When David* stepped into the headquarters of the Belgian Immigration Department to apply for asylum he immediately felt out of place. “I looked around and thought: ‘These people don’t speak French, they had to flee their country, they have good reasons for asking for protection. I’m going to get laughed at.’” The clerks at the welcome desk did not laugh, but they did give him “a weird look,” David says. “When they heard my accent and saw my dyed blond hair, they seemed to think: ‘What are you doing here?’”
David recounts that day last year with a flawless bruxellois accent. Born on the outskirts of Paris to parents of Congolese descent, he arrived in Belgium when he was still a toddler. He is now a slender 22-year-old with a seductive smile and big, velvety eyes of which he is rather proud. We meet close to where he lives, in Brussels’ university district, on a sunny mid-April afternoon. His outfit -- black ripped skinny jeans, black polo shirt and two white wireless earbuds -- is carefully chosen: David is set on a career in fashion.
In the same month that he applied for asylum, January 2019, Belgium saw 2,765 applications, mainly from Palestinians, Afghans and Syrians. Why does David, who grew up in Brussels and never set foot outside the European Union, have to ask for international protection in what he feels is his home country? Because he is at serious risk of being deported to the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country his parents left when they were children, following their own refugee parents.
David’s mother was only seventeen when he was born. She soon separated from David’s father, who did not recognise David as his son. A few years later she left France for Brussels, where David’s father was living. The young, single mother entrusted her son to his paternal grandmother. “My mother wanted to live her life, my father was in jail by then,” David said. “But I had a happy childhood. I had a lot of cousins, uncles and aunts, I had my friends in school. I didn’t know anything about my immigration issues.”
Best estimates suggest between 100,000 and 150,000 undocumented people live in Belgium. No one seems to know how many of them are children, growing up with limited rights. “They have the right to education,” says Melanie Zonderman from the Platform for Minors in Exile, a network for migrant children’s rights, “and, like undocumented adults, the right to emergency medical services.” That is it.
In Belgium, as in other European countries, the paths to legal status are confusing and difficult to navigate, let alone for a child. They can apply for humanitarian permits to stay in Belgium under article 9bis of the Belgian Aliens Act, but whether these are granted or not depends on opaque decision-making by the Belgian Immigration Department, which does not explain its criteria for success. The process can take years, costs 358 euros for adults (it’s free for children), and in the meantime children are at risk of deportation.
David’s situation was complex. His best option seemed to be “family reunification” with a parent living legally in the country. But his mother, who suffered from mental illness and addiction, had not kept up her residence permit. His father, who was released from prison when David was about 10 years old, still had not recognised him as his son.
With David’s 18th birthday getting closer, his father finally accepted to do a DNA paternity test. When he was 16, David received a five-year permit based on “reunification” with his father. Two years later, he was informed there had been a mistake: as the child of a refugee, not a Belgian citizen, he was only eligible for a renewable one-year permit, which would become permanent after five years. David felt the blow, but told himself that he just had to hold on for a few more years.
Then he did something that blew it all: coming out. “When my father got out of prison, he soon realised I was not the son he would have wanted,” David said. “I have always been effeminate. He started making comments: ‘Why is he like this, why does he dance like a girl?’ And I thought: ‘I don’t even know you, and you want to change me… I don’t like this.’” During his adolescence David felt like he had a split personality: “At school I was extroverted, sociable and good-humoured, while at home I was silent, almost embittered.”
One day in January 2018, “I was fighting over the phone with my dad, and I just threw it in his face: ‘By the way, I’m gay!’ He hung up. I sent a group message to inform all my relatives and I started packing my things.” In the following months, David felt relieved (“I started wearing make-up at school”, he tells me). But then October came, and he had to renew his residence permit. Among the criteria was that David’s father lived with his son and had a stable income. “When the clerk at the city council asked me for my father’s pay slip, I realised my situation,” he says. “I told him I wasn’t even talking to my father anymore.” David became undocumented, yet again.
He tried applying for a permit under article 9bis, but his pro bono lawyer turned out to be not so pro bono: “He kept asking me for money.” The lack of transparent criteria also made this route risky. He went to France, his country of birth, to see if he could get papers there, but he was not eligible under French nationality laws.
Until recently, a lot of families with children were rejected for “9bis” or asylum, says Selma Benkhelifa, a well-known lawyer and activist from the Progress Lawyers Network: “The minors weren’t even mentioned in these decisions. They were literally treated like part of their parents’ luggage.” So lawyers started filing separate asylum requests for the children, arguing that reintegrating in countries they barely knew, after spending their childhood or adolescence in Belgium, would not only be impossible but would also expose them to serious risks.
On Benkhelifa’s advice, David decided to apply for asylum, based on the persecution he would face in the DRC because of his sexuality. Robin Bronlet, a colleague of Benkhelifa’s, is optimistic about David’s case. But he points out the absurdity of the rule by which children inherit the nationality of their parents. “As immigration lawyers, we must identify the risks David would be facing in case of ‘return’ to his ‘country of origin’, meaning the DRC,” he says, “even though David was born in Europe and never set foot in Africa.”
Today, undocumented children are scattered all over Belgium. Some of them make the news when they suddenly disappear from school, are detained and sometimes deported. But most, like David, keep their worries to themselves and blend in with their classmates, hoping for some miraculous solution.
None of David’s closest friends from school know that he has lost his residence permit and has applied for asylum. “If I told them, they would worry, and it would be too stressful”, he says, “and I don’t want to be pitied.” Since leaving his grandmother’s house, David has moved around a lot. He stayed with friends and even spent a few nights in a hotel when he didn’t have anywhere else to go. In September 2019, he moved into a flat with three other gay asylum seekers through Le Refuge, an organisation supporting isolated LGBTQI+ youth.
Slowed down by corona
At the end of 2019, David’s mother was arrested following an identity check, and brought to Belgium’s only immigration detention centre for women in Holsbeek. While he remains estranged from his father and grandmother, his mother accepted his homosexuality. She spent six months in detention before the coronavirus outbreak forced Belgian authorities to release half of its immigration detainees. David visited her several times. “To me, it was an extension of what I had gone through since entering the asylum system”, he says. “The human side is totally lacking. All they see in you is a sans-papiers.”
David is now eagerly awaiting his interview with asylum authorities. “Everything is slowed down by the coronavirus, but I’m really sick of waiting. I feel stuck,” he says. And yet David is making plans for his future. He wants to start a YouTube channel offering advice on makeup, fashion, wigs, and how to “boost the confidence of LGBT young people.” Now that the coronavirus restrictions have been lifted, he will look for a job to save money and enrol in fashion school. “Will the asylum authorities believe me?” he wonders. “I will tell them my truth. If it’s not enough, too bad. If it’s enough, so much the better. I just want to get it over with.”
*Name has been changed to protect his identity.