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Be&"*um$Immigration Policy
Marco Martiniello
Universitk de Li2ge
Belgium is one of the most multicultural and multiracial countries of the
European Union. Today, the immigrant-origin population' represents about
12 percent of the total population (about 10 million people). Contrary to
some neighboring states, EU citizens2 account for more than 60 percent of
the total immigrant-origin population. Among the non-EU, Moroccans
(more than 120,000) and Turks (about 70,000) are the largest groups, but
almost all the nationalities of the world are represented. The immigrant-origin population is unequally distributed in the territory. In the capital city,
Brussels, it comprises more than 28.5 percent of the population, whereas in
Flanders it does not reach 5 percent, and it is 10 percent in Wallonia.
In 1974, the Council of Ministers made three important decisions.
First, it officially stopped any new immigration of workers. Second, it took
measures to control clandestine immigration. Third, it regularized a few
thousand undocumented migrant workers. Since then and until very recently, the doctrine of zero-immigration has dominated the debates and policy
initiatives in the field of immigration. Even though immigration to Belgium
continued under different patterns (family reunions, free movement of EU
citizens, foreign students, refugees and asylum seekers, illegal immigration)
which contributed to the diversification of the Belgian population, there has
never been a proactive policy of immigration based on the political acknowledgment that Belgium was indeed, defacto, a country of immigration. Stress
has been put on means to reduce immigration as much as possible, to prevent
migration, and to reverse it.
Since 2000, a new debate has slowly been emerging. The impact of the
report on replacement migration published by the Population Division of the
UN has put the issue of a partial reopening of the borders in the media and
on the political agenda. The Belgian corporate world views immigration of
highly skilled workers as a partial solution to the labor market shortages. But
the government is reluctant to envisage a more open approach to migration
inflows. The logic of the markets and the logic of the state do not move in
the same directions.
0 2003 by the Center for Migration Studies of New York. All rights reserved.
0198-9183/03/3701.OI4 1

IMR Volume 37 Number 1 (Spring 2003):225-232





Furthermore, immigration policy, whether it deals with the regulation

of migratory flows or with policies of integration of immigrants, is traditionally an exclusive right of nation-states. However, since the signing of the
Treaty of Rome, the European construction has had an increasing influence
on certain aspects of the migratory policies of the member states of the
Union. While the latter try to keep control over these policies, the process of
suppressing national boundaries within the European space and the free circulation of European citizens have produced a European convergence of
national immigration legislation, which deals more with the control of migratory flows than with integration policies. The member states of the Union are
not free anymore to decide on their own what immigration policy to implement. In the field of integration, their margins of autonomy remain wider.
This article addresses some of the key issues in Belgian immigration and
integration policies today. The focus is on what is being done more than on
what could and should be done in the fields of legal admissions, asylum, illegal immigration and the sans-papiers, integration policies, administration
and relations with source countries.

The decision taken in 1974 not to recruit any new migrant workers did not
put an end to migration flows towards Belgium. Even though the immigrant,
defined as a person who is entitled to live and work permanently in Belgium
and eventually to become a citizen, is not emblematic of the Belgian migration experience, there are legal gates for admission to the country, first temporarily and later permanently. Leaving tourists aside, five main patterns of
legal migration characterize the post- 1974 era. The mobility of EU citizens is
the first source of legal admission. Under EU law, EU citizens mobility within the member states is facilitated and even promoted. In public discourse,
the issue of the free movement of EU citizens and the issues of immigration
are increasingly separated, the latter being reserved for non-EU migrants. In
any case, the number of French and Dutch citizens who have decided to work
and live in Belgium has constantly increased over the last ten years.
Family reunion is a second significant pattern of migration. Foreigners
who are legally settled in Belgium have the right to bring in spouses and children (under 18 years old) and in certain specific conditions, other family
members. Family reunion is important since many immigrant-origin youth
marry a partner from the country of origin during the summer holidays. It
also concerns Belgian citizens or EU citizens who want to bring in their non-



