Hunger strikers risk lives in quest for Belgium papers
Six hundred Africans and Latin Americans have been on hunger strike in Brussels for up to two months demanding residency permits and some are now dangerously ill.BRUSSELS - "I am ready to keep going until I get papers or until I die," said Amed Bobobarry, one of the protesters.
While sit-ins at churches, schools and even on construction cranes have been frequent in Belgium in recent years, the hunger strikes highlight a new radicalisation of the campaign by would-be migrants.
Bobobarry, a 24-year-old accountant from Guinea, said he came to Belgium after spending two months in prison in his home country for union activity.
He has lived "like a rat" during his three years in Belgium, he said, going from job to job on the black market.
Bobobarry, who says he is "desperate" but "determined", stopped eating food on February 16 with 102 other people from about a dozen African countries.
"I've got kidney problems," he said, sitting on a mattress lined up with others in an underground university car park in Brussels.
He now only weighs 54 kilogrammes (119 pounds), down from 74kg two months ago.
Without windows or ventilation, the parking lot dormitory is illuminated by neon lights. University authorities have had toilets installed at the entrance.
Volunteers bring the protesters water mixed with sugar or made into tea, which has been the hunger-strikers' sole sustenance for 58 days.
Several doctors have expressed concerns about the protesters' health. One warning recently that they faced "grave complications that could be lethal" when the strikes went on for more than seven or eight weeks.
"There are about 20 people who were told by doctors 'either you leave or you're going to die,'" said Omar Diarra, who acts as a spokesman for the protesters.
"All of them chose to keep going," he added.
"It's a desperate action, but we don't have an alternative. The authorities are totally deaf," said Diarra, a 37-year-old from Ivory Coast.
In addition to the migrants in the university car park, another 280 have gone on hunger strike in a gym at another Brussels university, refusing food for 44 days.
In early April, another 230 followed at a church in central Brussels.
Despite the size of the hunger-strike, authorities have refused to give in to the demands for residency permits. "There is no other way out than to stop the strike," said Rolf Falter, spokesman for Immigration Minister Annemie Turtelboom.
"We have about 500 people on hunger strike. If we give in then tomorrow there will be 5,000 and 50,000 the day after."
Bobobarry thought a solution was at hand when the five parties in Belgium's ruling coalition agreed in March 2008 on a new migration policy.
They proposed a points system to grant legal residency based on how integrated applicants were into local society.
But a year on the programme has stalled, despite calls from campaign groups, church leaders, unions and university officials to clarify the criteria for residency permits.
The ruling coalition is now divided on what to do.
French-speaking parties want clearer criteria for granting residency permits. But the immigration minister's Flemish Liberals fear that such a measure would be ill received by voters two months ahead of key regional elections.