BRUSSELS: Some 200 Afghan asylum-seekers and their supporters set up camp late on Sunday in Belgium’s western town of Mons, demanding to see Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo to press for residency papers.
The demonstrators had marched 70 kilometres (40 miles) from Brussels to see Di Rupo, who is also mayor of Mons.
After learning the prime minister was on a trip abroad and would not return until yesterday, they vowed to camp out in Mons’s main square -- decked out in Christmas decorations and vendors -- until they could see him.
The Afghans had been occupying a Brussels church for four months in a protest demanding permission to legally stay in Belgium. The archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, Andre Leonard, has lent his support to their campaign.
While Di Rupo has expressed some sympathy for their plight, his state secretary for asylum, Maggie De Block, has taken a harder line, saying the Afghans’ requests would be processed as for any other would-be refugee.
In 2012 Afghanistan was the biggest source country of refugees (a position it has held for 32 years) with one out of every four refugees in the world being an Afghan.
At the end of 2012 the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported that there were 15.4 million refugees worldwide.