'Dying Is No Longer a Problem for Me' Hunger Striking lllegal Immigrants in Belgium in Critical Condition

Groups of illegal immigrants in Brussels have been staging hunger strikes for months following the rejection of their applications for residency permits. A doctor warns that their condition is now critical.
Von Petra de Koning

Rajendra Debkota, 50, an agricultural engineer from Nepal, can barely walk after 78 days of fasting. He's clearly in pain. When asked if he will continue his hunger strike, he responds: "I'm alone with my body. I can't think about what I'll do today or tomorrow."

Debkota and seven other people on hunger strikes are being cared for at the Latin America House in Brussels. They come from Nepal, the Ivory Coast, Congo, Guinea, Brazil and Iran. The hunger strikes are being conducted by illegal immigrants or asylum seekers whose applications for residency permits to stay in Belgium are pending or have been rejected. In recent years, hunger strikes and other protests  have become a common way for illegal immigrants to try to stay in the country.

Even as another group of hunger striking illegal immigrants ended their protest on Tuesday, those at the Latin America House continued their fasting.

Already, an Algerian man has been admitted to a hospital with kidney problems that developed after he stopped drinking fluids during the day because of Ramadan, the Muslim holiday.

And Moussa Diakite, a 33-year-old from the Ivory Coast, has been taken to the hospital twice but refuses further treatment. "Dying is no longer a problem for me," he says. "I'm tired."

On Tuesday, another 70 immigrants on hunger strikes agreed to abandon their protest and accept a deal from the Alien Registration Office for a 90-day visa to allow them to recuperate from the ordeal, according to the Web site of the Belgian daily De Standaard. Their protests had prompted churches, unions and refugee organizations to pressure the government to come up with clear guidelines for a general amnesty program for illegal aliens already living in the country. The government was supposed to publish the criteria in the spring, but it has since been postponed indefinitely.

The last time the Belgian government offered blanket amnesty was in 2000, when it issued residency permits to 40,000 immigrants living in the country illegally. But the new government -- currently teetering on the verge of collapse -- has been unable to reach a consensus on the issue. While Belgium's Francophone political parties support the idea of an amnesty program, Flemish parties in the Dutch-speaking north would like to make the country's asylum and immigration policies more restrictive.

Reprieve Was a "Tactical Move"

At the beginning of July, the government granted some 100 people on hunger strike with three-month temporary residency permits, which they were told could be extended to up to nine. A spokesman for Belgian Immigration and Asylum Minister Annemie Turtelboom says this was really a "tactical move" intended to make the immigrants give up their hunger strike.

"We got the idea from France," the spokesperson said. "It gives people three months to recuperate. Besides, there is no airline which would have taken these people on board in that state. We said that if doctors felt it was necessary, we would extend the period."

Turtelboom's strategy attracted broad criticism. Right-wing parties such as the Flemish-separatist Vlaams Belang accused the minister, a member of the liberal, business-friendly Open VLD party, of dithering, while relief organizations branded her policy as "arbitrary." Meanwhile, the extension period for the reprieve has since been revoked. At most, those on a hunger strike can obtain a residency permit for three months -- after that they will be forced to leave.

"These People are in Pain"

Doctor Julie Gosuin visits the hunger strikers every day to weigh them, take their blood pressure and dispense pain killers. "They are in a bad way," she says, "These people are in pain, they can't even tell if they're thirsty anymore. There may be heart problems. Something dangerous could happen at any moment."

Nicole Ngama, 29, of Congo is on her third hunger strike. She says her parents died when she was 12 and that she was forced to fight in the Congolese army. She fled to Zambia and came to Belgium in 2004. She was denied a residency permit but found a job in an old people's home in Brussels.

Does she understand Belgian politics? Ngama nods, but a Flemish former union official, Pol van Camp, who is sitting beside her and has been helping the campaigners, answers for her. Nicole is not stupid, he says, pointing to the books and magazines next to her mattress. And they talk politics a lot in the Latin America House. "These strikes are taking place because there is no political policy," he says.