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Belgium: Police violence against migrants and refugees in transit

Published 30th October 2018

Since the beginning of the medical consultations for migrant and refugee people in Brussels and the Coast, our volunteers have been confronted with stories of police violence,” says Nel Vandevannet, Director of National Projects at Doctors of the World Belgium, to explain the genesis of this investigation.

“This report highlights the magnitude of this problem in a structured and methodical way”. The report is based on the testimony of 440 people. 25% – or 110 – of those interviewed said they had experienced police violence.

Violence in the field and in police stations

More than half of the testimonies (58%) report blows with hands, feet or clubs. ” Half of the people say that the violence took place when they were immobilized, ” says Nel Vandevannet. “Others say they have been racketeering and stealing money” The majority of cases of violence occurred in police stations prior to incarceration. 66% of those arrested reported experiencing physical or mental violence at the time, particularly during strip searches and fingerprinting. “The police can only conduct strip searches to check for prohibited items when there are serious suspicions. 

However, 6 out of 10 detainees were subjected to forced strip searches , which were accompanied in 72% of cases by humiliating behavior, where the naked person was beaten, mocked or pushed against a wall while another police officer took off his underpants:

When we arrived at the police station they put us in a room and beat us up. (…) I asked them why they treated me like an animal and they hit me even more. Then we had to get all naked in front of each other for them to search us. I did not want 4 policemen stripped me off. There were women police too, they did nothing but they laughed, “said a 29-year-old Libyan.

Use of violence when taking fingerprints

35% of those arrested refused to give their fingerprints. They have all been victims of torture as defined by the Istanbul Protocol . The same methods are found through the testimonies: punches, kicks and clubs, leaving the person dressed only in a t-shirt or underwear in a cell at very low temperature (fridge house), deprivation of food, drink and sleep, denial of access to sanitary facilities or handcuffing for many hours, forcing the person to remain in a painful position.

The policeman was shouting at me loudly for me to give my fingerprints. I did not want to give them so they told me that I was going to stay 48 hours here. I remained tied behind my back for about 48 hours . They pushed me violently into the cell and as I was tied I fell to the ground and I hurt my arm. (…) I was very cold in the cell because I only had my t-shirt and underpants and there was a fan on. I asked to have my clothes but they refused. I also asked that they detach me because I was hurting so much they said to me in English “just go back to your country and ask them”, “says a 17-year-old Ethiopian

Inhumane incarceration

” Belgian law states that anyone who is incarcerated for any reason has the right to water, access to sanitary facilities and a meal, ” says Nel Vandevannet. It appears, however, according to this report that 41% of those arrested have received nothing to drink or to eat for more than 15 hours . 4 people also said they did not have access to sanitary facilities. One person claimed to have had to feed in a bucket for 48 hours. The seizure of medicines and medical equipment is also noted :

Between February and June 2018, about 15 of his patients came back to consult the doctors of the Hub because they had taken their medicines, like antibiotics, chronic treatments (for example treatment against epilepsy or HIV), birth control pills or medications to take before hospitalization. A woman with HIV could not get her bag after an arrest and ended up without her medication. Once at the Hub, she had to be hospitalized urgently and it took more than a week and three trips to the clerkships to get her stuff back, “says Louisa Ben Abdelhafidh, medical coordinator.

Minors treated in the same way as adults

Almost one in three witnesses (27.5%) was a minor at the time of the interview and 29% of the violence identified in this report concerns minors. ” Worrying and unacceptable! According to Doctors of the World: “Thousands of unaccompanied minors, migrants and refugees, are wandering around Europe right now. These are very vulnerable groups, easy prey for human traffickers and clandestine networks. The law provides that a police officer who assumes that a person is a minor must immediately contact the Guardianship Service of our country . According to our report, this protective measure is not applied, on the contrary: the minors interviewed are treated – sometimes extremely violently – in the same way as adults.

50% of minors report being beaten or bitten by police dogs during checks or arrests . 4 miners testified about the deep humiliation felt during strip searches at the police station. Two of them had their underwear removed violently. 1 miner was placed in a cell cooled to the extreme by an air conditioner, wearing only his underpants and t-shirt. Two others were blackmailed and had to give their fingerprints in exchange for food and drink or their release.

And then ?

This report reveals a reality that has remained hidden until now: a significant part of the migrants in transit in our country is confronted with excessive physical and psychological violence . 1 in 3 affected people is a minor. “In the short term, we demand that all forms of police violence cease immediately, that the law be respected and that those who are guilty of such practices be judged. We also believe that a fundamental debate on our migration policy must take place: this violence is a symptom and a consequence of the migration policy that has so far only aimed at the repression and criminalization of migrant people.”

This report is primarily intended for our policy makers: they are responsible for what is happening on the ground. ” Migrants but also local and federal police services have been subjected to unsustainable pressure for months and are expensive, useless and harmful migrant hunting counters. Political rhetoric has slowly but surely drifted into a dehumanization of migrants and has led to increasing pressure and a sense of discouragement by the police on the ground. ” Doctors of the World Belgium also recommends opening a reception and orientation center, protective measures for minors and a tolerance policy regarding humanitarian aid provided to them


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