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Belgian regional governments – stringent rules for migrants in the north, not much in the south

Belgium held regional, federal and European elections on 26 May 2019. While the federal government has not yet been formed, the three regional governments (Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels) are now set, and their coalition agreements make plans regarding migrant integration policy—to varying degrees.

Flanders

After weeks of negotiation between the political parties Vlaams-Belang, N-VA, CD&V and Open VLD to form the new Flemish government, agreements are resulting in harsher rules for immigrants in the Flemish community of Belgium.

Regarding social welfare, refugees will no longer receive family allowances retroactively. Up until now, refugees applying for family allowances received money to compensate for the time they were waiting for an asylum decision (and were not eligible for assistance).

While the idea of requiring newcomers to live in Belgium for six months before receiving family allowances has been abandoned, immigrants will now have to stay ten years in Flanders (including five years in a row), before being able to benefit from social housing.

In the area of cultural affairs and civil society, the new government accord requires every NGO seeking subsidies from the Flemish government to use the Dutch language in public communications. Moreover, initiatives based on cultural retrenchment (initiatieven die zich terugplooien op etnisch-culturele afkomst) will no longer be subsidised. These new rules raise questions regarding how NGOs can work with newcomers in a multi-ethnic society, which requires communicating with people who may not have mastered Dutch.

Religious communities, including mosques, will have to undergo a four-year review period before being eligible to receive public funding. The official purpose of this rule is to limit foreign financing. The range of possible sanctions will also be broadened in the event of a contravention. According to the party N-VA, ‘This offers a guarantee that what is happening in the mosques fits in with the value pattern of our society’.

An integration exam will be created in Flanders, and every person completing the exam must sign a declaration of integration. Failing the exam will not technically carry a fine. However, attending an integration programme will cost €360, and taking the exam a second time will result in additional fees—except in Brussels.

In the Brussels region, Flemish integration programmes will remain free so that immigrants do not desert Flemish organisations in favour of French-speaking equivalents, say members of the new government.

Wallonia

By contrast, Wallonia’s new government has not made many new decisions on the integration of migrants. The coalition agreed to carry on with creating and assessing integration programmes. The government will also encourage career orientation in favour of professions facing labour shortages and create programmes to help immigrants continue with professional training they had already begun abroad.

Brussels

Attending an integration programme will become compulsory for most newcomers in Brussels, though the implementation of this requirement has been delayed. The capital region is therefore working on broadening its training offer and pairing language teaching and professional training.

Responses

These resolutions are taking place in a context where Belgium is seen as a bad student when it comes to the integration of migrants in the labour market. Observers have criticised the plan of the Flemish government as creating a false image in which immigrants benefit from social welfare without trying to embrace the Belgian lifestyle.

Moreover, these measures appear to aim at dissuading newcomers from settling in the northern part of the country, encouraging them to choose Brussels or Wallonia instead. But considering the structure of employment in the country, with more opportunities available in the north, observers note that this goal is unlikely be achieved.

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