Exclusion policies? The long-term housing crisis for migrants and refugees in Flanders (Belgium)

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Migrants can experience inclusion only when safe, healthy, and secure housing is guaranteed. Unfortunately, unequal treatment in Flemish social housing policies hinders migrants’ access to housing, leading to precarious and insecure conditions.

Ilke Adam, Laura Westerveen and Louise Hantson

Vrije Universiteit Brussel - Brussels School of Governance

Since October 2021, Belgium is confronted with  what can be called a ‘reception crisis’, with a dramatic increase in the number of asylum seekers who have not been offered the legally required accommodation by the Belgian state. Tent camps and numerous homeless asylum seekers sleeping in the streets of Europe’s capital recall  the scenes of 2015. The Belgium state has been condemned over 7000 times for not having offered housing to asylum seekers and was charged over 500.000 euros[1] in fines. While this reception crisis received quite some media attention, another housing crisis has unfolded concerning the long-term housing of refugees and migrants more generally. This long-term accommodation crisis receives far less media attention. The Whole-COMM research in Belgium, and especially the interviews conducted with post-2014 migrants, demonstrated that the lack of long-term housing policies for recognized refugees and migrants, as well as ethnic discrimination on the housing market hinder post-2014 migrants’ experiences of inclusion.

“I contacted a lot of real estate offices, but I barely ever got answers. Often this was the case when the landlords were Belgians. The house we managed to find in the end is owned by an Egyptian man. Even if the house was not in good shape, we decided to rent it anyway. We knew we wouldn’t find a house otherwise, we knew that this was our only chance. (21-year-old Afghan refugee)

Our research has shown that finding suitable housing is the first and foremost concern of almost all post-2014 migrants and refugees. When asked about what needs to be done in their locality to foster experiences of inclusion, almost all of them insisted on the prior attention that needs to be given to their difficult housing situation. Access to decent housing, most of them said, is a first priority to be able to fully participate in the receiving society. While the access to housing is extremely difficult for recognized refugees and migrants in the whole of Belgium, we can expect the difficulties to become even more pronounced in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking region of Belgium hosting almost 60% of the country’s population. 

On top of illegitimate ethnic discrimination that occurs on the housing market, and the already very difficult access to the rare social housing across Belgium, in Flanders refugees and migrants will receive unequal treatment by law. In 2023, Flanders will introduce stricter requirements for newcomers to access social housing. Thereby the already limited options for migrants and refugees to find affordable and decent housing will shrink considerably. 

The policy gaps on housing 

The long-term accommodation crisis in Belgium can mainly be attributed to the blatant lack of policies addressing the long-term accommodation of refugees. Whereas the reception of asylum seekers falls under the Belgian federal government, and immigrant integration policies and (social) housing policies are the responsibility of the regions, there is no explicit policy for guiding recognised refugees and migrants to the housing market after reception.

The accommodation crisis of refugees and new migrants can also be attributed to the more general housing crisis in Belgium. Since the 19th century, Belgian housing policies have been focused on the promotion of homeownership as the cornerstone of social welfare, while social housing has been considered far less of a priority. This is reflected in a very low share of social housing in Belgium in comparison to neighbouring countries[2]. Whilst in Belgium the share of social housing in relation to the total housing market is 7%, in the Netherlands this is around 40% and in France around 18%.

The combination of a crammed housing market with a low percentage of social housing, together with high ethnic discrimination on the private rental market[3] means that post-2014 migrants are heavily impacted by the lack of (social) housing policies for refugees. On top of that, the Flemish government prioritises natives or long-term residents in access to social housing. It already did so since 2017 but will expand the unequal treatment as of 2023. 

Discriminatory access to social housing in Flanders

Since 2017, new social tenants must prove their knowledge of Dutch at level A1 after one year of the tenancy agreement, which privileges long-term residents and fast language learners. From January 2023 onwards, it will be even more difficult for newcomers to access the already very limited available social housing. The Flemish government will give priority to people who have a ‘local connection’ to the municipality in which they apply for social housing[4]. Applicants will need to demonstrate to have uninterruptedly lived in the municipality in question for at least 5 years in the previous 10-year period. This reform favours long-term residents, and in small towns, this often but not always means white Belgians. Overall, this allocation model relies heavily on long-term residential tenure. 

Additionally, the Flemish government plans to merge Flemish social housing companies and social rental offices into one Flemish housing company in 2023. As a result, the allocation criteria for social housing will change. For now, social housing companies (which build and renovate social housing and manage that patrimony themselves) allocate housing chronologically according to waiting lists. Social rental agencies (which rent housing on the private market and re-let it) allocate social housing according to people’s housing need, organised by a point system. People who have the highest housing need will move up on the waiting list. With the planned merging of the social housing services into a single housing system, the allocation criteria according to the highest housing need will be abolished. The new system thus becomes less social, attributing more legitimacy to the time of the demand for social housing and abandoning social corrective measures for the less privileged among the applicants, who are often new migrants and refugees. 

These cumulative legislative changes favouring natives and long-term residents in Flemish social housing policies takes place in a context where  the radical right political party Vlaams Belang is increasingly successful. Civil society organisations working on housing rights, such as Huurpunt are alarmed by these developments. They warn that the implementation of the local connection criteria together with the abolition of the point system in the allocation of social rental housing, risks pushing the most vulnerable groups in society, including refugees and new migrants, into homelessness. 

Dire need for political action 

Migrants’ access to housing is thus not only hindered by unlawful ethnic discrimination on the rental market, but also by unequal treatment in Flemish social housing policies, which set more stringent access criteria for newcomers compared to long-term residents. These obstacles in accessing the housing market for migrants often lead to precarious, interrupted, and insecure housing conditions for refugees and new migrants. Many of the post-2014 migrants whom we interviewed for the Whole-COMM project in different Belgian localities mentioned that a lack of proper housing affected their experiences of inclusion, as well as their possibility to find a job or to learn the regional language.  

While the Flemish discourse on integration is increasingly focusing on the individual responsibilities of migrants to integrate into Flemish society (since January 2022 newcomers must, for example, pay for their obligatory integration course), Flanders is also increasingly erasing the little policy tools in place to help newcomers in their access to long-term accommodation. Rather than integrating migrants, in practice, the Flemish government contributes to their exclusion from the housing market, which, in turn, has a detrimental impact on other facets of participation, like finding a job or accessing education. 

If inclusion, or integration in the Flemish government’s terms, is a real governmental goal, there is a dire need for strong political action to facilitate the access of migrants to long-term housing. Only when safe, healthy, and secure housing is guaranteed, can migrants experience inclusion and develop their potential. 

[1] Source: https://press.msf-azg.be/ceci-nest-pas-une-crise-een-roadmap-om-uit-de-opvangcrisis-te-geraken, consulted on February 14th 2023

[2] Source: http://www.armoedebestrijding.be/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/cijfers_sociale_ huisvesting.pdf, consulted on 6/5/2022.

[3] Verhaeghe, P.P. (2017). Liever Sandra dan Samira? Over praktijktesten, mystery shopping en discriminatie. Berchem: Uitgeverij EPO.

[4] Only in a very limited number of cases this condition will be overlooked.  



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