Belgium begins granting residency to migrant hopefuls
Belgium began a major operation on Tuesday to grant legal residency status to illegal immigrants who cannot be expelled on humanitarian grounds, officials said.
While insisting that official papers would only be distributed on a case-by-case basis, the government launched a process expected to last three months, until 15 December in cities across the country.
Tents and portable toilets were set up to handle those seeking papers in the northern port city of Antwerp and in Ghent, to the west, with a large number of public officers were mobilised to handle the processing.
However only a few dozen people sought to do register, local officials said.
In Brussels, a spokeswoman for the foreign office said "there was no mile-long queue" either.
In a similar operation in 1999, some 57,000 people were allowed to stay.
"It is impossible to know how many foreigners will be regularised since, by definition, we cannot know the number of people who do not have papers," the spokeswoman said.
For now, people who have requested asylum and deemed to have waited too long, sometimes more than three or four years, or those living in an "urgent humanitarian situation" or those who have long-term links to Belgium are being considered.
Priority is also given to those who speak French or Dutch, have tried to obtain some form of legal status, or who have a permit to work in Belgium as well as an employment contract.
This last category will pose a problem as many illegal residents with jobs are working on the black market, most commonly in the building industry, without an employment contract.
In late July this year, Belgian police ejected almost 500 illegal residents from a central Brussels building they had been living since mid-May, in the second operation of its kind in 48 hours.
Illegal immigrants have frequently staged protests and hunger strikes in the capital in an effort to win legal residency.