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Last Updated: Monday, 27 October, 2003, 10:51 GMT
Belgium's asylum 'lottery'

By Angus Roxburgh
BBC News Online, Brussels

As European Union leaders grope their way towards a common policy on asylum seekers, great disparities remain in the numbers of people received by different member states - and in the way in which they are treated.

Albanian family show scars from boiling water
This family's scars failed to convince the Belgian authorities
The treatment of children, in particular, has been highlighted by the controversy surrounding the Dungavel repatriation centre in Scotland.

There, the families of illegal immigrants, who have had their claims rejected and are awaiting deportation, are kept in what have been described as "prison-like" conditions.

For comparison, I visited two asylum-seeker centres in Belgium, and found a very different picture from the one described in Dungavel, with its barbed wire and lack of proper education for children.

We love teaching here because the children come from backgrounds which mean they need a lot of affection
Vanessa Ubeek
Teacher at Petit Chateau
Le Petit Chateau is a former barracks in central Brussels, and now an "open" centre housing up to 850 immigrants. Around half of them are at the first stage of the asylum procedure, waiting for their application to be judged.

The other half have already been rejected and are thus classed as illegal immigrants. They remain so even while they await the result of an appeal to the highest court, the State Council, on whether their application was dealt with correctly - the council does not have the right to overturn the rejection itself.

Despite being illegally in Belgium, they are looked after at state expense in the Petit Chateau - often for well over a year. The residents can come and go as they please. They include 150 children who are here with their parents and 40 who are unaccompanied.

Petit Chateau school
The school even educates children not registered at the centres
The children receive a full education, starting with language lessons, in local schools. One school I visited had 61 nationalities.

Teachers described it as a challenge - there was resistance to the presence of so many foreigners in the neighbourhood, and sometimes fathers from "rival" ethnic groups had fights near the school - but the mood inside seemed happy.

"We love teaching here," said Vanessa Ubeek, "because the children come from backgrounds which mean they need a lot of affection, not just teaching."


The school also provides free education to hundreds of children of illegal immigrants who are not even officially registered in the Petit Chateau or any other centre. Thousands whose asylum claims have been rejected, or who never applied in the first place, live illegally in Brussels and other Belgian cities.

I go up to the family's room, knock on the door, and explain to them that they have to leave, in about 15 to 20 minutes - it's very difficult for me
Marcel Kerf
Petit Chateau director
The oddest thing about the Belgian system is that small numbers of these illegal residents are picked up by the police and taken away for deportation, even though their cases seem little different from the thousands who are allowed to stay.

Marcel Kerf, director of the Petit Chateau, says it is a lottery. He is clearly committed to the welfare of his residents, and says the hardest thing is when the police come to take away a family.

"They never enter in uniform," he says, "but it is hard. Usually it is early in the morning. I go up to the family's room, knock on the door, and explain to them that they have to leave, in about 15 to 20 minutes. It's very difficult for me."

So while huge numbers of illegal immigrants are tolerated, and have their children educated, a small number are targeted for deportation. They are taken to "closed centres", which are more akin to Scotland's Dungavel, though in theory no one is kept in them for more than two months.

Window at Steenokkerzeel centre
Life is much harder in Steenokkerzeel
At one closed centre, in Steenokkerzeel, just beside Brussels airport, I met families from Chechnya, Belarus, Bulgaria, Morocco and other countries.

Here, life is much harder than in the Petit Chateau. It is surrounded by barbed wire fences, and the children can play outside for only two hours a day.

In theory there is a teacher, but she had been absent due to illness for weeks when I visited.


Most baffling, is why these particular asylum-seekers had been chosen for repatriation. Immigration officials in Belgium and across Europe face an almost impossible task, trying to sort out the fake stories from the real, the political persecution from the family feud.

Last year, 381,623 foreigners applied for asylum in the EU. The numbers overwhelm the authorities' ability to investigate each claim in depth.

An Albanian family being held at Steenokkerzeel had clearly suffered physically: the mother, daughter and father all had large scars apparently caused by boiling water.

The son, aged about 12, had learned enough Dutch during his year or so in Belgium to be able to translate for them. He wept as he explained their story.

The story, however, was confused, and had not convinced the authorities, who believe the family may face a personal problem back home, but not political persecution. And so they were on their way out, protesting and in tears - while thousands with equally unconvincing stories remain in Belgium.

The BBC's Angus Roxburgh
"The asylum seekers can come and go as they please"

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