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Belgium's Immigration Policy Brings Renewal and Challenges

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Belgium's Immigration Policy Brings Renewal and Challenges

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Immigration Before 1945: Setting the Stage

In the 19th century, massive internal migration took place in Belgium as Flemish peasants in the north were attracted by the industrialization of the southern region of Wallonia. After World War I, the labor-hungry Walloon industries were nevertheless forced to recruit foreign workers in surrounding countries and later in Poland and Italy. Between 1920 and 1930, 170,000 foreigners settled in Belgium. In the 1930s, the Belgian government restricted immigration and introduced a law on immigration, which is the basis for the country's current immigration policy.

Post-war Labor Pains

By 1945, following World War II, Belgian coal production had declined drastically. This shortfall was widely viewed as a major obstacle to achieving post-war reconstruction goals, because coal production was intimately linked to other industrial production. Winning the "coal battle" was critical, the government decided, but the future was uncertain. There were 136,530 mine workers in 1940, but only 87,566 remained to take up this challenge at the end of the war.

Despite efforts to improve the working conditions and salaries for coal miners, domestic recruitment dried up, forcing authorities to look to foreign labor—a policy the government had pursued before the war. Beginning with Italy in 1946, and continuing with Spain (1956), Greece (1957), Morocco (1964), Turkey (1964), Tunisia (1969), Algeria (1970), and Yugoslavia (1970), the government pursued several bilateral agreements. When a crisis struck the coal industry in the early 1970s, these immigrant workers left to find employment in other industries such as iron and steel, chemicals, construction, and transportation.

In the early 1960s, when the demand for labor was still strong, the Ministry of Justice stopped strictly applying the legislation governing immigration. A work permit was no longer considered a prerequisite for a residence permit. In this sense, the market and public policy conspired to encourage clandestine immigration. Many immigrant workers arrived in Belgium as tourists, looking for a job. Only later did they formalize their residence in the country. This arrangement was implicitly accepted by employers and tolerated by immigration authorities.

The worsening economic situation and rising unemployment in the late 1960s, however, demanded a new response. In 1967, the government ended this clandestine route of entry by returning to a strict application of immigration legislation. New laws were passed to control the granting of work permits; the goal was to control and regulate the flows of immigrants into the country in line with economic needs.

Building the European Community

The new immigration legislation took into account a new fact: the establishment of a more united Europe. In effect, it had to comply with the Treaty of Rome, which envisaged, among other things, the free movement of workers. This concern was particularly acute in Belgium, where most of the immigrant workers were Italian and, therefore, part of the European adventure. By 1968, 62 percent of foreign workers were nationals from member countries of the European Community.

European unity was to have an important effect on the immigrant question in Belgium, dividing immigrants into two categories: one in a supranational political sphere, i.e., Europe, and the other composed of what are today called third-country nationals from non-EU countries. The first category enjoyed many legal rights aimed at encouraging the equality of treatment between nationals and foreigners, while the second group faced various forms of legal discrimination.

Starting in 1968, immigrants from other European Community countries were able to cross into Belgium as tourists by simply presenting a passport or identity card. They no longer needed a visa. Furthermore, they had the right to find paid employment without a work permit. The nationals of EU member states were considered to be the same as Belgian workers, except for public sector jobs. These regulations had significant consequences for most immigrant workers then living in Belgium, who could thus exchange, more in legal terms than in sociological or political terms, their identities as an immigrants for that of nationals of an EU member state. Consequently, the benefits of these legal provisions were to be spread to other immigrants, not according to the duration of their residence in Belgium, but because their countries of origin had joined the European Union. Nationals from Greece, Portugal, and Spain were to enjoy these same advantages a few years after these countries joined the European Union.

Border Closures

At the end of the 1960s, an economic recession and a rise in unemployment once again forced the government to review its policy on allowing immigrants to enter the employment market. In March 1969, the Ministry for Employment and Work proposed three measures designed to cut the awarding of work permits. In one fell swoop, the government refused to grant new work permits and to regularize foreigners who had arrived as tourists but continued to stay in the country as workers. Next, the government pushed forward with legislation that would prevent immigrants from gaining employment in any other industry apart from the one for which they had been authorized to stay. It also wanted to expel unemployed foreigners.

