Belgium must be one of the few countries in the world to suggest that matters are improving.
Until recently, people from Gaza who entered Belgium and applied for refugee status generally had their requests approved. Yet in December 2018, the Belgian authorities revised their policy.
Under the new approach, each request is supposedly assessed on its merits.
The sole reason given for the change was that the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza had been reopened after a lengthy closure. It was, therefore, easier for people who leave Gaza to return – or at least that’s the line taken by the Brussels office handling requests for refugee status.
In total, the Belgian authorities took 783 decisions on requests for refugee status by Palestinians last year. Some 610 requests were turned down, with 172 approved (one Palestinian was given a protected status less than that of someone recognized as a refugee).
The revised policy is causing huge anxiety.
One man from Gaza who applied for refugee status in Belgium more than a year ago told me he still does not know when a decision will be made on his file. He is now living in a Red Cross center near the city of Liège, yet has five children back in Gaza.
His family will not be able to join him unless his application is approved.
“My children are always crying when I speak to them,” he said. “They always ask ‘Dad, when can we go to Belgium?’ I don’t know why Belgium is not helping Palestinians.”
The man’s eldest child – a 12-year-old – has already lived through a series of major Israeli onslaughts. His youngest, aged two, experienced such horror when Israel attacked Gaza for a few days in November.
Being away from them at that time was traumatic. “My family is OK but the stress was too much,” the man said. “There was bombing every day.”
I asked the Office of the Commissioner General for Refugees and Stateless Persons in Brussels if it really regards Gaza as safe.
Damien Dermaux, a spokesperson for that office, replied that it had never included Gaza on a list of safe places.
“It clearly appears that the situation in Gaza can still be considered as problematic but not in a way that everyone coming from Gaza has to be granted protected status,” he said. “The situation of each person is assessed individually and in a thorough manner. In certain cases, status is granted; in other cases, a decision to refuse is taken.”
The pretext given for the change of policy is flimsy.
Contrary to what the Belgian authorities have implied, Egypt did not fully open the Rafah crossing in 2018. Only travelers in certain categories – such as patients referred to Egyptian hospitals, foreign passport holders and students enrolled in universities outside Gaza – were allowed to leave Gaza through Rafah.
Rafah is a vital point of contact between Gaza and the outside world. But it is hardly correct that Belgium’s policy toward Gaza’s refugees should be dictated by what is happening at a border crossing.
Other indicators must be taken into account.
The year 2018 was a very bloody one for Palestinians. Israeli forces caused more injuries in the West Bank and Gaza, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, than at any time since 2005, the year when that body began compiling data on Palestinian casualties.
About 80 percent of the more than 29,000 injuries recorded were inflicted during the weekly Great March of Return protests in Gaza.
If violence against Palestinians soared in 2018, then the Belgian authorities had no justification for claiming that the situation had improved.
Since Belgium’s new policy was introduced, it has been reported that Israel is actively encouraging mass emigration from Gaza.
Belgium is among the destinations that Gaza’s refugees have been trying to reach. Approximately 2,400 Palestinians applied for refugee status in Belgium last year. Palestine was third only to Afghanistan and Syria in Belgium’s “country of origin” list for refugee applications.
Like elsewhere in Europe, Belgium has quite a few far-right politicians who treat people fleeing war and hardship as a punching bag. Belgium’s change of policy toward Gaza’s refugees panders to those extremists.
Furthermore, the new Belgian policy accommodates efforts to erode the rights of Palestinians.
Around 1.4 million people in Gaza – 70 percent of the total population – are already registered as refugees by the United Nations.
By granting protected status to applicants from Gaza, Belgium used to respect that reality. With its revised approach, Belgium is siding – intentionally or not – with Israel and the United States, which want to halt all discussion about Palestine’s refugees and their entitlements.
At the same time as being cruel to Palestinian refugees, Belgium is bragging of its close relations with Israel.
Over the past few days, Belgian diplomats have celebrated how Israel is among the top 10 investors in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking region.
The diplomats “forgot” to explain that such investments can be sinister. Elbit Systems, an Israeli weapons company, is one of Flanders’ guests; it owns a subsidiary near Ghent.
Elbit is a leading manufacturer of drones used to kill people in Gaza.
What kind of message is Belgium sending out?
Gaza’s refugees are treated either with a cold shoulder or outright hostility. Firms profiting from their oppression are – in stark contrast – welcomed with a red carpet.