Belgium declares amnesty for illegal immigrants

Thousands of illegal immigrants are lining up daily at local government offices in Belgium to apply for permanent residency.

Last week the Belgian government announced a three week amnesty for illegal immigrants already living in the country. The government estimates that there are as many as 60,000.

At the same time Belgium reintroduced border controls with its European partners, fearing an influx of people wanting to take advantage of the amnesty. The move has angered anti-racist groups who say it will provoke anger against foreigners by promoting the idea of a foreign invasion.

A typical asylum seeker is 63-year-old Mohammad Duhmi. He's lived in Belgium since 1965, but he's never been legal. He's never been caught by the police, he's never paid taxes and he's never had access to Belgian social services.

In a central Brussels quarter alone 1,200 people have come to take advantage of the amnesty since it was announced.

Koofi Celestin is from the Ivory Coast. He came to Belgium 10 years ago as a student and never went home. "Without papers it causes problems," he says, "but with a document you can have access to all the services you need."

The amnesty being offered only applies to people who have been living illegally in Belgium for at least six years; five if you have a family. Asylum seekers whose claims have been left hanging for four years or more will also be granted legal status here.

The Belgian government says it's trying to tackle what has become a chronic problem. An estimated 60,000 people live and work illegally there.

Pascale Smet is the head of Belgium's immigration task force. "The problem for Belgium and other European countries, and also to a certain extent for Canada, is that for many people, living illegally in our country is better than living legally in their own country," he says.

But anti-racist groups have criticized Belgium's decision to reintroduce border controls saying it will promote xenophobia. And they warn that once the amnesty is over, Belgium plans to introduce tougher immigration rules and faster deportations of people who may be making asylum claims.