BRUSSELS – Some refugees and asylum-seekers in Brussels have been spending months in between the Street of Palaces and the Small Castle — quite literally.
Unfortunately, it's not a dream come true at the end of their fearful flight from halfway across the globe. It's a perpetual nightmare.
Petit Chateau, which means small castle, is a government reception center that often does anything but welcome arrivals. The Rue des Palais — street of palaces — has the city’s worst squat, where the smell of urine and the prevalence of scurvy have come to symbolize how the European Union’s migration policy is failing.
They are only 2½ miles (four kilometers) from the sleek Europa Building where EU leaders will hold a two-day summit starting Thursday to deal with migration issues that have vexed the 27 member nations for more than a decade.
Shinwari, an Afghan army captain who long helped Western powers try to stave off the Taliban, now lives in a makeshift tent camp right on the canal opposite Petit Chateau.
It's a place as desolate as it is hopeless.
"It is very cold. Some guys have different diseases and many of us are suffering from depression, because we don’t know what will happen tomorrow,” said the 31-year-old, who left behind his wife and four children, convinced that Taliban forces that took over in August 2021 would kill soldiers like him who worked with NATO countries.
“They search houses. No one’s life was safe,” Shinwari said. ”They have already once told my family 'your son has taken refuge in an infidel country.'"
Even now, far from home, he's too scared to be identified beyond his last name and with only the vaguest military details. He doesn't want his face shown in photos or video, for fear the Taliban might hurt his family.
Exacerbating his plight is the reception he's been given in the wealthy EU — largely marked by indifference, sometimes even hostility.
“Unfortunately, no one gets to hear our voices,” he said from his tent, surrounded by a half-dozen ex-members of the Afghan military.
Instead, the vocabulary of EU leaders before the summit is much more about “strengthening external borders,” “border fences” and “return procedures” than it is about immediately making life better for people like Shinwari.
And with 330,000 unauthorized attempts made to enter the EU last year — a six-year record — projecting a warm embrace for refugees doesn't win many elections on the continent these days.
Many Afghans also look with envy at the swift measures that the EU took after Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24 to grant Ukrainians temporary protection measures such as residency rights, labor market access, medical aid and social welfare assistance — things that all largely pass them by.
“The issue of Afghans and Ukrainians are the same, but they don’t get treated the same way," Shinwari said. "When Ukrainians come here, they are provided with all the facilities ... on the first day of their arrival, but we Afghans who have left our country due to security threats, we don’t get anything.
"It is surprising because human rights are not the same for everyone and that upsets us and makes us feel disappointed and neglected.”
EU leaders have already said that a full breakthrough on their migration policies won't come before bloc-wide elections in June 2024.
Shinwari said he was lucky to puncture the EU's beefed up borders to use his right to asylum after an eight-month trek through Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia and eventually Belgium. It included beatings, arrest and escape in Iran, and hunger and fear along much of the trail.
Shinwari made it to Europe alive, “but now that I am here, I am homeless like a nomad” with a flimsy blue tent to keep out Belgium's many rain showers, he said.
Other Afghan former soldiers settled in the Rue des Palais, where their stories of trauma, depression, drugs and violence were just as bleak.
“The situation is not good here. If the Red Cross brings food, we will have something to eat, but if not, then many don't have anything,” said Roz Amin Khan, who fled Laghman province to arrive in Belgium two months ago.
Since arriving four months ago, Shinwari said that he had one interview with asylum processing authorities and has been waiting ever since.
The lack of help for most refugees has been driving nongovernmental organizations and volunteers to despair.
“Between the legal framework and the situation on the ground there is a world of difference,” said Clement Valentin, a legal advocacy officer at the CIRE refugee foundation. “There is this gap and it is tough to understand — for me and for the NGOs.
"But I cannot even begin to comprehend how tough it must be for Afghans here in Belgium, or other European nations, to understand this.”
The legal sloth isn't limited to Belgium. The EU's Agency for Asylum said in its latest trends report of November 2022 that “the gap between applications and decisions had reached the largest extent since 2015,” and was widening still. Overall, it said, more than 920,000 cases were still pending, a 14% annual increase.
Such was the bureaucratic backlog at the Petit Chateau when Shinwari arrived, that would-be asylum-seekers had to wait sometimes for days in the rain and cold just to get in the front door. Citizens living close by brought food and set up fire pits, because the government didn't act.
Even if the situation has improved, the physical and mental scars are easy to see, said Michel Genet, director of Doctors of the World Belgium.
“People have been through big traumas and a very difficult situation and they expect to come here and be taken care of," but they're not, Genet said.
During many sleepless nights in the freezing cold, with the dull buzz of passing cars in the background, Shinwari's thoughts drift back home.
“Sometimes I think about the future, and I think how much longer I have to live on the streets," he said. "My mind is surrounded with problems. I think of the safety of my family and my future.”
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