BRUSSELS: As a decorated kickboxer and kung fu athlete, Chouaib Lakoighet is not accustomed to his legs just giving out on him but one day in July, his atrophied muscles could no longer hold him upright. After more than a month on hunger strike, the 27-year-old Algerian, who has lived as an undocumented migrant in Belgium since 2014, collapsed on the floor.
“She said, ‘Why are you doing this hunger strike? Belgium is small. We can’t accept all of you.’”
Lakoighet is one of about 470 undocumented migrants in Brussels who participated in a nearly two-month-long hunger strike as part of a dramatic bid to obtain the right to live and work legally in Belgium, or at least to convince the government to clarify its conditions for obtaining legal residence.
The strike, which began on May 23 following months of protests, was put on pause on July 21 after a series of closed-door meetings between organisers and government representatives. It is a pause that no doubt saved lives; medical experts had begun to warn that deaths among the protesters were imminent. It may have even averted governmental collapse; two parties had threatened to pull out of Belgium’s fragile coalition government within hours of a first death among the protesters But it is also a pause that comes on the back of months of pushback from the government, sometimes accompanied by rhetoric that seemed intended to appease Belgium’s increasingly powerful anti-migrant far right.
Commitments from the government remain vague, and the protesters’ most concrete demand, a set of clear criteria on which people’s residency applications on humanitarian grounds will be evaluated, has so far been rejected altogether.
Now, as the weeks pass and the protesters regain their health, many of Belgium’s estimated 150,000 undocumented migrants are left asking what exactly has been achieved, and what comes next.
‘We went from providing advice to providing food’
One thing that is for certain is that the strike managed to draw attention to the plight of undocumented people in Belgium and elsewhere in Europe.
Since the coronavirus pandemic first swept this continent in early 2020, many European residents have been able to weather the crisis by relying on state social services. Government furlough schemes for businesses and workers, for example, have kept many afloat who might otherwise have lost their footing from lack of income, either because they got sick with the virus itself or as a result of closures due to lockdowns.
No such safety net has been available for those without legal residency documents in Belgium and many other European countries, however, despite the fact that the majority of undocumented people work in sectors hit particularly hard by the pandemic, such as restaurants, home and office cleaning and small-scale construction.
Even before the pandemic, Europe’s approximately 3.9 million undocumented migrants routinely worked long hours for little pay in the informal economy. Like elsewhere in Europe, most of Belgium’s undocumented migrants, many of whom have lived here for years or even decades, have long managed to survive under such exploitative conditions, albeit barely.