535884_391877080908469_490084056_nMigration, particularly of the sans-papiers, was the focus of Other Voices on the 7th of February 2013. On a small, somewhat clumsy attic, a group of listeners was organised around the following speakers: Ammar Ayoub, a former sans-papiers, Thomas Swerts, a political sociologist and Zoé Genot a member of parliament of the party Ecolo. And it was here, through those speakers, that I learned for the first time (first time in the sense that I heard this through the mouth of reliable a trustworthy sources) what Belgian democracy looks like for migrants.

The first speaker was Ammar Ayoub, whose story made me fume with indignation about the injustice in the world, which apparently is not unfamiliar with the Belgian community either.

Ammar Ayoub, a well educated Syrian young man was forced to leave his country because of political persecution. And as so many political refugees, he was threatened with death because he was involved in political actions against the sitting president. So he was chased by the secret police. He risked to be locked up for being critical about the president. He was imprisoned for some time and once out of prison Ammar decided to ask asylum in Belgium, seeking for protection. His idea of Belgium was a democracy, respecting of human rights etc. But his experiences taught him different things about this country of ‘milk and honey’.

His first year in Brussels was terrible, chaotic and there was no track left of humanity. Ammar had to find ways to survive on his own in Brussels. At the university of Leuven where he went to ask information to continue his studies in law, he was utterly crushed by the secretary who told him flat in his face to go back to his country, that Belgium wasn’t the country of milk and honey (yes she is right here).

His interview in asylum centre was no success both as it resulted in his imprisonment in Liège and afterwards sent back to Germany (as he entered Europe through Germany) where he was locked up for three weeks. Contact with the extern world was forbidden, his only right being to talk to a lawyer. But even that was not respected; his lawyer turned up when it was too late to appeal.

What surprised him the most, was that the truth seems of no importance at all. It struck Ammar as well to find out that the talks of politicians who overflow of statements about human rights, democracy and all other nice promising talks contradict mostly the reality. Belgium, the so-called country of honey. Only for some.

Chicago: another view on the struggle of sans-papiers

In his PHD, Thomas Swerts compared the status of undocumented people in Chicago and Brussels. Surprisingly it appeared that non-citizens in US have many more chances to being treated well than those who arrive in Brussels. Why is this? How come that such a little city, the so-called capital city of the Europe, does not manage to deal better with this issue? Well the answer of Swerts was very clear.  The Belgians struggle to stabilize their own politics as the opinions in the political world are too fragmented. Putting in place a correct and human migration policy doesn’t find support under the pressure of nationalist parties such as N-VA.

Politicians pay no attention to the voices of immigrants or to those who support those immigrants. The story of Ammar is the poignant example of this. Zoé Genot, a Member of Parliament, confirmed this harsh and at the same time negligent behaviour of the politicians. There seems to be a tendency to say ‘no no no’! Whenever someone in the Parliament propose to revise the migration policies in Belgium: “Politicians don’t try to solve the problem and the policy is to strict”, she says. “Normally there is never a commission on a Friday, but when it comes to cutting the family reunion, there was an exceptional one on Friday!”  But, and that is new information to me, Europeans are allowed to bring about their parents? Can it be more discriminative?! And this is what Swerts as well revealed in his PHD: “In Belgium you have citizenship based on ethnicity, which is more exclusive”.  Another example of politicians using earplugs on the matter of the sans-papiers, is that even the hunger strikes undertaken by those people don’t move them to do something.

In Chicago we hear a totally different story: undocumented people have a voice because they get organized. They have the power to influence the politicians. The stories about injustice become political and have definitely an effect on the policy of the states. Swerst gave an example of a boy who committed traffic violation after which he was captured and imprisoned. The State of Chicago wanted to deport him back to his country. No way that this happened. The whole community supported him and he came in the news. The boy was released because the societies in America have much better and well-organised communities who fight for the Human Rights. Conversely we see that the Belgian society is really divided, much more intolerant about immigrants. The solution to the present status of the sans-papiers would be, according to Swerts, to find new ways of being heard because hunger strikes or church occupations appeared to be vain cries for help.

For children and teenagers though, there is a little bit of hope maybe. Zoé and a few co party members try to fight for more human and just laws. The same applies for medical regularisation, which could be a winning case as “It is crazy to send these people back!” concluded Genot.

Pamela Vaessen

picture: Ali Selvi

Video reportage of the meeting


Pictures of the meeting by Ali Selvi


Facebookpage Other Voices


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