EU spouses or children. In 2000,4,871 persons were granted the right to settle with their families in Belgium out of 5,460 applicants. This figure corresponds approximately to the average number of family reunion visas released
between 1995 and 2000.
Third, Belgium grants yearly temporary residence permits to foreign
students. In theory, their residence permits expire at the end of their studies.
Some students from less developed countries receive a Belgian grant. Others
come with their own resources. Between 1995 and 1999 the number of permits released each year never exceeded 1,665 units. Some overstay after having completed their studies.
Fourth, asylum applications are another important channel of legal
admission in Belgium. This point will be developed below.
Finally, specific categories of foreign workers receive each year the right
to come and work in Belgium. There are two types of work permits for foreign workers: the work permit A and the work permit B. The work permit A
is unlimited in time and is valid for all salaried jobs and professions. The
applicant must prove either five years of legal residence in Belgium without
interruption in the period before the application or four years of work without interruption and covered by a work permit B in the same period. The
work permit B is limited to one year and is renewable under specific conditions. With a work permit B, the foreign worker is only granted the authorization to work for one employer in cases of nonavailability of a Belgian or
EU worker to fulfill a position. Between 1974 and 1984, 30,000 B permits
were delivered. Throughout the 1990s, about 40,000 foreign workers
received B permits each year. Furthermore, there are other special categories
of foreign workers such as au pairs, professional athletes and artists who are
legally admitted each year.
These data illustrate the fact that there has never been a proactive planning of immigration in Belgium. They also clearly demonstrate that the cessation of immigration in 1974 is a myth. By and large, the demographers
agree that the yearly legal admissions since 1962 never dropped below 35,000
units. The patterns of migration and the profiles of migrants have changed
over the years, but legal immigration has continued. Pro-immigration groups
tend sometimes to overestimate the restrictive character of Belgian immigration policy. But Belgian officials overestimate the openness of the same policy. Even though there are in theory several ways to be admitted legally into
Belgium, it has in practice been increasingly difficult to do so. Most of those
who would like to migrate legally to Belgium are not allowed to do so.




Since the mid-l98Os, asylum policy has become more and more clearly a matter of intergovernmental cooperation on a European and even greater international scale. Belgian sovereignty in matters of asylum, like that of its EU
partners, has progressively been eroded. However, it would be incorrect to
claim that the member states have lost all autonomy in their application o f
the general principles regulating asylum. Each state enjoys a relatively broad
freedom of interpretation in the definition of examination and application
criteria for asylum requests. Thus, national sovereignty is not entirely replaced
by the European framework.
Asylum policy in Belgium has evolved considerably over the last fifteen
years. Asylum procedure has been modified several times between 1987 and
2000. The decisions made by Belgium were often influenced by European
constraints and by the European debate on asylum and refugees. The 1987
Belgian initiative concerning the imposition of sanctions on transporters who
bring asylum candidates without papers into the Belgian territory, for example, preceded by a few weeks a decision by the European ministers charged
with immigration affairs. Similar decisions were made in several European
countries at about the same time. Belgium could not hesitate to follow the
direction of its European partners. Such was also the case for the provisions
of 1991, 1993 and 1996. These texts reflect some common concerns of EUmember states. They also take up provisions introduced in previous legislation of other European states.
Between 1988 and 1999, more than 180,000 people applied for asylum
in Belgium. In 2000, only 42,000 asylum applications were introduced. In
the end, the rate of acceptance as refugee as defined by the Geneva Convention rarely exceeded 5-10 percent of total applications. Those who are definitely not recognized as refugees must in theory leave the country. Those
whose applications are not even taken into consideration are deprived of their
liberty in closed detention centers in which they wait for repatriation.
During the 1980s and 1990s, examination of these applications was
very slow. This has been a major concern for Belgian policymakers and asylum seekers themselves. They often have to wait for more than two years,
sometimes up to seven years, for decisions on their applications. In most cases
they are rejected. During that waiting period, they now receive material aid
instead of financial support, as was the case prior to 2000, and they are not
entitled to work. The length of the procedure is a dramatic problem since it
leads to the expulsion of people who had largely integrated into the Belgian



social fabric. Many dismissed applicants opt for the clandestine life and
become undocumented. There have been discussions within the government
to reform completely the procedure, but so far no agreement has been reached
as to how to deal with this complex issue that divides the government.


As in other countries, there are endless discussions between specialists about
the vocabulary to be used to accurately describe phenomena related to migration. But the general public does not seem to make any distinction between
illegal, clandestine, undocumented and often also asylum seekers. This is not
the place to discuss the important issue of categories. It nevertheless seems
clear that people enter Belgium illegally, that some people work clandestinely in the country, and that others overstay after their legal documents have
expired. Unfortunately, nobody has a clear figure of this very versatile reality,
which is not new at all.
Furthermore, Belgium is also a country of passage for migrants who
want to reach the United Kingdom and, from there, North America.
Migrants smugglers operate by boat on the Belgian coast, and, for huge payments, they help migrants cross the North Sea. Other migrants are offered
passage on board one of the thousands of commercial trucks that cross the
channel every month. Last year, the tragic death of 58 young Chinese in a
refrigerated truck bound for Dover, England revealed probably just the tip of
an iceberg. Policing this traffic is not an easy task. It implies cooperation with
neighboring states - some are part of the Schengen agreement and some not.
This cooperation is far from always being harmonious.
At the end of the year 2000, the Belgian government also launched a
campaign of regularization of undocumented migrants (called in French les
;ans-papiersj for the second time since 1974. After the tragic story of Semira
Adamu, a young Nigerian dismissed asylum seeker who died by suffocation
during her deportation by the Belgian gendarmerie, the NGOs mobilized in
favor of amnesty and supported the auto-organization of the undocumented
themselves who occupied churches and even universities. After months of discussion and political negotiations, a law on regularization of aliens present in
the territory before October 1, 1999 was passed on December 22, 1999. In
order to be regularized, applicants were required to fulfill one of the following four conditions: 1) having been engaged in the asylum procedure for an
abnormally long period without having been informed of a decision (4 years
in general, 3 years for families with minor children); not having the objective




