'Not my dream': Migrants in Brussels forced to sleep in tents
Despite temperatures dipping below zero, dozens of people sleep in flimsy tents in a row hundreds of metres long beside a canal in Brussels as a growing asylum crisis takes hold.
The asylum seekers living in the makeshift camp at the heart of the European capital come from Afghanistan, sub-Saharan Africa, Eritrea, Palestinian territories and Syria.
"It was not my dream," said Moussa, 21, who left Sierra Leone in 2020.
Some say they have been living on the street for months, without being able to take a shower or wash their clothes, and forced to rely on charities for food.
Souleymane Camara, 24, arrived in Brussels at the end of January after an arduous, four-year journey which involved travelling from Guinea to Belgium via Mali, Algeria and Tunisia before crossing to Italy "by canoe".
In the biting cold, he shares a tent and only a few blankets with Moussa, who did not want to give his family name.
Both urge authorities to admit them to a temporary shelter while their asylum request is examined.
"Eating and sleeping outside, it's difficult... I want to train and work," Camara said, adding that he was an apprentice decorator.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) sounded the alarm this week over the "undignified" conditions endured by the migrants. The aid group installed a dozen mobile toilets and a sink with access to running water nearby.
Migrants deserved "basic hygiene and dignity... in the heart of the European capital", said MSF, denouncing Belgium's "disastrous management" of the situation.
David Vogel of MSF told AFP the tents first appeared at the end of 2021 near the federal building, nicknamed the "small castle", that usually directs asylum seekers to accommodation after their registration.
But already in 2021, the housing network's 33,000 places were full.
- 'Lack of political will' -
The makeshift camp has now grown from 60 to more than 120 today, Vogel said, after a squat was closed down in mid-February.
As conditions deteriorate, some migrants are forced to sleep on the streets for as many as six months. It used to be only "one or two days" before they were given a place, said Vogel.
Belgium registered nearly 37,000 asylum requests in 2022, an increase of 11,000 from the previous year, official data showed.
Across the European Union, the number of migrants arriving is on the rise.
Last year, there were nearly one million requests for international protection, a level last seen during the 2015-2016 refugee crisis.
Belgian officials have said their main aim is to speed up the processing of applications to return so-called "economic" migrants to their country more quickly.
"In our country, too many people enter when they do not have the right," Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo told parliament on Thursday.
"We need more effective and better-coordinated vetting between European countries," he said.
Centrist opposition MP Francois De Smet said the makeshift camp of "100 to 200 people" in central Brussels was "shameful" for Belgium.
Charities and non-governmental organisations working with refugees have called for a more permanent solution to resolve the lack of accommodation.
"There is no political will to see this crisis resolved," MSF's Vogel said.
He called for a federal crisis plan that "would force the mayors to accommodate some of these people, and free up available places in hotels".