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Reaching out in times of COVID-19

Migrants standing in Parc Maximilien in Brussels
Parc Maximilien in Brussels is a meeting point for many migrants © ERRIN

 

Despite the ongoing lockdown and strict coronavirus measures imposed in Belgium, Fedasil’s ReachOut team never ceased their outreach activities

Working from home is not a daily reality for Fedasil’s outreach team. Amine and Morgane leave the comfort of their desks to approach migrants stranded in Brussels and inform them about their available legal opportunities, including the possibility of voluntary return. Now, more than ever, these people are in dire need support: “The pandemic has obviously made everything more challenging for migrants,” says Amine, one of Fedasil’s outreachers, during one of their daily rounds around Parc Maximilien. The team also visits squats and collaborates with numerous day centres and food distribution points that allow for more private interactions that the streets of Brussels.

It is an unusually sunny day for a Belgian winter. We see large groups of people hanging out in the park, playing football or sitting around on the park benches. Many of them are on the phone, chatting with friends and families back at home.

The coronavirus pandemic has made the situation of many migrants stranded at some point of their journey even more complicated – as many services are suspended and legal procedures take more time than usual, people on the move are unable to take a step in any direction; some spend many months in a limbo waiting for the outcome of their asylum applications, often unaware of the possibility of returning home. Wintertime does not make things any easier.

Parc Maximilien in Brussels is one of the daily outreach spots for Fedasil © ERRIN

 

People we speak to often seem lost in the labyrinth of legal procedures. Amine and Morgane patiently explain the complexities of the Dublin procedure, or provide details about what rights they have in Belgium. Sometimes as little as a piece of information on where to find a warm meal and spend the night is the first step to build trust and provide people with some headspace to think about the next step of their journey. “Voluntary return is an option we only present to people when we feel they might be receptive to the idea. If a person is still determined to try their luck in the UK or another European state, putting the possibility of return on the table can be counterproductive,” says the team.

That afternoon we meet mostly Eritreans and Ethiopians. A young man in his late twenties with lost identity card asks how he can make it back to Sweden, where he claims he had obtained his legal papers. A teenager from Ethiopia wants to know what to do next. Speaking to one person quickly attracts the attention of other people, who curiously gather around to listen to what the outreachers have to say. “The reality on the ground is that many people have left their fingerprints in another EU state, Italy, Spain or Greece. Getting back to that country to wait for the outcome of the procedure or coming back home are their only remaining legal options.”

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