HOW MANY DETENTION CENTERS ARE THERE IN BELGIUM? WHO IS BEING HELD THERE?
There are currently six centers: two in Steenokkerzeel, one in Bruges, one in Merksplas, one in Vottem and since 2019 there is one in Holsbeek. The majority of those detained are in an irregular situation and have received an order to leave the territory, either to their country of origin or to the EU country responsible for processing their asylum request as provided for in the Dublin regulation. Under the law it is possible to detain a person who applied for international protection at the border. However, the latter can be released if their refugee status is recognized or they are granted subsidiary protection.
WHICH CENTERS DO YOU VIST AND HOW OFTEN?
We visit the 127 bis center in Steenokkerzeel and the new women’s center in Holsbeek once a week.
WHAT ARE THE PROFILES OF THE PEOPLE WHO ARE LOCKED UP?
Since the end of 2018, there have been many trans-migrant people, mainly from Eritrea. The police used to process the trans-migrants’ files in these centers, but in mid-December 2019, the police left the centers and we now meet people that are from many different countries, such as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Palestine. The center in Holsbeek has a majority Moroccan population, but there is still some diversity. For example some women in Holsbeek come from China or Vietnam.
WHAT CARITAS DOES FOR THESE PEOPLE?
We offer them a listening ear, inform them of their rights and advise them. In Holsbeek, we are regularly confronted with complex cases: women who have been in Belgium for a long time, who have children, who have been victims of sexual violence or genital mutilation. The conversations quickly take an emotional turn. At the 127 bis center, we mainly answer concrete questions.
WHAT ABOUT CHILDREN?
For the moment, Belgium can no longer lock up children. The Council of State justified its decision on the grounds of noise pollution, which children are exposed to at high levels since the centers are often located near an airport. However, this is not a definitive ban. The authorities have undertaken to acoustically isolate the buildings.
At the moment, family units receive families with adult children: these fall under the “normal” regime of 127 bis and they can be detained for longer periods of time than families with minor children, for which family units were intended for. Whether or not a child is 18 years old makes a big difference. Families with minor children are sent to open return homes where they have more freedom. However, an adult family member should always be present in the house.
WHAT ARE THE MOST STRIKING ASPECTS OF THESE VISITS?
Many of the people that we meet don’t have high spirits: they don’t know what awaits them and for how long they will be locked up. They refuse to think about what will happen once they have been expelled from Belgium. Questioning them about their families in their country of origin triggers panic among them. Most people do not understand why they are locked up. They associate detention centers with prison and criminal proceedings. We often hear: “I am not a criminal, why am I here?”