This story is a rare glimpse into the life of an asylum seeker living in Belgium. With much of the world war-torn and desolate, a rare few brave families risk the unknown in search of a better life, and a fraction of a fraction arrive in Belgium. Once in Belgium the families are safe from immediate persecution, and a few are granted refugee status, premitting them to stay indefinately and integrate into society. Far more, however are sans papiers - those waiting for judgement or those without what is considered adequate written proof of persecution but who come from a region unstable enough that they cannot be forced to leave.
Legally, the Belgium government is to provide at least housing for asylum seekers, in practice the government has not built any where near enough places. Over and over again, homeless asylum seekers will take a case to the courts and judges will levy fines on the government for not meeting its legal obligations - and the government will just pay the fines rather than increase housing. Without "papers" the refugees cannot find a job and support themselves, they legally have no choice but to be sleeping on the street, begging and eating in soup kitchens. Even for those few who are granted papers life is no picnic, I remember waiting behind an Afghan man, probably in his late 40s, at the Leuven Town Hall, who was seeking permission to work. Over and over again he was denied permission, because his asylum papers said he was born 1/1/2000. He tried to explain that this was the default date because he didn't have a birth certificate (being born in a small Afghan village), they simply shut him down and said that they could not give a work permit to an 11 year old, and if he wanted to change it he would need to provide a valid birth certificate.
To be sans papiers is to be left in limbo, to have no means to better yourself and no way to regain the dignity of self-sufficiency. It benefits nobody to leave people sitting unemployed in a cramped flat, sleeping out in an abandoned building intermittently raided by police, or freezing at night in an underpass. It certainly harms the most vulnerable members of our society. So who is to blame for this callus disregard for human dignity? Sure, you could blame the bureaucrats who make decisions, but they are only operating under the law. You could blame the politicians who make the laws, but with a thousand pressures on the political class the one issue they can safely ignore is the one which harms non-voters. You could blame the media, for ignoring the issue, but the media panders to populism and knows a dead issue when it sees one. No, ultimately we need to blame the voters, the people who could easily apply pressure for change, but who simply do not care enough about the plight of others to demand a minimum level of human dignity be granted to those who need it the most.
Still, it could be worse. Mahboub and Rama and their two young children could have landed in Australia. They would have then been thrown straight into a prison (what other name can you call a "detention centre" set in the middle of the desert and surrounded by barbed wire?) and left to rot indefinately. Vilified by the Australian people as "boat people" and "que jumpers", asylum seekers have been condemned to life behind bars for up to seven years, before being deported or given papers. Australian governments of the right and left cite "processing requirements", but the real cause is clear - the racism of the Australian voter. While the idea of being stranded without rights on the streets of Brussels fills me with despair, living behind bars for the best part of a decade due to the "crime" of fleeing persecution is beyond my imagination.