Brussels' Petit Château: stuck in transit

Article published on Feb. 22, 2008
Article published on Feb. 22, 2008
Located in the heart of Brussels, the “Petit Château” is one of 19 open reception centres in Belgium. It opens its doors to more than 700 asylum seekers from all around the world.
The “Petit Château” is a complex institution; while it offers psychological and material assistance to those who stay there, the management constantly has to waver between being patient and being firm with people who are often entirely uncertain of what their future holds…

Vladimir is Chechen; he arrived in Belgium last July and immediately applied for asylum with the hope of one day being recognised as a refugee (see definition below). The “Petit Château” centre provides him a bed and meals during the time to takes for the General Commission for Refugees and Stateless Persons to make a decision. And this can take some time! Yet, since May of last year, the European Directive concerning minimal standards for the reception of asylum seekers into EU Member States has come into effect. If the authorities have not reached a first decision of an asylum seeker within a year, he should automatically have access to the job market. In Europe, Belgian Law is seen as more generous for asylum seekers as they can apply for a one-year work permit as soon as their application is accepted as valid.

Gaps in European harmonisation

Nevertheless, the European Union is hardly the shining example of a coherent asylum system! In 2006, Belgium granted refugee status to just over 1 out of 4 applicants. Greece on the other hand accepted less than 2 out of 100 and Lithuania accepted nearly 9 out of 10. Inequalities The differences between countries are just as shocking as the odds of recognition of different nationalities: Vladimir, our Chechen has an 85% chance of being recognised in Austria; 75% in Poland; 55% in Belgium and no chance in Slovakia, where his application would not even be looked at!

These divergences are the direct result of a lack of European harmonisation in asylum procedures, since EU legislation only requires Member States comply with a handful of minimum standards.

petit chateau 2 The result: Member States remain free to set their own guidelines and the differences within Europe remain vast, with the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) denouncing the aptly-named “asylum lottery”.

Belgium’s largest reception centre

The Petit Château is the largest open centres in Belgium, and one of the largest in Europe. The management tries to impose a certain discipline over its hundreds of residents, as Jamel recalls: “Anyone who spends 3 nights in a row outside of the centre without alerting a supervisor cannot come back”. To avoid disputes, the centre forbids hanging any national symbols: “Everyday at 9pm, the rooms are searched by the management” adds Jamel.

The Petit Château provides social and legal aid to its asylum seekers who have the opportunity under Belgian law to make use of the free services of “pro bono” lawyers (most of whom are interns). Very often then, asylum seekers prefer to take their chances with professional lawyers and get into debt, as Petite Chateau resident Efraïm affirms “Here pro bono lawyers have the reputation of poorly defending our interests”. They must borrow money from acquaintances or find jobs, where in most cases they find themselves in the hands of scrupulous employers: “I work everyday from 5am until 20.30,” Efraïm states, “It’s unfair, bearing in mind that I only get paid €2.48 an hour. I have no time to rest, but I am not in a position to be picky”. The Petit Château, controversial but crucial for its residents, is a small world where all their frustrations, fatigue, and uncertainties come together. For them, this place is often no more than one step in their journey, since 70% of the Petit Château’s residents see their application for asylum rejected.

Ingrid d'Oultremont and Charlotte Maisin

Translation: Christina Dziewanska-Stringer and Thomas Huddleston

Who are asylum seekers?

By asking for asylum, applicants hope to be granted refugee status, which is defined by the 1951 Geneva Convention. A refugee is a person considered to be persecuted in their home country, either due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinions, or their affiliation with a certain social group. If a foreigner fulfils these criteria, signatory countries are obliged to offer them protection. To obtain this status in Belgium, they must present their case to the General Commission for Refugees and Stateless persons. On the same day of application, the asylum seeker is sent to one of the 19 open reception centres in Belgium, such as the Petit Château, for the duration of their application procedure. If their application is not successful, they can still benefit from an alternative form of protection: subsidiary protection. As long as an asylum seeker receives some form, they also receive a resident’s permit. If, on the other hand, all forms of protection are rejected, the asylum seeker is obliged to leave the Schengen Zone, either voluntarily or by force. However, a good portion of them decide to stay and reside illegally. An asylum seeker has the right of appeal against the decisions of the General Commission before the legal department of the Council of Foreigner’s Affairs. A second rejection can lead to a second appeal before the Council of State, which cannot reject the decision of the Council of Foreigner’s Affairs unless it deems it illegal. The application is thus re-examined by the Council of Foreigner’s Affairs which makes a final decision. Today, Belgium sees its lowest rate of asylum seekers since 1995: with 3,097 awarded refugee status in 2006, the difference between this and the number of immigrants seen as “working” is shocking. In 2005, the number was far higher, standing at 77,300.