possibility of returning to one's country due to, for example, a war; suffering
a serious illness; or having lived at least six years in the country without having received any official notification to leave the country during the last five
years. This last category of potential applicants is supposed to be integrated
in Belgium.
More than 36,000 applications were submitted during the three-week
period dedicated to the first phase of the regularization campaign. The applications concerned more than 50,000 people of 140 nationalities, among
which the Congolese and the Moroccans were the largest groups. There are
also reasons to believe that the regularization campaign did not reach all the
undocumented living in the country. First, some could not fulfill the conditions established by the law. Second, some did not trust the process and feared
expulsion if an application was submitted. This one-shot campaign so far has
not been completed. Thousands of people are still waiting for a decision a
year after having submitted their applications.

Facing at the same time a migration situation and a post-migration situation,
Belgium has to design integration policies for newcomers as well as integration policies for the second and third generations. Integration policies developed quite late because, until the 1980s, there was a hidden consensus on the
provisional character of immigration: both the migrants themselves and the
host institutions seemed to consider immigration simply as a temporary
adjunction of the labor force.
Most issues linked to integration (education, health, housing, employment) are dealt with either by the communities or by the regions, ie., the federated entities of the Belgian state. Therefore, there is no Belgian model of
integration. Historically, different approaches developed in the north and in
the south of the country. Flanders' approach was for a long time inspired by
the Dutch multicultural model, whereas Wallonia was more similar to the
French republican model. Declared multicultural policies were designed in
Flanders, whereas the Walloon government opted for general anti-exclusion
policies. Things had begun to change by the mid-1990s. Wallonia slowly
opened up to issues linked to cultural diversity, whereas Flanders, like the
Netherlands, gave more weight to social and economic considerations in its
integration policies. It remains that integration policies are often different in
the north and the south of the country. Even the vocabulary used in legislation is often not the same. The region of Brussels, a crossroads between Bel-


23 1

gian national groups, newcomers, and old migrants is trying to develop its
own approach by combining elements from the available models.
At the federal level, access to citizenship has been seen as a means to stimulate integration. Belgian nationality law has changed several times in the past
fifteen years. The most recent change took place in March 2000. The new
nationality law presents three main novelties. First, the acquisition of Belgian
citizenship by a simple declaration is now open to foreigners who have legally
resided in Belgium for seven years with an unrestricted permit. Second, access
to naturalization has been made easier. Three years of legal residence for foreigners and two years for rehgees are required to apply for naturalization. The
procedure is free. Third, the notion of willingness to integrate has been suppressed as a basic condition to be granted naturalization. It is fair to say that Belgium has one of the most liberal legislations on nationality in the European
Union. However, the implementation of the law is highly problematic. It seems
that the administration often exhibits a restrictive interpretation of this liberal
legislation, resulting in a growing backlog of applications.


In a complex federal state like Belgium, the administration of immigration
policy is highly problematic. Immigration matters are dealt with by several
federal ministerial departments: Economics, which hosts the National Institute of Statistics; Social Integration; Interior, which hosts the opaque Foreigners Office; Foreign Affairs; and Employment. Even though the opportunity to discuss issues within an interdepartmental conference exists, there are
problems of communication and, sometimes, different approaches between
the various departments that hinder the development of a coordinated and
coherent immigration policy, not to mention the gap between policies and
their implementation.
Another crucial problem is the lack of accurate and up-to-date statistics
and figures. This is probably partially linked to problems of communication
between ministerial departments but also to an underfunding of statistical
tools. The current government has decided to create an observatory of migration flows, which is located at the Center for Equal Opportunities and the
Struggle against Racism, but it has not decided to invest in constructing adequate statistics.
As to relations with the governments of source countries, a distinction
should be made between cooperation in the field of development and forms



of cooperation aiming more directly at preventing inflows or reversing migration trends. First, Belgium is engaged in various forms of cooperation with
numerous source countries. It is often naively hoped that development will
slow down departures. Second, there have been negotiations with Central and
Eastern European governments to sign readmission agreements for dismissed
asylum seekers and illegal migrants in Belgium.

In July 1999, the federal government presented its program in the field of
migration. Five main objectives were targeted: the creation of a status for persons displaced by wars; reducing the length of the asylum procedure; reforming nationality law to encourage the integration of migrants; launching a
campaign of regularization and expelling the undocumented migrants not
admitted to regularization; and reforming administrations and institutions
dealing with immigration.
The government has certainly made progress on some of these key policy areas. But, so far it has not advanced significantly towards a more proactive immigration policy. A major European policy conference on immigration
coordinated by the Minister of the Interior was scheduled for October 16 and
17, 2000. Optimists like to believe that Belgium will seize the opportunity to
propose, during its presidency of the EU, guidelines for a common proactive
immigration policy for the EU. Pessimists say that no advances will be made
soon. Realists wait and see.