Page last updated at 04:52 GMT, Monday, 13 October 2008 05:52 UK

Belgian ethnic rift baffles immigrants

Belgian politicians are struggling to end a crisis that has paralysed government for 16 months. At the heart of the stalemate is the tension between Dutch speakers and Francophones. In the fourth of a series of articles on Belgium's linguistic rift, Henri Astier considers how if affects immigrants.

Natasha Biryukova
Ms Biryukova says Walloons know little about their Flemish neighbours
When Natasha Biryukova arrived in Liege from Moscow in 1995, she was shocked to find out that her new homeland was not really Belgium, but rather French-speaking Wallonia.

"I came from the former USSR, and knew how people lived in Uzbekistan thousands of miles away," she says.

"But now, when I turn on my TV I only know what's happening in Wallonia."

She said people there know nothing about the lives of their Flemish neighbours just a few miles north.

Ms Biryukova is not alone. Immigrants settling in Belgium end up on either side of a fault line that baffles many.

"Foreigners did not study Belgian history at school - whether they are in Wallonia or Flanders, for them, this is Belgium," says Palestinian-born Hamdan al Damiri of Cripel, an immigrant centre in Liege.

We don't want to take a position in the dispute between French and Dutch speakers, but we often don't have a choice
Naima Charkaoui

"People are surprised that Belgians squabble over language and other issues - especially in this globalised world."

The divide is all the more awkward for newcomers as they get drawn into Belgium's particular brand of identity politics.

"We don't want to take a position in the dispute between French and Dutch speakers, but we often don't have a choice," says Naima Charkaoui of Minderhedenforum, an umbrella group for immigrant associations in Flanders. "We are caught in the middle."


Language, a challenge for all exiles, is a particularly sensitive issue in Flanders. Dutch is the single official language - although the rule is not evenly enforced.

Olivier Somwa
When you look for work at your level in Flanders, you don't get it
Olivier Somwa, accountant
Congolese-born, Liege

Fatma Pehlivan, Ghent's deputy mayor, used French, Turkish, and Arabic during her campaign, ignoring complaints. "If I need Chinese to communicate with people, I will use Chinese," she says.

Still, in many municipalities dealings with officials are in Dutch only. And across Flanders skilled workers must pass stringent language tests to have their qualifications recognised.

Many feel the bar is set too high. Olivier Somwa was an accountant in the Democratic Republic of Congo when he arrived in Antwerp in 1998. He spent two years learning Dutch but failed the test, and had to become a farm worker.

"When you look for work at your level in Flanders, you don't get it," says Mr Somwa, who eventually found an accounting job in Liege.

The tough language requirements are not aimed at keeping immigrants out. Flanders' booming economy needs foreign hands. The region has a vibrant multicultural scene and subsidises all kinds of community groups.


The real reason for Flemish linguistic punctiliousness lies not in xenophobia, but in the troubled history of Belgium.

Francophones used to run the country - and indeed its empire, which is why Mr Somwa of DR Congo spoke French rather than Dutch. The defence of a long-suppressed language is pivotal to Flemish identity.

"Some politicians tell us: 'It's French speakers we are targeting' - but when people are not native Dutch speakers, they are put in the same category as French speakers," says Ms Charkaoui.

"The main victims are those in a vulnerable situation - immigrants who struggle to make a living and may find it difficult to attend language classes."


Furthermore, those applying for social housing in Flanders must prove that they either speak Dutch or are enrolled in a course to learn it. In some towns language conditions are even stricter.

Some - especially older immigrants - find them discriminatory.

Bus in Liege, featuring ad aimed at immigrants
Some companies in Liege are now fully aware of the immigrant market

Tarik Poyraz, a 17-year-old student from Brussels, says learning another language is beyond his Turkish parents, who are already struggling with French.

As a result, he says, his family is unable to escape the capital and its rising housing costs.

"We would like to move to [the northern suburb of] Vilvoorde, where houses are cheaper, but we can't because they want us to speak Dutch," he says.

Another peculiarity of Flemish-style integration is the civic courses new immigrants have to take to learn the values of the host country.

"It was a waste of time," says Gezim Bala, a 27-year-old Albanian who studies medicine in Ghent.

"I studied at school for 18 years and they were telling me to throw rubbish in the bin, not on the street."

Minderhedenforum's Naima Charkaoui feels the courses should take the immigrants' levels of education into account, but that they are on the whole a good thing.

However she objects to the rhetoric of sanctions that surrounds them. "You can be fined thousands of euros if you skip lessons," she says. "There is no need for such threats."

All Dutch to them

Wallonia, by contrast, is relaxed about integrating foreigners, and has no mandatory courses.

Jaco Van Der Merwe
By law [Brussels officials] are supposed to either speak Dutch or put you on to someone who does, but they don't in my commune
Jaco Van Der Merwe
South African, Brussels

Buoyed by an international language, Walloons assume that new immigrants will fit in, just as earlier generations of southern and eastern European immigrants found a place in Wallonia's old industrial heartland.

But Francophone casualness about language is precisely what some immigrants find problematic - notably in the officially bilingual but largely French-speaking capital.

Jaco van der Merwe, a South African who has been living in Belgium for 10 years and has children there, is applying for citizenship.

He speaks only English and Dutch and has a "big problem" with authorities in central Brussels, where he lives.

"By law they're supposed to either speak Dutch or put you on to someone who does, but they don't in my commune," he says.

Setting an example

Ultimately, immigrants are much more removed from the single entity that Belgium remains than native on both sides are.

Yakup Uzun
Most foreigners don't have an interest in having two different countries, but that's what they see
Yakup Uzun
Turkish-born, Brussels
Even Flemish nationalists have a keen sense of shared history with Francophones - if just to dwell on past slights - and many speak perfect French.

But newcomers have no such awareness.

"In my two years here I've met very few Walloons," says Talha Gokmen, 26, who studies chemistry in Ghent. "Wallonia for me is a different country - just like France."

Some do not see the point of keeping the country together, and reflect common prejudices about the other side.

"They should separate Wallonia from Flanders," says one female Iranian student in Ghent. "The Flemish are hard-working and they keep their land clean. I haven't been to Wallonia much, but don't feel safe there."

Yakup Uzun, a 27-year-old Turk who has lived in both Wallonia and Flanders, says most foreigners in Belgium "don't have an interest in having two different countries, but that's what they see".

And many don't like what they see. Ivorian-born Charles Yao Konan, 34 - and who comes from another country divided between north and south - wonders why the two cannot work out an agreement.

"Developed countries are supposed to show a democratic example to developing countries - especially Belgium, which is the capital of Europe," he says.

War of words in divided Belgium
08 Oct 08 |  Europe
Belgium's devolution conundrum
29 Sep 08 |  Europe
Country profile: Belgium
08 Oct 08 |  Country profiles

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