Every morning, Brazilian Maria José Freire, 49, does the housework in Brussels, where she lives. In the afternoon, he assists as a beautician. At the end of the course, since January 31, he goes to a 13th century church (rebuilt in the 17th) in the historic center of Brussels.
Maria José will not pray, but will continue the work, this time as a volunteer. In the church of São João Batista in the Begijnhof, 121 illegal immigrants have been camping for two months, with the aim of opening a way of negotiation with the Belgian government.
Coordinator of the Brazilian Collective of Non-Papers, she arrived in Belgium for the first time in 1999, in search of better living conditions.
He left for Goiânia, with his mother, three children – the oldest at 11 and the youngest at 7 months. Fifteen days later, she found a nanny job (for a Belgian baby of the same age as her son) and stayed.
It was in 2004, already with her children in Belgium, that she approached the entities fighting for the regularization of immigrants, united in the Coordination des Cahiers de Belgique. He started to organize Brazilian marches, with drums and letters in French, preaching the main message: “We are not invisible; we are at home, in your work, we are your multicultural society”.
There are no precise figures on the number of irregular immigrants in Belgium, but it is estimated that they are more than 150,000, including a third Brazilian, according to Juliana Santos Wahlgren, Brazilian political scientist who advises the European Commission in the event of ‘integration. and asylum.
In a survey carried out over the past decade by the Belgian Migration Department, Brazilians constituted the largest undocumented community in the country.
At the head of Revibra (entity for the prevention of violence against women founded by her), Wahlgren drew up a profile of these immigrants last year, from 497 questionnaires answered by people over 18 who are trying to s’ self-regulate.
The majority are young – 30% are between 18 and 28 years old and 40% are between 29 and 39 years old – and 66% are women. The most common is that undocumented migrants have been in Belgium for at least five years, and 60% of families have children.
Wahlgren points out that the poll, carried out in partnership with the Brazilian collective, failed to reach transsexuals, a group that has a different makeup.
The first waves of immigration to Belgium date back to 1980, but the reason has since changed. At that time, it was above all those who fled the military dictatorship. Now the reason is economic, shows the Revibra survey.
Work is the justification given by 77% of those questioned for having left Brazil; 20% said they came to meet the family. Previous research, carried out in 2006 by the non-profit organization Abraço, showed that most of them left Uberlândia (MG) or Goiânia, like Maria José.
Many start with night shifts and for the most part the men find work on construction sites, while the women clean in businesses or homes.
But there are also hairdressers, cooks, small merchants, bars, restaurants and Brazilian grocery stores, newspapers intended for the community and churches that say mass in Portuguese.
Even without papers, Maria José says that the quality of life she found in Europe far exceeds that which she left in her native country. “In Brazil you can’t even go to Beto Carrero; here I took my three children to Disney.”
The benefits go beyond the consumption model, she says: “I can go anywhere without anyone frowning. In Brazil, I would be looked down upon in a wealthy restaurant; the class difference is much greater. “.
Ten years after arriving in Brussels, Maria José finally obtained her documents, in a process of massive legalization by the Belgian government, after protests, invasions and hunger strikes.
But he had to return to Brazil due to family problems in 2014 and ended up losing his right of residence. This time, she said, it was much more difficult to become irregular, “because now I know the difference it makes to have the documents.”
kitchenette and feijoada
Informality is synonymous with absolute precariousness, explains the Brazilian, who shares a 20 square meter kitchenette with two friends in Saint-Gilles, a district of Brussels.
Since undocumented migrants cannot complain to court, landlords typically charge more and often rent unsafe properties, Wahlgren explains. “There are cases of eight people sharing two bedrooms, and the landlord is threatening to report it if they are late in paying.”
It is also not uncommon for the workforce to be exploited, with a payment of 6 euros per hour (48 R $ / hour, or 60% of the minimum wage for the month) and uncontrolled hours, generally more than eight hours a day.
In health, this difference is also clear. When she was regularized, Maria José fell, broke her arm, was assisted by the civil service and was covered by Social Security during her absence.
Last year, irregular, he had to stop during childbirth and did not receive a penny. This year he contracted Covid-19 and spent three weeks in isolation – luckily, he says, this time his employer kept the payments. We are a family business.
According to Wahlgren, the situation is critical when people without papers fall ill or have accidents. Health care in Belgium is linked to the social security contribution, and informal people receive free treatment only in extremely serious cases.
She reports the case of a young girl burned in the first and second degree who received a hospital bill of 3,000 euros (approximately R $ 20,000).
To pay for the dental treatment of an immigrant, Maria José and other colleagues promoted a beneficent feijoada at the beginning of the year – with childbirth, because of the confinement.
‘we are Belgium too’
This month, the Coordination of Belgian Officers launched a campaign to collect signatures on a petition for a new round of regularization. “You know us. We are the mother of a classmate of your son, the clerk at the local grocery store, the person who cleans your desks or fixes your radiator. We separate our garbage, we pay rent, ”says the initiative.
The main emphasis is not on undocumented migrants, but on the regularized population. “You, citizens, have a fundamental right that changes everything: the right to vote. The elected officials are clearly convinced that our fate does not matter to you. But we believe that a significant number of Belgians are on our side, ”says the campaign text.
The goal is to reach the symbolic number of 150,000 signatures – equivalent to the estimate of undocumented workers in the country.
Maria José believes that the coronavirus pandemic, which has increased the vulnerability of immigrants, should be one more reason for the government to open a negotiating channel.
But that is not what happened, according to the occupants of the Church of Saint-Jean-Baptiste du Béguinage, who expected better access to the main Belgian immigration officer, Sammy Mahdi, a son of Iraqi refugees. We are a family business.
Mahdi’s reaction was felt like a bucket of cold water. “It makes no sense to occupy a church or a mosque. There will be no mass regularization, ”he said in an interview, saying the irregulars should return to their countries.
“Those who wish to apply for humanitarian regularization must do so by following proper procedures and not by occupying a church. I will not blackmail, ”he added.
For Wahlgren, a new wave of documentation like the two achieved over the past decade is truly unlikely. “The whole context has changed, the economic and security situation is working against it. Any concession will be made on a case-by-case basis, ”she said.
It also changed the political environment. After two years without forming a government, Belgium came to a coalition of seven parties with divergent views on immigration.
Mahdi’s party, Flamengo Democrata Cristão, is the same party that led the government during the last wave of regularization, but now takes a “firm but fair” position. In practice, this means facilitating the return of those who have not accepted the requests.
What the law says
In general, Belgian law requires that anyone who intends to reside in the country for more than three months and to work must submit the application before boarding.
Licenses vary widely by skill – bakers, butchers, doctors, nurses and educators are among the easiest to accept, as there is a shortage of professionals in these fields in Belgium.
In exceptional circumstances, it is possible to apply for residence while you are already in Belgium, but you will have to prove serious circumstances which prevent you from returning to your country of origin.
Even these are exceptions. Amid tougher barriers, asylum claims made by Brazilians to the European Union have grown from 95 claims in 2015 to 265 in 2017, and the number has exploded to 1,465 in 2019 (latest data available).
But the odds are very slim, says Wahlgren, who advises some of these demands: “You really have to be exposed to the risk, documented proof that there is persecution.” Of the Brazilian cases analyzed by the EU in 2019 (which also include requests from previous years), 635 were rejected (90 after appeal).
Throughout 2019, 105 Brazilians were granted refugee status and 30 were granted asylum on humanitarian grounds, the most difficult of all and still temporary, according to the activist. So far this year, the year has ended with 1,610 cases awaiting assessment.