Belgium adds beds for migrants as EU faces rising arrivals
By Gabriela Baczynska and Marine Strauss
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Belgium on Thursday announced it would expand reception capacity to cope with what it called a migration "crisis" as EU ministers debated bringing down rising numbers of arrivals and overhauling their broken asylum rules ahead a bloc-wide election next year.
Belgium, one the world's richest countries, has been unable to provide accommodation to many new arrivals, with reception centres almost full. Hundreds of people have been squatting in places such as an abandoned building and a tent city in the capital Brussels, home to EU institutions.
Officials have said hosting refugees from Ukraine and increasing immigration from Africa and Asia is straining the country of some 11.6 million people.
"The challenge is very great, more than 100,000 people arrived in our country last year and the influx remains higher than normal," said Belgium's asylum and migration minister, Nicole de Moor.
She spoke at a news conference to announce steps to address what she called a "crisis" - adding 2,000 beds for asylum seekers including in a site to be built with refitted containers.
Data from refugee agency CGRS shows Belgium received more than 36,800 asylum applications in 2022, more than 40% up on the year and the highest since 2016. On top of that there are more than 60,000 Ukrainian refugees, according to Belgian statistics.
Belgium's reception capacity of just over 34,000 places is currently nearly entirely full, according to asylum agency Fedasil, leading to scenes like the ones in Brussels where people have been left to fend for themselves, setting fires against the cold in the city centre.
The EU has tightened external borders and asylum rules since 2015 when more than 1 million people arrived across the Mediterranean, catching the bloc by surprise and triggering bitter feuds between member states over how to care for them.
De Moor spoke as the EU's 27 migration ministers met in Brussels to seek a joint response to immigration increasing again to Europe, a bloc of some 450 million people, following the COVID-19 pandemic.
EU border agency Frontex reported some 330,000 irregular border crossings last year, the highest since 2016.
Last month, dozens died when a boat carrying migrants from Turkey crashed into rocks off the coast of Italy. Rome has since asked the EU to crack down on people smugglers.
"Without concrete EU action, starting as early as within the next few weeks and continuing for the entire year, migratory pressure will grow unprecedentedly, given the difficult context affecting vast areas of the world," Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni wrote to EU peers in a Feb. 28 letter seen by Reuters.
The growing number of migrants has renewed tension between EU states and triggered harsher rhetoric in countries including Hungary, Austria, the Netherlands and Denmark.
French interior minister said on Thursday that global warming, wars, persecution and economic problems would force more and more people to be on move.
"There is no reason for it to get better in the coming months and years," he told reporters in Brussels, stressing the need to agree an overhaul of the EU's internal rules on asylum and migration before a pan-European election in 2024.
"Europe must move forward ... This is very important on the eve of the European elections."
(Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Alison Williams)