The report was previously updated in March 2020.
On 26 May 2019, regional, federal and European elections took place in Belgium. After lengthy negotiations, a new federal government was formed on 1 October 2020. As a result, a new Secretary of State for migration was appointed, who is part of the Flemish Christian Democratic party CD&V. In his policy note, which was presented to the Parliament on 18 November 2020, it is stated that the new Belgian government aims to achieve a human-centred migration policy, which opens opportunities to further secure the (basic) human rights of migrants. While the previous administrations did not focus on the continuity of the reception system, the current Secretary of State aims to develop a stable, but flexible reception system. Some aspects of the announced policy aim to improve the quality of the overall procedure, such as faster procedures and better guidance of applicants during these procedures. Others, however, are more restrictive such as the lack of a complete prohibition of the detention of children and the possible tightening of criteria for family reunification.
In 2020, the number of applicants for international protection decreased by 39% compared to 2019, with a total of 16,910 applicants in 2020 compared to 27,742 applicants in 2019. This is the lowest number of applicants for international protection since 2008. The Commissioner-General for Refugees and Stateless Persons (CGRS) has stated that this is due to the impact of the covid-19 crisis. In the period between March and July 2020 there was an immense drop in the number of applicants for international protection. Since August the number began to rise again.
In 2020, 34,1% of the final decisions were positive decisions granting international protection. Protection was mainly granted to Syrians, Afghans, Turks, Somalis and Eritreans. The recognition rate steadily decreased since 2016. While it reached 57.7% in 2016, it went down to 50.7% in 2017, 49.1% in 2018 and 36.9% in 2019. This decrease is mainly due to the increase of inadmissibility decisions and the number of subsequent applications (i.e. multiple applications) as well as applications from persons with protection status in another Member State. When excluding these cases, the recognition rate reached 47,3% in 2020.
- Access to the asylum procedure: Due to the outbreak of the covid-19 pandemic, the Immigration Office decided to close its doors to the public on 17 March 2020. On 3 April 2020 the Immigration Office re-opened with a new system for the registration of applicants for international protection. Applicants wanting to make their application had to fill in an online registration form, after which they were invited on a later date to officially make and lodge their application for international protection. Because of various shortcomings of this system, a multitude of civil society organisations decided to declare the Belgian state in default at the Brussels court of first instance. On 5 October 2020 the court condemned the Belgian state, after which the Immigration Office returned to the previous system of physical registrations on 3 November 2020 (see: Registration of the asylum application).
- Examination of applications for international protection: Due to the outbreak of the covid-19 pandemic, the CGRS closed its doors on 13 March 2020. From this day, no more personal interviews were organised. The CGRS continued to work on pending cases and took decisions in cases in which a personal interview had already taken place. From 8 June 2020 onwards, personal interviews were gradually resumed, under strict respect of sanitary and distancing measures.
In the light of the covid-19 sanitary measures, the CGRS announced in November 2020 that, in certain cases, it would conduct interviews with people residing in open reception centres through videoconference. The aim was to introduce interviews by videoconference on a structural level. However, civil society organisations instituted an urgency procedure before the Council of State against this decision, arguing the CGRS had no legal competence to take this decision. In a judgment of 7 December 2020, the Council of State suspended the decision, ruling that the CGRS had indeed overstepped its competences. Any adaptations of the conditions of the personal interview ought to be taken by Royal decree or law. In one later judgment, the CALL extended the ruling of the Council of State to the longstanding practice of interviews through videoconference for people residing in closed detention centres given that, here too, that practice was based solely on a CGRS decision. The CGRS now expressed its intention to recommend the Secretary of State to take legal initiative to ground interviews through videoconference in the Royal Decree. (see Regular procedure: personal interview)
- Extension of the Dublin transfer period: In February 2020 the Immigration Office started a new practice with regards to the organisation of the voluntary return procedure for applicants who had received a negative Dublin transfer decision with order to leave the territory (annex 26quater). Upon receiving this decision, applicants had to fill in a ‘voluntary return form’, confirming they would cooperate with their transfer to the responsible member state, and send this back to the Immigration Office within ten days. If they failed to do so, the transfer deadline would be extended from 6 to 18 months. In July 2020 the CALL ruled this practice to be in conflict with the CJUE Jawo judgement and its definition of the term ‘absconded’. Based on this judgement, the Immigration Office ended this practice altogether in July (see Dublin: procedure).
- Decrease of occupancy rate of reception system: Despite the numerous warnings of the federal reception agency for asylum seekers Fedasil as well as civil society actors, a new reception crisis emerged in 2019. Although new reception centres opened throughout 2019, the occupancy rate was at 96 % on 1 January 2020 – while saturation is already reached at 94 % of occupancy. In the course of 2020, 14 new reception centres were opened, while 3 centres were closed. Combined with a significant decrease of asylum applications of 39% in 2020, this led to a decrease of occupancy rate of the reception system to 85% on 1 January 2021. In line with the new Secretary of State’s intention to develop a more stable reception system, Fedasil announced it would continue to look for new reception places in 2021, in order to ensure flexibility in case of fluctuations of the influx of asylum seekers.
