Belgium’s health minister has sent an appeal to more than 100 hospitals to free up beds for asylum seekers as the country struggles to shelter them.
The government is desperately seeking temporary shelter for 2,000 to 4,000 asylum seekers for the upcoming winter, amid a shortage of available accommodation.
“As a member of the Asylum Reception Taskforce, I have sent a letter to the hospitals to hear whether they have buildings available,” health minister Frank Vandenbroucke told Het Laatste Nieuws.
Asylum seekers would be housed in buildings, wards or hallways “that can be segregated from patients”.
The measure would be temporary, “at the latest until the summer of 2024”, Vandenbroucke claims.
The government asked each minister to actively seek accommodation space for the asylum seekers.
Vandenbroucke’s plans have met with opposition.
Hospitals have no available room to house asylum seekers, and their main focus is to care for the sick, said Zorgnet-Icuro, a Belgian network of healthcare organisations.
There are few hospitals “that have empty buildings or corridors. And if they do, it is usually because they no longer meet certain standards. For example, they are no longer heated or connected to electricity. They are usually ready to be demolished,” says Margot Cloet, the network’s managing director.
Health care services already suffer from insufficient personnel and during the winter hospitals will face a seasonal spike in infectious diseases, she noted.
It is “not a question of unwillingness. It’s simply not feasible,” added Cloet.
Hospitals are already closing beds due to a shortage of personnel, says Frieda Gijbels, MP for the centre-Right N-VA party .
Instead of addressing this problem, “these very hospitals are being asked to also accommodate asylum seekers? Get out of that parallel world,” she said.
The hospitals “are not asylum shelters”, says Tom Van Grieken of the right-wing Vlaams Belang party.
The government already asked youth shelters, army barracks, homeless shelters and hotels to make space for asylum seekers, he said.
The government “increasingly neglects its core responsibilities and abandons its own citizens. By playing the role of ‘Hotel Belgica,’ it not only imports poverty but also all foreign conflicts.”
Marcel Van der Auwera, tasked with coordinating the search for shelters, said some rooms have already been found.
Some hospitals recently moved and some buildings or wings are reportedly free, he said.
So far, he has found places for roughly 80 asylum seekers, “one site with 60 beds and two sites with about 10 beds each”.
“Those buildings may be dated, but they can provide perfect shelter in winter,” he said. “I admit there are not that many places.”