One should know that there are no homogeneous regulations that rule the life in Belgian detention centres. It is internal rules of procedure, very different from one another that set the rules. This creates a difference in the harshness of detention conditions, hence a feeling of punishment for those detainees being transferred from a more “humane” centre to a “harder” centre. Vottem is known to be the “easiest” whereas Bruges and Merksplas are places for “punishment” (see summary by centre).
“What I see as positive in Vottem is that they don’t make a distinction between prisoners and staff. At noon, everybody has lunch together and if you have something to say, you can directly say it over lunch. I never missed that occasion, I swear!” (he laughs). “
“In the dormitories, we are 2, 3 or 4. We are not 16 or 20 like in Bruges. You may enter and leave your room whenever you want to. That’s Vottem. You go out three times a day in the summer and twice a day in the winter, for quite large periods. You can let off steam, run, play football, basketball, etc. “
“However, even though you are not locked in your room 24/24 like in prison, and even though you may enter and leave, go to the TV room, to the dormitory, from one bedroom to another etc. you are still imprisoned!”
At 7am sharp everyone has to be outside! In the dormitories, there are 20 people, sometimes 40. The courtyards are much smaller! The common room is much smaller! Bruges is horrible! HORRIBLE! Testimony
The detainees constantly complain about the poor food. Besides, many only have breakfast because they have the impression that they put medicine in the lunches and dinners, which causes lethargy. They often speak of their impression to be drugged without knowing.
“What they give us for food is really a disaster. Food is insufficient, both in quantity and quality. Many people have lost weight here, it’s misery.” Testimony
“It’s a shame, the situation for eating is really bad. There isn’t enough. Imagine the best dish here is rice, it’s rice alone ! Some of us made hunger strikes and they went to the cell but it doesn’t change anything in the end.” Testimony
“Here people are not treated correctly. And they give us things to eat so that we calm down, it is like drugs.” Testimony
“I had a lot of money. They have taken everything and left me with 25 cents. They don’t treat us like human beings. We can not buy anything, no chocolate, no cigarettes, no soda, nothing.” Testimony
“The food is a disaster. As far as I am concerned, it’s been 40 days or more that I haven’t been eating properly. I only eat in the morning. I split the morning collation in three. Most of the people do that. They only have breakfast and divide it for the day. They live on breakfast, with jam and butter. If you eat you fall asleep directly. I you drink coffee you fall asleep directly. There are days you don’t see anyone outside.” Testimony
“Here people are not treated correctly. And they give us things to eat so that we calm down, it is like drugs. They put that in the food, and as soon as you eat you get quieter and you sleep all the time. You are knocked out. Your body becomes weak. I think they put that in the soup or the bread.” Testimony
The lack of privacy:
The bedrooms and dormitories as well as the detainees are regularly searched. The right to visit them is very limited (even nonexistent in the INAD centres).
During deportations, the detainees are regularly undressed, left naked for a long period of time and subject to intimate search, in order to disturb them before their departure.
“We are at least 30 per room. We have the right to go outside only two hours per day. We don’t take a shower every day, only once a week..” Testimony
“At 11pm they shut us in our rooms, we can no longer go out. We don’t even have the right to have a shower. We can’t sleep and we can’t do anything. In the morning we have the right to have a shower and go downstairs. Then at the end of the day we have to go back up to our rooms and it’s like that day in day out.” Testimony
“Privacy, that is already limited in the rooms, is even decreased for security reasons that push the managers to afford themselves the possibility to control them constantly, hence the absence of curtains, the searches and the spontaneous barge of the staff in the rooms.” (12)
The prison environment:
The environment is heavily marked. All the detainees speak of the centre like of a prison. There is a lot of guards. The environment is similar to the one of a prison: barbed wire, videocameras, and sanction measures that may entail being locked in an isolation cell.
“The bedroom doors are prison doors, really heavy, there is no direct contact between the detainees and the guards, you have to talk to them through the metal door, a real prison door.” Testimony
In principle, the detainees get a phone card when they arrive to the centre in order to tell their families about their detention. Then, just like in prisons they have chores to do if they don’t have money to buy new phone cards (cleaning, maintenance, or even translation). It functions with a system of points that enable them to buy phone cards, cigarettes etc in the centre…”
It is impossible to get personal phone calls in the centre, apart from lawyers. The detainees are thus completely isolated from the outside world, above all if they got arrested at the airport and if they don’t have any acquaintances in Belgium.
The detainees may keep their phone only if it doesn’t have a camera and/or a movie camera. (This certainly shows the will to keep everything going on in the centres totally secret).
It is very difficult to access Merksplas, both for lawyers and families. Besides, visits by the families are not allowed in the centres close to airports. This is very hard for the people who have been living in Belgium for many years.
Freedom of movement (sic) :
In 127 bis and Vottem (most recent constructions), inside the wing of the building that they have been assigned, the detainees are free to circulate between the rooms that give out to a long corridor: refectory and TV room, gym room, showers, toilets, laundry room. They can access the inner courtyard during the two hours when the outside door is open. The bedrooms of four are accessible at any time and the schedule is “free”.
In Bruges and Merksplas, not a single door can be opened without a key. The detainees are obliged to live in groups and to stick to a strict timetable from wake up time till bed time, and when they move from one place to another (dormitories, refectory, living room and courtyard) they are always accompanied by guards. The access to dormitories is forbidden during the day. Couples are separated in Bruges, they only are allowed one hour talking per day in the visiting room.
“At 8.30am we have to leave our rooms. We don’t have the right to stay a minute longer. We all have to assemble in the main hall on the ground floor. There is a T.V. and some couches which we are allowed to sit on. But as there are eight of us there is not enough space for us all so some of us have to stay standing and wait until the others have relaxed a bit before switching over.At 11pm they shut us in our rooms, we can no longer go out. We don’t even have the right to have a shower. We can’t sleep and we can’t do anything.”
“We never have the right to go out, there is no ‘exit’ here. The others can go out and sometimes we hear them when they are outside. But there are only three windows here. I am sitting in front of one of them while I talk to you. It is the only way to get fresh air..” Testimony
“We don’t have the right to go to bed when we like. We have to go to bed at 9.30pm. You know, we have to go to bed at 9.30pm. In the afternoon you can’t eat between 2pm and 3pm, you are only allowed to eat at 1pm”
And at dinnertime too, you can only eat at 6.30pm, if you are hungry during the night it is your problem.” Testimony
“You only get one hour to go outside and fool around, the rest of the time you’re always locked up. It was really a tough period, it was extremely cold, there were days when we could not go out..” Testimony
Testimonies vary considerably according to the interviewees and the centres. It seems that like everywhere some people try to establish a relationship with the detainees whereas others don’t do anything to hide their racism and violence.
The detainees often speak of the social assistants who don’t do anything to make their files progress and who only try to convince them to take the plane.
“When social assistants come, it is to give the decisions coming from the Foreign Office and most of them are negative. A friend of mine received a decision yesterday, the court decided on Wednesday about him and he received the decision on Friday. They don’t want to give the decision so the lawyer can’t have recourse. And now he must leave tomorrow, he has his flight at 6 AM even if he came in with a visa.” Testimony
(12) Résumé du Médiateur fédéral, “Investigation sur le fonctionnement des centres fermés gérés par l’office des étrangers” (De Bruecker & Schuermans, Juin 2009), http://www.mediateurfederal.be/fr/bibliotheque/rapports/rapports-dinvestigation
A few information come from the following documents:
Report of the LIBE delegation on the visit to detention centres for asylum seekers and immigrants in Belgium – Rapporteur: Giusto CATANIA