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Afghanistan: Refugees Seek Shelter In Brussels Church

For three weeks, a low-intensity standoff between Belgian authorities and a few hundred Afghan asylum seekers has simmered in an unlikely setting. Nearly 300 Afghans, protesting a decision by Belgium to deport them to Afghanistan, have occupied half of a Catholic church building in a trendy part of Brussels favored by "eurocrats," or EU administration officials and employees. The refugees say a return to Afghanistan would not be safe, and a majority are now on hunger strike demanding a review of the decision.

Brussels, 13 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Holy Cross Church in Ixelles, a Brussels neighborhood a stone's throw from the city's "EU quarter," has for the past three weeks been the site of an unusual co-existence.

In half of the church, the daily comings and goings of the Catholic congregation continues uninterrupted. But the other half of the church has become home to nearly 300 Muslim Afghan asylum seekers.

Afghans of all ages, weary from the oppressive heat that has enveloped Brussels for weeks now, lie on mattresses in the nave, leaving a generous passageway for those wanting to wander deeper into the church. About two-thirds of the refugees in the church are on a hunger strike, or severely restricted diets, and are too weak to do much else.

Mohammed Nazari -- whose fluent command of French, English, and Flemish has elevated him to the status of unofficial spokesman for the refugees -- said the asylum seekers are protesting against what he says is a decision by the Belgian Interior Ministry to deport the 1,100 Afghan asylum seekers currently in Belgium by June next year.

"After a few years [in Belgium], we have received a letter from the [Belgian authorities] that we have to prepare to go back to Afghanistan. But you know the situation in Afghanistan is not safe; it's very dangerous. Therefore, we have asked to have a solution to our problem," Nazari said.

The European Union is moving to deport a total of roughly 100,000 Afghan refugees, even as it acknowledges concerns like Nazari's are legitimate. EU officials admit routinely that Hamid Karzai's Transitional Administration is very weak, especially outside the capital Kabul. Last weekend, the United Nations suspended aid operations in the south of the country, citing unacceptable security risks to personnel.

Many refugees in the Brussels church -- even those from Kabul, which is considered relatively safe compared to the rest of the country -- say they fear for their lives if they are forced to return.

Nazari said the Belgian immigration authorities have dragged their feet over processing the Afghans' asylum applications, some of which were lodged up to five years ago. "We think that the [Belgian Interior Ministry] has not considered our problems, because for many years they have put our files [to] the side and they haven't worked on our files. Now after years they want to tell us to go back to Afghanistan," he said.

Nazari said he feels Afghans are being unfairly singled out from other refugees and treated as a group, rather than on a case-by-case basis. Belgian officials, on the other hand, say the cases are being dealt with individually, in full accordance with Belgian law.

The Belgian government on 7 August appointed an official mediator, an ex-judge named Victor Bricourt. Bricourt has since held two rounds of talks with representatives of the Afghans (9-10 August).

Nazari says although Bricourt initially appeared sympathetic, by the second meeting his stance had hardened. "On [9 August, when] he came back, he was totally in another position. Therefore he defended the position of the [Belgian] government -- that [it] cannot respond favorably to [our] demand. And we have asked the people [on hunger strike] if they agree with [Bricourt]. They told us 'No, there is not any change in [our] position,'" he said.

The details of the refugees' demands remain hazy. Nazari indicated they want more transparency about the conditions on which asylum cases are decided. But on a broader front, it is clear the refugees' main wish is to stay on in Belgium.

Bricourt has already resigned from the position, and has been replaced by the Belgian federal ombudsman -- an independent official who handles public complaints relating to state institutions. The Belgian government has indicated it considers negotiations with the Afghans impossible as long as the hunger strike carries on.

There are reports that the government will review the security situation in Afghanistan in January, and that any eventual asylum decisions will be based on the results of that review.

Meanwhile, the 300 Afghans in Brussels' Holy Cross Church vow to continue their protest. Conditions, although clearly very basic, are made tolerable mostly thanks to the generous help of the local neighborhood association. On 9 August, the association organized a support meeting of about 500 locals on the steps of the church.

Nazari said the hunger strikers say they will continue fasting until a solution is found. "Nobody is responsible for all the people, you have to ask the people whether they agree or not [with the hunger strike]," he said. "And they have said to us we will continue the action until we have a solution to our problems."

If the hunger strikers' resolve holds, a solution will have to be found far earlier than January.