Trade union organizations, which believed in equality between foreign and domestic workers, reacted strongly to the possible reintroduction of the practice of expulsion of the unemployed. Faced with these multiple reactions, the government withdrew this measure.

The many modifications to Belgium's immigration policy throughout the 1960s, from a laissez-faire to a restrictive implementation of the legal regulations, caused great confusion with regard to the country's actual policy on labor recruitment. The number of work permits distributed to foreigners for the first time dropped steeply sarting in 1968, when the new regulations took effect. Nonetheless, these measures did not manage to stop the arrival of immigrant workers. As a result of the rise in unemployment and economic difficulties faced by some industries that used a great deal of foreign labor, the government hardened its immigration policy by introducing two new measures: an official ban on immigration, and an increase in the sanctions on employers who sought out new immigrant workers.

On August 1, 1974 by means of a simple decision of the Belgian Cabinet, the government put a strict limit on new immigrants, allowing entry only for people with qualifications that were not already available in the country. This decision, which was similar to the official ban on immigration, was also accompanied by a policy on legalizing foreigners residing clandestinely in Belgium. The latter measure benefited some 9,000 foreigners, who were granted residence permits in 1975.

Demographic Imperatives

If immigration into Belgium was viewed as the answer to labor shortages in certain financial sectors, the authorization for family reunification chosen by Belgium also demonstrates the other goal assigned to immigration, that of demographic recovery. This was especially true for the French-speaking part of the country, Wallonia. Some experts advocated trading an immigration policy tied to economic conditions for one that would integrate immigrant workers and their families in order to counter demographic stagnation in Belgium. They feared that this demographic stagnation was a precursor to a drop in Belgium's overall standard of living.

The focus on the family appeared very early in Belgium's immigration policy. It was already included in the first agreements signed between Belgium and Italy and was included in the bilateral agreements with other countries in the 1960s. The family policy, however, was linked to the call for immigrant labor, and was used primarily to keep immigrants in the same place and combat what employers feared most: worker mobility. Moreover, family reunification added value to immigration in Belgium, especially when the lower wages in Wallonia were compared to those in nearby Lorraine or the Ruhr region.

The importance of family reunification was highlighted both in a legal text and in the information drawn up by Belgium regarding its immigration policy. A new regulation in 1965 provided for reimbursement of half of the travel expenses for the spouse and children who accompanied a worker, providing the family had at least three children under the legal majority age (at the time, 21).

From 1974 to the Present

As in other European countries, officially halting all new immigration of foreign workers did not manage to stop immigration. Furthermore, the government's various initiatives to persuade certain immigrant workers to return to their country of origin were not successful either. Thus, in the case of Belgium, the official ban on recruiting new unqualified foreign workers that was passed in 1974 never produced a complete closure of the borders. In fact, Belgium has never ceased to be a country of immigration, although immigration happens to a lesser extent than before. Immigration since 1974 has simply changed, especially with regard to the types of immigration and the national origins of the migrants.

One of the modern-day types of immigration involves nationals from member states of the European Union. In effect, thanks to the free movement of labor in the EU, many people come to live and work in Belgium. Thus, the number of French and Dutch people residing in Belgium has been constantly rising since 1991. European nationals account for a significant share of the increasing number of foreigners in Belgium.

While the government has stopped using bilateral agreements to recruit workers, nearly 100,000 work permits were granted to foreigners between 1974 and 1984. Over a third of these work permits were granted to recent immigrants who had arrived directly from abroad and not to foreigners already living on Belgian soil. Between 1985 and 1993, another 100,000 work permits were issued, with 27,000 going to new immigrants. The trend continues today, with new immigrants arriving. However, there is one major difference with respect to the preceding period. Between 1946 and 1974, Belgium attracted primarily unskilled workers. After that date, new work permits were, more often than in the past, granted to qualified foreigners who had a higher level of education. To a lesser extent, sports professionals, especially football and basketball players, also benefited.

