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06 May 2020 – Belgium

Merksplas Detention Centre, (Ton Wiggenraad,
Merksplas Detention Centre, (Ton Wiggenraad, "200 illegale personen op vrije voeten als gevolg van coronacrisis," HLN, 19 March 2020,

Global Detention Project Survey completed by Laura Cleton (@LauraCleton), University of Antwerp


There has been no public information on whether new detention orders are still being made. In terms of Orders to Leave the Territory (OLT), the Minister for Social Affairs, Public Health, Migration and Asylum, Maggie de Block, mentions that she has not completely suspended them. If persons get an OLT, they have to leave Belgium and the EU whenever that is possible. Return/removal is still possible for certain countries. Also, individuals can ask for an extension of their OLT’s deadline.


Yes, people have been released from immigration detention as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The ministry says that there are two reasons for people to be released from detention. First, because forced removal was no longer possible as a result of the closing of international airspace and limitation on flights. According to law, in certain cases, detention could therefore not be prolonged. Second, detainees were released to guarantee safety of other detainees and personnel. There needed to be less people in the facilities to guarantee the social distancing measures.

On April 8, the minister said that 297 detainees were released from detention, whereas 204 were still residing in detention. This selection was made by the Immigration Services (Dienst Vreemdelingenzaken). Decisions on who gets released and those whose detention is continued are made on an individual basis, file by file. In the first place, the Immigration Services look as to whether removal is still possible within the official term. All elements in the individual file are taken into account, most certainly those having to do with public order. Also those persons in detention whose nationality/identity still need to be established, which can take months, can stay in detention for longer. The current situation, according to Maggie de Block, therefore does not automatically lead to the conclusion that there is no “reasonable prospect of return”. Following the guidelines from the European Commission, detention of the aforementioned groups can be prolonged. There are still judicial procedures in place to check if requirements for (prolonged) detention are still lawfully permitted.

On 19 March, a Belgium newspaper mentioned that at least 200 detainees were released. In the article, the immigration authorities mentioned that people released were mainly “vulnerable persons” and those whose removal could not take place as a result of the closing of airspace. The first group included people with chronic diseases, diabetes or heart conditions. Also people who were detained on the basis of a Dublin claim were released from detention, as removing them is currently not possible. Other people who were released were those who had not committed “offences against public order”. A spokesperson for immigration authorities said that migrants with criminal convictions would remain in detention; this was later reiterated by the Minister for Interior and Migration in a parliamentary debate on 8 April.

On 27 April, there were still 162 detainees in detention centres – 15 in Bruges, 62 at Merksplas, 36 at Vottem, 18 at Steenokkerzeel, 25 at Caricole and 6 at Holsbeek. Minister De Block mentioned that this occupation rate causes no problems for guaranteeing social distancing. She mentions that in some instances, people also sleep in small dorms alone, instead of together.


A 19 March newspaper article reported that there was no reception for those who had been released and “it is unclear where the 200 released detainees reside at this moment.” Maggie de Block said that if detainees are released, staff asks them if they have reception with family or friends. She said that this is the case for the majority of cases. If this is not the case, the Belgium government will “look for reception,” though no details were provided. Detainees can be picked up by family members in the proximity of the centre, or released in proximity to public transportation. In principle, local governments are responsible for providing reception for individuals without papers. Minister De Block mentioned the possibilty of demanding that hotels or campsites give up their rooms to accommodate undocumented migrants and other homeless persons.


Detainees are only tested when they show symptoms. On 8 April, there were no known COVID-19 cases among detainees in the detention centres. Similar procedures are followed in regular reception centres for asylum seekers (see Q6) – they are isolated and get the necessary medical attention. On 8 April, there were two people in medical isolation, and there were four known cases among detention centre personnel. On 29 April, Minister de Block confirmed that tests remained available in detention centres but that there were still no confirmed cases among detainees.

