Welcome to Belgium

French-Turkish Syrian relief flyer. Brussels, December 2015.

The populists are wrong. Getting settled in Europe is a lot harder than it seems. Though refugees and asylum seekers often receive support from their adopted home countries, the process of settling down, and earning residency, is incredibly hard, with no guarantees of success. It all depends on how you handle immigration bureaucracy, not just at the moment of arrival, but for years to come.

Don’t chalk it up to 9/11, and the tightening of immigration regulations. The situation existed throughout the postwar era, growing more complex and fraught with politics during the War on Terror.

The flyer translation below is a great example. Equal parts Brave New World, Max Weber, and Franz Kafka, it gives voice to all the 20th Century anxieties associated with technocracy and social administration.

Recounting the situation in Belgium, a country which even its own citizens often joke doesn’t actually exist, (the country is often disparaged as a ‘failed state’, a ‘state of mind’, etc)  the civil apparatus is nonetheless intensely loathed for its dense and impregnable bureaucracy. One would think there’s a much bigger country behind it. Like, say, the size of neighboring Germany. Not Wales.

It’s not a hopeless situation, though. Brussels, as all of the reporting about the November lockdown disclosed, is an intensely international, multi-ethnic city, oozing with cosmopolitanism, and is every bit the global city of the future bemoaned by right-wingers, where Arabic and Turkish are spoken with as much frequency as French and Flemish. Babel, anyone? It might as well be Sodom.

Nonetheless, the Belgian capital still plays host to antithetical forces best expressed by the IHH Islamic relief flyers, in the lead photograph of this article, on the one hand, and the anti-immigrant hostility documented in the following flyer by a group of anarchists, who felt the need to denounce the country’s government for its ‘management’ of outsiders, i.e. immigrants and asylum seekers.

Pro-refugee flyer. Brussels, May 2014.
Pro-refugee flyer. Brussels, May 2014.

It just makes you want to set fire to all the papers in the world…

Document X, document Y. Officially translated, recognised by the courts. Stamped by the embassy, authenticated by the foreign affairs ministry. Sworn statement from a lawyer. Paper, stamp, paper, stamp.


To gain permission to be in Belgium. Because the democratic state wants to control who is in the country: who it allows, and of course, who it does not allow. Because through its residence permits and legalisation processes, and by pushing people into illegality by depriving them of these documents, the state aims to provide a docile workforce for the capitalist system; people who are ready to accept any kind of hardship and conditions for fear of expulsion. Because through its papers and documents, the state tries to turn us into numbers in a data base, far more convenient and controllable than unclassified and uncategorised individuals: people that respond to their needs and desires.

And if you can’t get hold of the right papers?

Then things get complicated. Enough to make you bury your head in your hands. This is where you learn the meaning of the words administration, bureaucracy. It just makes you want to set fire to all the papers in the world.

Who has the power?

Anyone who works in the Foreigners’ Service has some power over the life of migrants, that much is clear. But what about the paper-pushers at the town hall? What about the civil servants sat behind their desks giving out residence permits or dealing with civil registers? Yes, your job is also part of the deportation machine – the machine with its secure centres, its waiting areas, its open-air camps, its raids, its assassinations, its beatings – which is a cog in this world based on exploitation and domination. And through your job, you help entrench this repulsive order.

Day after day, people arrive asking for a paper or a stamp. The system forces them to submit. To submit to a bureaucracy whose purpose is to humiliate people. Whose mood decides how people are treated. Day after day, these bureaucrats invade our lives, our relationships and our desires through their paperwork, regulating them with codes and numbers, through a language only spoken and understood by the agents of permanent repression.

For the attention of those behind the desks

Do you enjoy sending people away empty-handed after they have spent an hour standing in your queue? Do you find it amusing to show them that you don’t care in the slightest about their situation, for which you are partly responsible? Or, even worse, are you so empty inside that you are nothing more than a computer for the law? Someone who has learned the rules and never questions them? “I can’t do anything for you: the law is the law.” But, you know, the law is more than just words on paper: it is also each job that upholds it and each person that fills those jobs. You are the law. You and your computer, your stamps, your paperwork. Each stamp you refuse, each paper you do not give, every degrading look and rude comment has consequences…

Translated from the French by Samuel White. Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit.