Moving Cities
About the city

Ghent

Comprehensive policies and unusual collaborations

Key Takeaways

  • 1

    The particularly high level of collaboration between the city and civil society organisations makes Ghent’s local migration and integration policies unique in Belgium.

  • 2

    Individual and long-term support of migrants soon after their arrival is part of an overall comprehensive approach to inclusion.

What is unique about the city?

Civic engagement supported by the city: Ghent has an active civil society and values its varied initiatives. This allows the city to support civil society projects to a high degree, in some cases even in the form of official cooperations. These cooperations allow for a more holistic, individual and socially-oriented (instead of merely results-oriented) approach to supporting and including newcomers in Ghent.Ghent has received various solidarity awards for its collaborative approach.

Various initiatives and organisations emerge through bottom-up approaches. The city of Ghent recognises and supports these initiatives and organisations, without taking them over.

Rudy Coddens, City Councillor for Social Policy and Finance

What is the focus of local migration policies?

Bringing proactive inclusion and solidarity together: Ghent’s Migration Forum, which brings together different actors working on migration, has the aim of bringing both asylum seekers and members of civil society on board, a strategy that simultaneously fosters solidarity amongst the city’s residents. The city’s most prominent initiatives focus on refugee reception, (voluntary) work and social inclusion.

Political activities and advocacy beyond the city level

Believing in the power of these local approaches, both local politicians and citizens have campaigned for a more open approach to migration at the national level. After the Moria fire, the city of Ghent pledged to receive more refugees than the federal government set out to do, only to see the federal government block it. In response, Ghent Mayor Mathias De Clercq proclaimed that “cooperation and solidarity across borders is more relevant than ever, especially for the most vulnerable in our global society. The coronavirus doesn’t know any borders.”

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Political context of Belgium

Migration policy in Belgium

The Belgian state structure is highly complex. Immigration policy is mostly developed at a federal level, under the political authority of the Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration. The Immigration Office, overseen by the Federal Public Service Interior, is responsible for issuing visas and residence permits. The independent Commissioner General for Refugees and Stateless Persons makes decisions on applications for international protection (refugee status and subsidiary protection status). On1st July 2014, the federal government devolved decision-making powers on matters relating to employment based immigration policy to three regions: the “Brussels Capital” region (Brussels), the Flemish region (Flanders) and the Walloon region (Wallonia). Finally, the Flemish, French-speaking and German-speaking communities are jointly responsible for the state’s integration policy.

Historical background

The 19th century’s overall liberal policy towards foreigners (Aliens Acts of 1835 and 1897) ended with the outbreak of the Second World War. A war-time ‘decree law on aliens’ police’ in 1939 gave the Executive full control over the presence of foreigners on Belgian territory.

The cornerstone of current Belgian immigration law is the Aliens Act of 15th December 1980. Due to numerous amendments over the past forty years, the act has become highly complex and inaccessible. These amendments were mostly geared towards limiting humanitarian forms of immigration (asylum and family reunification) and reducing the procedural rights of migrants.

Key developments of recent years

Migration is high on the Belgian political agenda. It is at the same time a highly sensitive issue, illustrated, for instance, by the fact that the endorsement of the UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration – a non-binding international instrument – by the previous federal government in 2018 led to its collapse. From 2014 until 2018, a centre-right coalition adopted numerous measures restricting migrant rights, with a particular focus on asylum seekers, family migrants and irregular migrants. Amongst other things, it reduced appeal periods for asylum seekers in detention. It also stepped up the fight against “sham” relationships by adding to the legislation on sham marriages and registered partnership regulations on sham paternity acknowledgements.

To increase the effectiveness of repatriations, the government has imposed various measures in connection with immigration detention. In 2017, it adopted a “master plan” to increase available places in closed centres. Further, in August 2018, Belgium started detaining families with children in newly constructed “family units” in a closed centre near Brussels airport – a measure which the Council of State has since suspended.

Following the Paris and Brussels terrorist attacks, various provisions of the Aliens Act were amended in order to strengthen public order and national security. For instance, the rule that people born in Belgium or who had moved to Belgium before the age of 12 could not be deported was abolished.

In addition, integration was introduced as a condition of residence: the Immigration Office can now revoke certain residence rights in cases where migrants cannot prove that they have made a reasonable effort to integrate.

The 2020 federal coalition agreement contains elements of both change and continuity compared to the previous legislature. One of its priorities is the development of a new Migration Code to replace the opaque 1980 Aliens Act, for which a consultation process with stakeholders and experts has been initiated. The new federal government explicitly recognises the importance of the Global Compact for Migration and has stated it will refrain from detaining minors in closed centres. Belgium’s current return policy aims to be “humane and firm”. On the one hand, it puts new emphasis on information, orientation and advice for migrants. On the other hand, it has stepped up forced returns, and in doing so extended powers to detain immigrants.

Regarding integration, the 2019 coalition agreement of the Flemish government envisages making the civic integration course tougher through the introduction of a minimum fee of 360 euros and by tightening language requirements.

Progressive campaigns and their achievements

Civil society has contested measures restricting migrants’ rights through campaigning, lobbying and strategic litigation. Challenging the legality of these measures in court has proven the most successful way of influencing migration policy, even if the courts did not uphold all complaints.

The “You don’t lock up a child. Period” campaign against child immigration detention found widespread support.

Pressure from civil society and some cities led to the relocation of 18 unaccompanied minors from the Greek islands of Lesbos and Samos in August 2020, and of another 11 unaccompanied minors in December 2020 after a fire destroyed the Moria camp. Of course, these figures fall far below what is actually needed.

Irregular migrants are calling for a more lenient approach to regularisation through various means, such as an open letter to Belgian citizens on the website “We are Belgium too”, the occupation of a church and university buildings as well as – currently – a hunger strike.