Nicoletta Carotenuto

The war against Ukraine that Vladimir Putin started is already having considerable economic and social consequences in his country and in all Europe. Indeed, on one side, Russia’s economy is expected to shrink by at least 15% this year and the EU must face the third asymmetric shock, as economists call it, experienced in the last two decades. On the other side, it has led to a massive influx of refugees into the European Union and it has also raised the broader question of the renewal of our common policy on asylum and migration to build more solidarity.

Representatives of the federal government and the three regions have met many times to discuss the reception of refugees from Ukraine. After the subject of Ukrainian refugees have been discussed at a national security council session and a meeting of a select committee of the federal government, it has been decided that the huge challenge of welcoming them in such numbers would have needed a common approach. In response, the federal government, Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels have arranged to meet in the hope of finding one.

Via Unsplash / Gayatri Malhotra

1. The Ukrainian crisis in numbers

Since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis, more than 6 000 refugees have registered in Belgium. About one third of them has applied for and has received accommodation (2 059 people between the 4th and the 13th of March 2022). [1]

Belgian authorities continue to revise the number of expected refugees from Ukraine. At the beginning of the war, the government braced for the arrival of as many as 200 000 Ukrainians. In mid-May, this number was significantly downgraded from 200 000 to 78 000 by the end of July. While at the start of August, just 52 000 Ukrainians were reported to be on Belgian soil.

Around 47 000 temporary protection statuses had been issued to Ukrainians in Belgium as of June. Among them, 46% of displaced people who needed accommodation were provided temporary housing in Flanders and another 34,6% found their way to Wallonia, in contrast to the 3,9% who stayed in Brussels. [2].

People carry flags and banners at a protest of members of the European Parliament and citizens, including Ukrainian living in Belgium, in support of Ukraine and against the war in Brussels, Belgium March 1, 2022
Via REUTERS / Yves Herman

2. Ukrainians in the Belgian labour market

Together with the EU, Belgium has made it less complicated for Ukrainians to enter the Belgian labour market. They have set out the basic conditions for Ukrainian refugees’ right to work in Belgium, which employers need to consider when they wish to employ Ukrainian citizens. Ukrainians have the right to a short stay (90 days) in Belgium without a visa, but with a biometric passport. This short stay can also be prolonged if it is not possible for them to return to Ukraine. However, this almost automatic right to a short stay does not grant Ukrainian citizens the right to work in Belgium. [3]

In fact, this privileged status applies to the following two categories of persons:

  • Ukrainian nationals and their family members who had Ukraine as their principal place of residence before 24 February 2022.
  • Stateless persons and nationals of third countries other than Ukraine, who benefited from international protection or equivalent national protection in Ukraine before 24 February 2022, along with their family members who had their principal place of residence in Ukraine before 24 February 2022. [4]

As a result of the current conflict, Ukrainian nationals may be granted temporary protection in Belgium. Ukrainians who reside in Belgium under such temporary protection have unlimited access to the labor market as employees. This means that (unlike other non-EU nationals) they do not have to obtain admission to work through an employer. Hence, their employers do not have to apply for a “single permit” at the Brussels Economy and Employment Service. The exemption also applies to Ukrainian nationals who want to set up as self-employed in the Brussels-Capital Region. In other words, they no longer need to apply for a professional card. [5].

3. Ukrainian students in Belgium

In May, in Belgium, approximately 30 000 refugees from Ukraine registered with Fedasil, the Federal Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers. More than 40% of them were minors, and 37% were of school age. To ensure the integration of these children into the education system, several measures was taken across the country.

As far as Flemish schools are concerned, the Flemish Minister of Education, Ben Weyts, stated that Flanders have the means to quickly provide mobile units (“container” classrooms) to increase the capacity of schools and accommodate newly arrived children from Ukraine. The OKAN system (reception level education for non-native children) exists to facilitate the school integration of these children, and the Pupil Guidance Centre provides them with psychological support.

Regarding Francophone schools, the DASPA system (reception and schooling system for newcomers and assimilated pupils) is adapting to handle exceptional increases in the number of newcomers during the school year. Caroline Désir, Minister of Education of the Francophone Community, explained that teaching resources have been made available to support teachers discussing the Russian invasion of Ukraine with their students. Furthermore, in the context of a shortage of teachers in Belgium, the Minister is considering hiring Ukrainian refugees to reinforce teaching staff. At present, approximately 1 000 Ukrainian children are enrolled in a francophone school in Wallonia or Brussels. [6]

Universities and colleges around Belgium have launched crash courses in Dutch, French and English for Ukrainian students, aiming to prepare them to continue their studies in Belgium. French-speaking university ULB in Brussels is offering French and English fast-track courses to Ukrainians as part of their ‘Help Ukraine’ campaign while VUB has launched the #PeaceForUkraine initiative, organising debates and fundraising. Meanwhile, Leuven has also joined the wagon by helping with interpreting, focusing on improving translation skills for those speaking both Dutch and Ukrainian or Russian. [7]

While the response of the public has been heart-warming, the reaction of Belgian authorities has been confusing and chaotic. The mass exodus of millions of Ukrainians has been predicted for months. Yet when refugees started arriving in Belgium at the beginning of March, authorities were woefully unprepared. “In most countries you hope for the best but prepare for the worst,” says Erik Van Wolvelaer, one of the organisers of Solidarity with Ukraine. “But here we just deal with the worst when the worst is already happening. It’s a very Belgian thing.” Refugees arrived in Brussels with minimal help and a mishmash of conflicting information. They then trudged to register at Porte de Hal, where they had to queue outside. “The reception is catastrophic,” said Delegate General for Children’s Rights Bernard De Vos. “It wouldn’t be Belgium without at least five agencies involved,” said Van Wolvelaer.

