Belgium's Afghan asylum seekers fear being sent home
Hundreds of Afghan asylum seekers are protesting in Belgium against being sent home. The BBC's Duncan Crawford reports from a makeshift camp in Brussels where families say being forced to return would amount to a death sentence.
Sitting inside a cramped, cold tent erected under the ornate roof of a 17th-Century church, 27-year-old Marwa Mahbub, an asylum seeker from Afghanistan, explains why she is refusing to return to her home country.
"My life is in danger in Afghanistan," she says. "I have problems with the Taliban. Most of the people here have problems with the Taliban."
Marwa is among more than 200 Afghans who, since the end of last year, have set up home inside the Beguinage Church in central Brussels.
Originally from Helmand Province, she says she fled Afghanistan in 2008 after receiving death threats from the Taliban for promoting women rights.
Despite repeatedly applying for asylum in Belgium, her applications have been rejected.
"I'd prefer to die here than return to Afghanistan," she says, watching her six-year-old daughter Maria and four-year-old son Zakie play on the stone floor.
Feeling of uncertainty
The church has been transformed into a tent village. Pews have been moved aside to make way for mattresses. Men huddle around electric lamps trying to stay warm, while children play on the pulpit as if it were a playground climbing frame. None of them go to school.
Just over 1,300 Afghans applied for asylum in Belgium last year. According to the EU statistical office Eurostat, more than 20,000 sought asylum across the EU.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) expects the numbers coming to Europe to rise when Nato troops leave Afghanistan this year.
"There's a huge feeling of uncertainty," Richard Danziger, the IOM's chief of mission for Afghanistan, told the BBC.
"We can expect an increase in Afghan asylum seekers coming to the EU and elsewhere, but not a mass exodus."
When Nato forces withdraw, there is a fear a power vacuum could develop that allows the hardline Islamist Taliban to seize more territory.
Some Afghans worry a civil war might again break out. Others think the Afghan economy will sharply decline due to a reduction in foreign aid.
"The economy will worsen next year," Mr Danziger says. "It's almost a given that there will be a loss of jobs, because much employment is linked to the international presence in Afghanistan."
For the Afghan asylum seekers in Belgium there is little prospect of work either. Hundreds of them have recently held demonstrations across Belgium to raise awareness about the situation they are in.
"We are not dangerous. We are in danger," proclaimed one of their banners at a recent march in the city of Ghent.
Some complain that they are caught in a legal limbo, denied asylum or a work permit but also unable to return to Afghanistan.
Els Keytsman, director of Flemish Refugee Action, told the BBC the Belgian government needed to do more to help.
"We fear that the situation in Afghanistan will be worse after international troops have left the country, as many experts in the field do. That's why we ask the Belgian government not to send back any rejected Afghan asylum seeker."
The Belgian government stresses that an independent refugee body is in charge of deciding the fate of asylum applications.
"This protest cannot have an impact on the way we do the assessment," says Dirk Van den Bulck, commissioner general for Refugees and Stateless Persons.
He argues that it is safe to return to some regions in Afghanistan.
"My office is considering the situation in Afghanistan as problematic," he says. "But not so problematic that the statute of protection has to be given to everyone coming from Afghanistan."
With tens of thousands of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Somalia and other countries all making their way to Europe, many countries have a huge backlog in asylum applications.
In October last year, the UK's Home Affairs Committee released an online report headlined "Asylum system under strain". The process was described as "overburdened and under severe pressure".
The prospect of more refugees arriving from Afghanistan, as well as the growing influx due to the conflict in Syria, could mean asylum systems across the EU come under even more strain.
Those who attempt to make the journey face daunting challenges, their fate often left in the hands of people smugglers, only to later be abandoned, to face potential imprisonment, or a life on the streets full of cold and hunger.
For Marwa, her dream is to remain in Belgium.
"We want jobs, to pay taxes and rent a house like other people," she says.