One year on, a migrant occupation that briefly seized the Belgian government is officially ending — at the host’s request — leaving some grappling over what was achieved.
In January 2021, roughly 200 undocumented migrants moved into a historic Brussels church, hoping to bring attention to their struggles as long-term residents who couldn’t fully access Belgian society.
Within months, their local action blossomed into a global discussion. The protesters staged a hunger strike that nearly fractured the Belgian government and became a cause for artists worldwide. Then, just as the strikers’ health entered perilous territory, the protest was called off. Belgian officials had agreed to accelerate consideration of the strikers’ legal residency applications.
After that, the occupation started whittling down until only 20 sans-papiers remained — those who lost their homes over the last year. Now, church officials say the 17th century St. John the Baptist Church at the Béguinage, in central Brussels, is no longer safe as the winter freeze sets in. And they’re insisting those left must leave.
“It’s not humane: there is only one tap and one toilet, that’s all there is. And no heating,” said Daniel Alliët, the church’s priest, who has spent his career speaking out on behalf of migrants and is a member of House of Compassion, an organization supporting the occupation.
Yet the majority of occupants, past or present, have still not received an answer on their residency applications. And most of those who did get an answer were denied legal status. It’s an outcome that has left some of the protesters frustrated, wondering what they can do next to keep up the pressure.
For now, however, the church administration has said the final occupiers must leave — a request they’ve taken to the local justice of the peace, which is expected to rule at the end of January or early February. The church administration said it is “hoping for a serene solution to the situation.”
Support organizations and volunteers are looking for housing for the remaining occupants. Karen Naessens, also from House of Compassion, said they are “confident” in finding solutions through an existing network of people willing to open their doors.
“We always try to find solutions,” said Tarik, a protester from Morocco who is still in the church and, like other occupants, declined to provide his last name. “We were able to find housing for many of them so that they can go there and rest. During the day, they come back here.”
Over the summer, the protesters went to extreme lengths to both demand legalization and highlight the difficulties they faced — such as lack of access to social security and labor rights, problems the pandemic has only exacerbated. Some sewed their mouths shut. Others stopped drinking water.
Still, several months later, the applications have not moved as quickly as they would like.
Of the 442 residency applications, the government has made a decision on 79, involving 93 people, according to figures from the office of Sammy Mahdi, Belgium’s top migration official. The government granted residency to 24 of those people while denying the remaining 69.
Mohamed, who is also still in the church, said he was one of the 69 denied residency. He said he was considering another hunger strike, arguing the government had fallen short of its promises.
A spokesperson for Mahdi pushed back on the allegation: “The secretary of state has always been very clear about the accusations of some people: No false promises have been made.”
Those who worked with the church during the occupation say that during the protest, it was acceptable to have people living in subpar conditions — it was part of the political action.
“For a political action, it’s okay to have circumstances that are beyond the norm,” said Naessens. “But for somebody who doesn’t have anywhere else to go, it’s inhumane as a place to stay.”
Still, some of the protesters see the church itself as an important platform, even six months after reaching an agreement with the government.
“The church of the Béguinage is our leverage,” said Tarik. “We are already here, in the church, and there are only negative decisions [on residency applications]. If we leave, that’s it, we are buried, straight away.”
Tarik is not homeless; his mother is Belgo-Moroccan and has a legal residency permit in Belgium. Tarik officially submitted his own residency request on August 20, and the police stopped by in late October to confirm his address at his mother’s place. But several months later, he has not received a final decision.
Alliët, the priest, said it has mostly been women with children at school or pregnant women who have had their applications accepted.
Many others haven’t even gotten the police check like Tarik.
“Their address has to be checked before they get an answer to their request,” Naessens said. “For many of them, that simple step of a police officer who comes to check hasn’t even happened.”
For Alliët, the protesters leaving the church doesn’t mean the fight has to end.
“They are disappointed because it has hardly worked,” he said. “But it’s still important that some politicians recognize that this situation is not okay — even if it won’t change directly.”