- Lack of access to reception: Between March and October 2020 a significant number of applicants for international protection had no access to the reception system. This was mostly due to the introduction of the online registration system for applications for international protection introduced by the Immigration Office. According to the law, applicants for international protection are only entitled to material aid from the moment they make their application for international protection. Since some applicants for international protection had to wait multiple weeks before they were able to make their application for international protection, they had no access to the reception system during this waiting period. In addition, since the dispatching service of Fedasil in the arrival centre was closed from 17 March 2020 onwards, applicants who needed to re-integrate the reception system (e.g. because they had left their reception place or after having received a decision that their subsequent application for international protection was declared admissible) had no access to the reception system either. Because of a ruling of the Brussels court of first instance in October 2020, the Immigration Office was forced to suspend the online registration system and went back to the old system of physical registrations at the arrival centre. Applicants have since then regained immediate access to reception conditions. As for the re-integration in the reception system, Fedasil confirmed in October 2020 that it was possible for people having previously received a ‘code 207 No Show’ to make an appointment with the Dispatching service in order to receive a place in the reception system. (see Right to shelter and assignment to a centre)
- Withdrawal of reception conditions: Due to the critical reception capacity at the beginning of 2020, policy measures were adopted to withdraw reception conditions of certain asylum applicants. Through instructions of 3 January 2020 (applicable from 7 January 2020 onwards), Fedasil limited the material reception to medical assistance for two categories of applicants:
- applicants for international protection who have received an Annex 26quater on the basis of the Dublin III Regulation, but for whom Belgium becomes responsible by default due to failure to transfer within the six months deadlines (Article 29(2) Dublin III Regulation);
- applicants for international protection who make a first application in Belgium but who already have an international protection status (i.e. refugee or subsidiary protection status) in another EU Member State.
Several national, Flemish and French speaking NGOs introduced an appeal with the Council of State aiming for the suspension and the annulment of the Fedasil instructions. In September 2020, right before the hearing before the Council of State was scheduled, Fedasil withdrew the instructions of 3 January 2020. Both categories of asylum seekers have thus since regained their full right to material assistance, including reception, during their asylum procedure (see Right to shelter and assignment to a centre).
Detention of asylum seekers
- Increased detention capacity: The government decided on 14 May 2017 to maximise the number of places in existing detention facilities. In 2019 the open reception centre (Holsbeek) has thus been turned into a closed centre for 60 women. Two additional detention centres will be established in Zandvliet and Jumet. The new government-coalition, that was inaugurated on the 1st of October 2020 has confirmed the construction of additional places. The construction of additional detention centres in Zandvliet (200 places) and Jumet (120 places) by the end of its legislation. Together with plans for the expansion of the number of places in the centres 127bis and Merksplas, these plans will bring Belgium’s detention capacity up to 1,066 places. Additionally the new Government has announced the replacement of the centre in Bruges, as the condition of the current centre is deemed ‘very bad’.
- Detention of children and families: In August 2018, the government opened five family units in the 127bis repatriation centre, as a result of which families with children were being detained again. Detention is applied where the family manifestly refuses to cooperate with the return procedure. However the Royal Decree of 22 July 2018 that establishes the rules for the functioning of the closed family units near Brussels International airport, has been suspended by the Council of State in April 2019, and thus no more families have been detained. The council of state still has to pronounce its decision on the annulation of this Royal Decree. The current government, however, has agreed that it can no longer detain children in closed centres, as a matter of principle. New, alternative measures will be developed to avoid that this measure would be abused to make return impossible.
Content of international protection
- Housing: Access to housing remains problematic for people having obtained a protection status. This is mainly due to the current “housing crisis” and the general shortage of qualitative and affordable housing for beneficiaries of protection, including vulnerable groups.
- Family reunification: Beneficiaries of international protection continue to face important obstacles in the context of family reunification procedures, stemming inter alia from the difficulty to obtain visas and to prove family ties, the financial cost of the procedure, its strict conditions and the narrow definition of family members.
 Chamber of Representatives, Doc 1580/014, Policy Note on asylum and migration, 04 November 2020, available in Dutch/French at: https://bit.ly/3c9hy9z; see also: Vluchtelingenwerk Vlaanderen, Reactie Beleidsnota, December 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3amGXeG.
 CGRS, Statistiques d’asile – bilan 2020, 14 January 2021, available at: http://bit.ly/3iI2dhs
 CGRS, Asylum statistics – survey of 2020, http://bit.ly/3a2yJao.
 Brussels Court of First Instance, decision nr. 2020/105/C of 5 October 2020, available in French at: http://bit.ly/3bpjgCU.
 CGRS, The CGRS during the coronacrisis, http://bit.ly/3qV2sZC.
 Council of State judgment no. 249 163 of 7 December 2020.
 CALL judgment no. 247 396 of 14 January 2021.
 Fedasil, Daling van de instroom in 2020, 19 January 2021, available at: http://bit.ly/38Ve9t6.
 Chamber of Representatives, Policy Note on asylum and migration, 26 October 2018, available in Dutch and French, available at: https://bit.ly/2sJL8uz.
 Arrêté royal du 22 juillet 2018 | Koninklijk besluit van 22 juli 2018.
 Council of State, Decision no 244.190, 4 April 2019.