Furthermore, family reunification has become a privileged path for immigration into Belgium. Every year, several thousand people of foreign nationalities receive authorization to settle in Belgium with their spouse or their parents who have already been living in the country for several years. In the year 2002, 4,415 authorizations for family reunification were granted.

Foreign students are another important source of immigration into Belgium. Each year, Belgium gives young foreigners the chance to come and study at public universities and technical schools. The candidates receive a residence permit allowing them to live in the country for the period of their studies. In principle, they are supposed to leave the country at the end of their studies. Some students, especially from less-developed countries in Africa, receive financial assistance from the Belgian Government as a way to encourage development. During the academic year 2001-2002, 12,285 of the 61,257 students at the French-speaking universities in the country did not belong to any state in the European Union.

Asylum Seekers and Undocumented Workers

Belgium continues to attract greater numbers of asylum seekers and unauthorized immigrants. The number of asylum seekers knocking on Belgium's door grew significantly during the 1980s and especially in the 1990s. According to the National Commission for Refugees and Stateless Persons, the number of asylum seekers stood at 12,897 people in 1990. This number did not stop growing until 1993, when it reached a peak of 26,408 applications. Between 1994 and 1997, the applications for asylum ranged between 11,000 and 14,500 per year. In 1998 there was a new peak of 22,064 applications submitted. The wars in the former Yugoslavia explain a significant part of these figures. Each year, only 5-10 percent of these asylum seekers manage to obtain refugee status. In principle, those declined refugee status must leave the country. Some do so, either of their own accord, or at the hands of the police. Others choose to remain in Belgium illegally.

Evolution of Belgium's Foreign Population by Region

Throughout the 1990s, the Belgian authorities legalized just over 1,000 "undocumented aliens" every year, exclusively on an individual basis rather than through a broad legalization campaign.

The system has faced various challenges, particularly in September 1998, when Belgium was going through a hectic period of scandals and human dramas. A young Nigerian woman, Sémira Adamu, whose asylum claim had been rejected, suffocated at the time of her expulsion from the country by the police. This caused the resignation of the minister of the interior and drew Belgian society's attention to the situation of the many "undocumented aliens."

A debate ensued in the media and political circles, spurred in part by a movement of "undocumented aliens" that occupied churches and held hunger strikes to demand legalization of their status. The movement by and for these "undocumented aliens" spread from the confines of progressive and humanitarian circles to a broad national, and even transnational, movement. The new government formed after the elections in June 1999 organized a campaign for legalization. This was included in a "new" immigration policy whose main features were outlined in a government declaration in 1999 and passed on December 22, 1999.

The first phase of the legalization campaign lasted three weeks. Starting January 10, 2000, candidates for legalization submitted their application forms to authorities in their town of residence. At the end of the three weeks, the number of forms submitted stood at around 36,000. In actuality, they involved roughly 50,000 people, of whom some 23,000 were minors. Two nationalities stood out: Congolese, with 17.6 percent of the applications, and Moroccans, with 12.4 percent. Overall, 140 nationalities were represented among the candidates for legalization. The total number of people who finally benefited from this process is still unknown because the procedure itself has not ended.

Belgium Today

In 2000, the country's foreign population reached 8.8 percent of the total population. This figure did not include either foreigners residing illegally in Belgium, or Belgians of foreign origin, i.e., people who had gained Belgian nationality by various means. So the immigrant population and the offspring of immigrants exceed 8.8 percent of the country's population in 2000.