By the end of March, the situation had slightly improved with the creation of an online registration system and a covered queuing area at Heysel. But that was a month too late for thousands of refugees who expected more and deserved better. [8]

The Federal Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers (Fedasil) must evacuate the 400 asylum seekers of the Home Sebrechts in Molenbeek-Saint-Jean. The municipality won in court so that the building could not be used as a reception centre. When the war broke out in Ukraine, Molenbeek allowed the place to temporarily welcome Ukrainian refugees. However, Fedasil later transformed the building into a reception centre for refugees of all backgrounds without informing the municipality. Last June, Mayor Catherine Moureaux decided to take the case to the court of first instance, where she won the case a month later. Fedasil had appealed, but on 20 October 2022, the judge confirmed the ruling. Fedasil must now evacuate the premises as soon as possible. [9]

Belgium has so far granted a temporary protection certificate to 59 143 people, of whom 57 767 are Ukrainian nationals. In March and April, Ukrainian refugees flocked to Belgium with a record 26 507 people receiving temporary protection in April. That number has decreased somewhat over the months, but there are still daily registrations. So far, in October, 1 534 refugees have benefited from this protection. Not all Ukrainians arriving need a welcome, but those who need it are in principle first hosted at the Ariane transit centre in Brussels. They stay there while they find temporary accommodation in a host family or in accommodation provided by a municipality or region. [10]

The Flemish Red Cross, which set up the Ariane transit centre in Brussels on behalf of Fedasil, points out, however, that it has long needed all possible help. Fedasil has recently decided that this transit centre will also have to accommodate other refugees, which is a problem. Indeed, the Ariane Centre has had to deal with a very large influx, which means that there is no room for all Ukrainians. The problem arises mainly in the flow to shelters in other regions. The transit centre is supposed to serve as accommodation for a few days, but the Ariane Centre is becoming a more permanent place of residence and this remains an acute problem, as the centre is almost short of available places. Moreover, the distribution in the three regions of the country is not fluid, despite enough local initiatives to welcome refugees. Families are increasingly reluctant to provide temporary shelter, also report different sources. In holiday homes, bed and breakfasts and hotels, accommodations would also be scarcer than expected. [11]

Many of the Ukrainians have been returning to the registration centres every day. “This is already the third day that I am here to queue,” said one man. “I left Kiev on the 25th and was stuck at the border with Poland for almost a week. I came here because Belgian websites showed that there are good facilities here, but that is propaganda. The system doesn’t work, the government doesn’t work.” [12].

Via Unsplash / Gayatri Malhotra

4. The double standard in the Ukrainians crisis

In mid-May, the head of the world’s largest humanitarian network accused Europe of its “double standard” on migration policies. The quick acceptance of Ukrainians escaping Russia’s attacks brings Europe’s “double standard” for migrants into question, which is in contradiction with its non-welcome for people fleeing violence in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere, said Francesco Rocca, president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. [13]

Even the gynecologist and Nobel laureate Denis Mukwege renowned that If the West imposes sanctions against Russia over its invasion in Ukraine, it should also act against violence in Democratic Republic of the Congo. During a visit by the Belgian king and queen to the Panzi hospital in the east of the country, Denis Mukwege told reporters that there is no difference between suffering in Congo and Ukraine. He called on the Belgians who were present at the visit to take the lead in the EU and the U.N. to condemn the violence in eastern Congo. During the visit to the former Belgian colony, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said Belgium was ready to take up a role. De Croo’s message was echoed by the king, who said that “there is no development without peace” and that Belgium will carry out this message at the EU and the U.N. [14]

Overall, public approval in the European Union for measures to support Ukraine in resisting the Russian invasion remained remarkably solid several months into the war, although there are some signs that worries over rising costs and other concerns is curbing the initial enthusiasm. Indeed, a major survey conducted in March and June for Germany’s Bertelsmann Stiftung in cooperation with the King Baudouin Foundation among some 12 000 EU citizens across all 27 member states has shown some signs of concern on costs.

Belgians are slightly more favourable than the average, at 62%, although, in line with other countries, only 55% think that the Belgian federal government should confront Moscow by delivering arms directly. In addition, Support for EU arms going to Ukraine has dipped by 3 percentage points in Belgium since March, while there was a 5-point drop-in support for Belgium sending weaponry to Kyiv. Support in Belgium for taking in Ukrainian refugees declined to 79% in June from 84% in the first weeks after the Russian invasion, while support for Ukraine joining the EU in the coming years dipped by 1 point. [15]

In conclusion, Belgium is committed to the protection of human rights, respect for international humanitarian law and the fight against impunity in Ukraine since they perfectly resonate with its foreign policy priorities. Belgian leaders search for common approach to address Ukrainian refugee crisis, but initiatives have already been taken within the municipalities. The long and the short of it is that the best and the worst of Belgium has been on display this month as the country grapples with how to welcome tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine. Some Belgians take a perverse pride in the country’s chronic disorganisation and disjointedness. At a recent meeting with cultural bigwigs, many extolled the virtues of chaos, proudly declaring: “Ici c’est un grand bordel, mais on l’aime comme ça.” Well, chaos may be great for creativity, but it’s no way to run a country. And it’s certainly no way to greet vulnerable people craving clarity and searching for security.