Illegal immigrants in Belgium have found a new form of protest in their efforts to secure a residence permit. For the past week they have been occupying giant construction cranes in Brussels. But Belgian officials say they will not negotiate -- and like so many issues in Belgium, this one is also split down linguistic lines.
In recent months, it has become fairly common for illegal immigrants in the European capital of Brussels to go on hunger strikes to protest for the right to legal residency. This week, though, they deployed a dramatic new tactic in their fight to stay on European shores: They've been occupying the city's construction cranes at dizzying heights of up to 50 meters (164 feet) above the skyline.
Since Sunday, more than 40 illegal immigrants from countries like Morocco, Algeria, Rwanda and the Congo have been climbing cranes around the city, including sites near the offices of the European Union, and demanding they be issued residence permits.
Last week, the Belgian government granted temporary, 90-day residency permits to 39 illegal immigrants who had gone on a hunger strike. The strikes have become a common way for illegals or rejected asylum-seekers to try to stay in Belgium. In a number of instances, illegal immigrants have been granted a temporary reprieve from deportation. The crane climbers, some of whom were also conducting hunger and thirst strikes, demanded the same.
But after a court ruling that they could be forcibly removed from their perches, police succeeded in talking most of the immigrants into climbing down on Wednesday. But late the same night, one man fell while trying to climb down, sustaining non-life-threatening injuries.
The country's immigration minister and department of immigration have said they refuse to negotiate with the illegal aliens; and Freddy Roosemont of the government's immigration affairs office described the protests as "pointless." Groups supporting the illegal immigrants note that many speak French or Dutch and also hold jobs that would otherwise remain unfilled.
It is estimated that as many as 100,000 illegal aliens reside in Belgium, and the issue of how to deal with these immigrants has divided the government under Prime Minister Yves Laterme, with the split often going along linguistic lines. The Francophone Socialist and Christian Democratic parties have been supportive of creating amnesty programs for illegal aliens who are in employment, but Flemish parties in the Dutch-speaking north want to tighten the country's asylum and immigration policies. In 2000, Brussels offered an amnesty program and ultimately issued permanent residency permits to 40,000 illegal immigrants -- many of whom had French or Dutch-speaking backgrounds. But the new government, currently on the verge of collapsing, has been unable to reach a consensus on the issue and has delayed any decision until autumn, according to French wire service AFP.
A recent European Union agreement on tough new immigration rules requires that its 27 member states issue residency permits or send asylum seekers and illegal immigrants back home, and many countries are currently cracking down. According to AFP, Belgium deported 9,000 illegal immigrants in 2007 and helped 2,500 to go home voluntarily.