Foreign Population in Belgium, by Region (2000)
 
EU foreigners
Non EU foreigners
Total foreign population
Belgians
Total population
Percentage of foreigners
Belgium
563,556
333,554
897,110
9,341,975
10,239,085
8.8
Flanders
164,569
129,081
293,650
5,646,601
5,940,251
4.9
Wallonia
270,228
71,813
342,041
3,068,306
3,410,347
10.0
Brussels-Capital
140,356
133,257
273,613
685,705
959,318
28.5

Source: National Institute for Statistics, 2000

Furthermore, the foreign population is unequally distributed around the country. While the foreign-born population makes up 28.5 percent of the Brussels-Capital region, with much higher concentrations in certain neighbourhoods in poor areas, it forms barely five percent of the total population in the Flemish region. The figure is 10 percent for the Walloon region, the oldest area for immigration in the country. Moreover, the foreign population in Flanders is especially concentrated in the provinces of Limbourg and Antwerp, while the foreign population in Wallonia is concentrated mainly in the old industrial provinces of Liège and Hainaut.

Italians are the most numerous of the foreigners legally residing in Belgium, with around 200,000 people. The Moroccans are the second-largest group, with around 121,000 people largely concentrated in Brussels. The French, a population that is rarely talked about in studies on immigration, stand in third position with over 107,000 people, followed by the Dutch with over 85,000. The Turks are in fifth place with over 69,000 people. The Spanish number over 45,000, the Germans over 34,000, the British around 26,000, the Americans and the Congolese (ex-Zairians) with nearly 12,000 each. Contrary to a widely held belief, a large majority of the foreigners living in Belgium are originally either from a member state of the European Union, or from another so-called developed Western country. Third-country nationals, as citizens of non-EU states are commonly described, are still in the minority, even if their concentration in the large urban centers makes them particularly visible.

With the loosening of restrictions on becoming a Belgian citizen, more and more foreigners will be able to gain Belgian nationality. Between May 2000, the time that the new law came into force, and January 2001, 60,000 applications were submitted. Belgian nationality poses one interesting statistical challenge: as more and more immigrants and descendants of immigrants today hold Belgian nationality, they "disappear" from the official immigration statistics, which are primarily based on a distinction between nationalities and not on place of birth.

Integration and Public Policies

It is only in the mid-1980s that the government began to develop policies to encourage immigrants to settle in Belgium and to foster their inclusion in society. Three distinct periods characterize the new focus on integration.

In December 1980, the law on the entrance, residence, settlement, and return of foreigners, which is still in force, was passed unanimously. This law provided more legal security regarding residence. Most importantly, it introduced a legal process for foreigners to contest measures questioning the legality of their residency. This culminated with the passage in 1981 of a law to curb racism, and with the refusal to grant voting rights to foreigners on a community level.

In the mid-1980s, immigrants had become the political scapegoats for persistent unemployment at the time of elections. It was clear, however, that a policy of expulsion was politically unacceptable. In a compromise effort, the government implemented, on the one hand, a policy to encourage immigrants to return to their home countries (which had no notable effect). On the other hand, it established an integration policy. With tensions at their peak, the government in 1984 introduced the new Nationality Code, reforming the one from 1932, which established the principle of jus soli and simplified the procedure for naturalization. Children born on Belgian soil of foreign parents who themselves were born in Belgium became Belgian citizens. Although simplified, the naturalization process still required individuals to demonstrate a "desire to integrate" measured arbitrarily by the administration.

The third period began in 1989 with the creation of the Royal Commissioner for the Policy on Immigrants. The position was introduced following the large electoral gains of the extreme right in Flanders and Antwerp. In fact, the center of gravity of the "immigrant problem" shifted. While the problems of coexistence between Belgians and immigrants in Brussels had made headlines in the 1980s, immigration flared as a problem in Flanders in the 1990s. The upswing in support for the extreme right and the revolt in certain Brussels neighborhoods by young immigrants denouncing discrimination, in particular by the police, forced the government to introduce new social policies. These aimed at improving relations between Belgians and foreigners and at upgrading conditions in the neighborhoods in which many immigrants live. The new policies covered fields as far-ranging as regional planning, culture, education, professional training, and the fight against petty crime. In the 1990s, the Center for Equal Opportunities and the Fight Against Racism was created and entrusted with the task of fighting all forms of racial discrimination. It took over from the Royal Commissioner for the Policy on Immigrants.

