that they live. They want to obtain a number of basic rights, because what is life worth, if society does not even acknowledge that you exist?
For us it’s hard to imagine, for the sans-papiers it’s a harsh reality. In that reality they no longer can and want to live. Being exploited by employers who treat them inhumanly. Often working 12 to 14 hours a day, gaining 3/4 euro an hour. Constantly being afraid of getting caught and picked up any time soon. Because when you don’t have a permit to work, you have no other choice than working illegal.
The only one who benefits here, is the employer, he is the one who pays the lowest possible cost. The real losers are the sans-papiers, the State and us, the taxpayers, because while we pay the highest taxes in the world, the ones who exploit the people without residence permit, are left unpunished.
However, we hear no one talking about these employers. Nor about the landlords who let those people live in appalling conditions against high rents, because they know these people can’t go anywhere without a permit. We don’t hear any moaning about the Government, which flunks it’s responsibility to take on the exploitation and injustice. What we do hear is that people without residence permit have no future here, that they’re just trying to benefit from our social security and they’re blackmailing us by going on a hunger strike.
It’s easy for Secretary of State Maggie De Block, responsible for asylum and migration, to say that these people “have no future” in our country. Where was she and where were her colleagues when these people were being exploited? Some of them are staying and working in our country for ten years now. During that time they’ve worked in the toughest jobs at the lowest possible wages. Work that we no longer want to do. They made their contribution to society. When the economic crisis hits hard, they where back on the streets, literally and figuratively
In no way have they benefited from our country. How can people without any documents and without rights benefit from our society? Can someone explain this to us? It is just the other way around. Just think of the cleaners at the NMBS, 99% in the hands of the Belgian state, being treated like scum. In a recent news report we were informed about their working conditions: low wages, overtime and no right to get a break or go on holiday. Who’s the beneficiary here?
‘Blackmail’, that’s how the hunger strike is often represented by politicians and other citizens. Why? Who are they blackmailing? The state, which does not acknowledge them? The State which let’s them be exploited and sometimes itself benefits of these people’s exploitation? Is self-mutilation, both psychic and physical, blackmail? Is their suffering borne by someone at the Government or by one of the citizens of this country?
The hunger strike of those people is no blackmail. It is an ultimate act of despair. They want to show that they exist. They ask some minimum rights: a work card C and a residence permit for one year. The Secretary of State and the Belgian Government are not responding to their demands, but claim to respect human rights and even that they have a human asylum- and migration policy
In the universities of this country we learn that a number of human rights apply to all people. But when you see how these people without residence permit are treated, you know it’s a big lie. They only apply for those who have the Belgian citizenship.
We are grateful to the hunger strikers. Their resistance against dehumanization, inequality and exploitation is a message of resistance against the inhuman and unjust asylum and migration policy in our country. It is a last act to ‘take ones fate in his own hands
This is a protest against injustice and exploitation. A protest to be seen, heard and recognized and therefore willing to die, is one of the bravest deeds the sans-papiers show us. These people deserve the right to work and to stay in our country. These hunger strikers deserve a future, as does every man in this country.
Bleri Lleshi is a political philosopher and documentary maker. Wednesday the 28th of March his reportage about the hunger strikers at the VUB will be published on http://www.dewereldmorgen.be
Translated from Dutch to English by Ann Blanckaert
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