The minister said on 8 April that measures taken in detention centres were mainly directed to limiting contact between detainees/staff, and enhancing hygiene. For example, detainees are spread out more evenly through common rooms such as dining halls and dorms. Also, the number of persons who can take part in one daytime activities is limited, all to ensure limited contact between different residents. Visits for detainees are also temporarily suspended, but not for all: parliamentary members and attorneys still have the possibility to visit their clients. Detention centres have the possibility of digital visits, offer more flexible use of telephones and expand internet capacities in the centres. Staff in detention centres also wear mouth masks when the required distance cannot be respected. Detainees have also been offered mouth masks.

On 27 April, there were still 162 detainees in detention centres – 15 in Bruges, 62 at Merksplas, 36 at Vottem, 18 at Steenokkerzeel, 25 at Caricole and 6 at Holsbeek. De Block mentioned that, apart from the centre in Bruges, that this occupation is no problem for guaranteeing social distancing, also not in the dorms. She mentions that in some instances, people also sleep in small dorms alone.


Deporations still take place on a case by case basis. Between 13 March and 8 April, 93 removals took place, according to the minister, however the specific destinations were not provided. A minority of those are Dublin transfers. Escorts on removal flights are not possible anymore, but people are sometimes accompanied until they board the plane. Removal to countries which have “great difficulties,” like Greece, are not possible.


On 17 March, the government decided to temporarily stop admitting applications for international protection and postpone them until further notice. The reason given for this was that at the main asylum application centre called ‘Klein Kasteeltje’ in Brussels, there was too little space to uphold the social distancing measures while continuing the necessary proceedings. At the same time, Caritas Belgium mentioned that there was no alternative reception in place for these new asylum seekers, and hence that they were forced to live on the streets, also in case of extremely vulnerable persons, or families with minor children.

During a parliamentary debate on 8 April, it was reported that registration had resumed, yet in a different format: appointments for hearings had to be made via the internet, and asylum seekers could only enter the Immigration Office’s building if they had made an appointment, to prevent waiting-spaces and queuing. Preference is given to vulnerable people, unaccompanied minors, families with minor children, pregnant women, and persons with severe medical complications. Several members of parliament feared that this application procedure might disproportionately impact illiterate asylum seekers, or those without access to the internet. Other measures taken in the application procedure to guarantee safety are altering the rooms in which asylum hearings take place, by amongst others placing Plexiglas. Employees assessing applications for international protection first try to make decisions on cases which already had hearings, and then also look for possibilities via video conference. The minister added that those who come to the Immigration Office for their appointment get a medical screening upon their arrival, and are isolated if an infection is suspected. In the period of 3 – 27 April, 962 questions for an appointment with the Immigration Office were made, and more than 600 still are awaiting a date for their appointment. In the same period, 154 requests for asylum were made.
From mid-April onwards, new asylum seekers can be received in a military base in Sijsele and the reception centre in Marcinelle, which were also in use in 2015, when Belgium received significantly more asylum seekers during the refugee “crisis.” There is a maximum capacity of respectively 300 and 174 persons in these reception facilities. Persons admitted to the facilities will need to reside in pre-registration reception for 7 days first (at Klein Kasteeltje in Brussels), where registration for asylum happens and they are tested for covid-19 symptoms. Only after examination, if they do not show any symptoms, they can move to Sijsele or Marcinelle. They are not all tested – only those who fit the nation-wide “case definition” (risk groups) are tested. The medical services in the reception centres also take preventive measures to limit spreading of the virus, and giving necessary medical attention. All non-essential medical attention is postponed for now.

Several members of parliament questioned whether it was possible to uphold the social distancing measures at place in these facilities. Minister de Block said that all residents of reception centres follow the rules in force in Belgium at large. Persons with symptoms are immediately placed in isolation, and if necessary seen by a doctor. Those with severe complications are sent to a hospital, where it is decided if the person needs to be tested and hospitalized. This procedure is similar to other collective reception structures. Residents are being notified on the measures in place through information in their own language.

Minister de Block also announced that migrants with legal status, but whose right to reside in Belgium is about to expire, can ask for a prolonging of their residence.