The gradual loosening of the conditions for acquiring Belgian citizenship had the greatest impact over this period. The Act of 1984 underwent several revisions before it was passed on March 1, 2000, allowing any foreigner legally residing in Belgium to become Belgian with a simple declaration, without a check on his or her "desire to integrate." Since 1985, over 300,000 foreigners have become Belgians under this provision. They participate in all social activities and may join political parties. Since 1994, many cities and regions have elected Belgians of foreign origin to political office. Some hold posts in the executive branch, evidence of their integration into both society at large and Belgium's particular states. While successful by many accounts, the Belgian government's policies for integrating immigrants, like those of neighboring countries, have been accompanied by restrictive policies on newcomers.

Number of People Acquiring Belgian Citizenship, by Nationality, from 1985 to 1997
 
1985
1986-1991
1992
1993
1994
1995
1996
1997
Total
Percent
Holland
10,088
1,893
1,992
222
335
341
265
292
15,428
5.9
France
16,953
4,444
2,179
532
618
608
547
530
26,411
10.1
Italy
25,377
7,637
22,362
1,431
2,325
2,098
1,941
1,726
64,897
24.3
Spain
3,764
1,099
1,795
196
281
247
262
22
7,865
2.9
Portugal
958
410
230
85
117
100
93
111
2,104
0.8
Greece
1,249
856
940
170
312
294
253
238
4,312
1.5
Other EU
6,529
1,465
732
145
207
249
243
249
9,819
0.5
Subtotal: EU
64,918
17,804
29,417
2,781
4,195
3,937
3,604
3,367
130,023
48.9
Other Europe
2,637
3,213
1,038
796
1,005
851
823
1,982
12,345
3.8
Turkey
661
2,988
3,886
3,305
6,273
6,572
6,609
7,835
38,129
9.4
Algeria and Tunisia
3,189
2,240
1,418
959
1,284
1,317
962
1,187
12,556
2.2
Morocco
3,464
10,554
6,862
5,500
8,638
9,146
7,915
11,078
63,157
17.5
Other Non EU
6,544
10,415
2,496
2,113
2,730
2,502
2,538
5,410
34,748
1.4
Refugees
2,008
6,346
1,368
925
1,662
1,804
2,130
819
17,062
5.6
Subtotal: Non EU
18,503
35,756
17,068
13,598
21,592
22,192
20,977
28,311
177,997
51.1
TOTAL
83,421
53,560
46,485
16,379
25,787
26,129
24,581
31,678
308,020
100.0

Source: National Institute for Statistics, 2000

Perspectives and Conclusions

Belgium has, over time, become a country of permanent immigration. The settling of immigrants and their offspring has contributed to the diversification of Belgian society at all levels. Demographically, immigration has helped to restore some balance between numbers of young and old Belgians. Furthermore, immigration has diversified the composition of the Belgian population, which now includes people from several dozen countries from regions all over the world. Economically, immigrant workers contributed greatly to winning the "coal battle" after World War I, and have since contributed in various ways to the vitality of the economy, particularly in the small business sector. Politically, their permanent presence has made it necessary to hold a debate on the subject of integration policies. Even so, such policies have been late to arrive and have lacked coherence with regard to practical targets and implementation.

Culturally, immigrants and their descendants have both adapted to the local culture and enriched it. Religion constitutes a fundamental dimension. Following the settlement of immigrants from primarily Muslim countries, for example, Islam has become the country's second-largest religion. This has forced new questions about the role of Islam in Belgian society.

In sum, Belgium has become a social and cultural mosaic of identities, a true multicultural society in perpetual renewal. Belgium will continue to be a destination for asylum and immigration, no matter how restrictive immigration policies may become, because human mobility is key to the rapidly globalizing world.

This text is based on an earlier version of the paper entitled "Et si on racontait...une histoire de l'immigration en Belgique" (And if it were to be told...a history of immigration in Belgium) published in 2001 by the French Community of Belgium.