A simple, three steps to success?

The application process to work in Belgium consists of a work authorisation, residence permit and then the visa.

The permit processes must be completed one after the other, and where you need to apply will vary depending on where you specifically plan to work. The three main Belgian regions of Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels all have their own distinct systems for completing these steps.

Once you have completed and received a positive result for the work authorisation and residence permit, you may then approach the local Belgian embassy to apply for your visa to come.

This sounds fairly simply and, aside from some form filling and documentation, it is… on paper.

The realities of the process

The biggest challenge facing people who wish to come to Belgium to work is wait times.

For over 2 years, the process of permits and visas has been so long winded and uncertain, that applicants are terminating their contract before ever starting work.

The wait time for a work permit is somewhere between 7 and 11 weeks from application. If that is successful, then the residency permit suffers similar delays, with, again, 7 to 11 weeks being standard. If you wait those out and are successful, you then need to visit your local Belgian embassy… maybe.

Many embassies have outsourced their visa application processes to external organisations to handle the volume. In some countries this can take 3 months to get an appointment. In others, Turkey for example, the outsourced company has stopped taking applications all together.

All in all, this means you are likely looking at somewhere around 4 to 6 months before you’re likely to be ready to start your new role.

What can you do to improve your process?

This all sounds pretty dire and depressing. When you’ve just landed that dream job in another country, the last thing you want to do is wait and wait based on bureaucracy.

So, what can you do to improve the experience?

First, unfortunately, we’d recommend that you prepare yourself for the wait. There is going to be a noticeable time to wait before you can move, so we suggest that you plan for the longer wait and hope for a quicker turn around.

Second, get things right first time, and respond quickly. With such a duration to wait, the last thing you need is to be rejected or have questions asked because you missed a document or incorrectly answered a question.

Third, make sure you know what you can and cannot apply for. For example, if you plan to bring family with you including children over 18, they can’t join your application as a dependent.

Our final suggestion, which will certainly help with the last two points, is to speak to one of our members and get their professional help with your application. Having someone who understands the system, understands the nuances of the process, and knows what to look out for will be invaluable to a speedy and successful application. They will also be able to proactively follow up and move on your application, ensuring that any delay which can be removed is removed.

Is it worth it?

The reality is that Belgium has need of a great number of workers across a huge number of careers in our country. The work is here for those who want it and can wait on the long-winded process to get their visa.

As a country, Belgium offers some uniquely diverse and beautiful places to live in the midst of a vibrant and exciting country. Call us biased, but we think it’s worth the wait.

That said, we do agree that the wait times are currently unreasonable and actually miss the Government’s stated objective timelines. That’s why ABRA continues to advocate for a more streamlined, efficient and effective solution to the visa delay issue for both our members, and people like you.

 

 

 

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This year, in response to the unprecedented worldwide economic downturn and in addition to existing protectionist ideologies and anti-immigrant sentiments, countries renewed their focus on local workforce protections, but with a new emphasis on mitigating the risk of infection and compensating for skyrocketing unemployment rates. Along with widespread travel restrictions to ban the entry of entire groups of foreign nationals, many governments used a range of methods to restrict admission and work rights by imposing heightened eligibility criteria, decreasing quotas and increasing minimum salary levels.

Most countries promulgated restrictive entry and exit rules, and foreign nationals who were allowed entry faced complex and often intrusive health and entry requirements, and in many cases, strict criteria for work authorization that was implemented before COVID-19. Additionally, many countries divided essential workers from non-essential ones, creating a new category of admissibility, and a rapid acceleration of the digital transformation was seen to limit person-to-person contact during immigration processing. If there was ever a year of rapid global change in immigration rules, this was it.

COVID-19 Implications

Birth of New Type of Restrictionsim
As the epidemiological situation around the world changed, COVID-19-related travel restrictions ranged from broad entry bans to constantly changing specific bans with exceptions based on citizenship and/or originating country. A new type of restrictionism developed with the easing of travel restrictions. Policies began to focus heavily on health certificates, medical screenings and other related measures. While borders were starting to reopen, employers reconsidered sending their employees abroad in light of the implications of quarantine requirements. Faced with the inconvenience and interruption caused by mandatory quarantines, many travellers were reluctant (or unable) to partake in any form of travel during this quarter.

Implementation of Immigration Policy Reviews and Overhauls Sidelined by COVID-19 Response
With government resources limited, the need for recovery from government closures—including reconciling application backlogs and regularizing out-of-status foreign nationals—will be at the forefront of immigration administrations’ concerns in the short term. As a result, immigration policy overhauls planned for implementation during late 2020 and into 2021 have been delayed in many countries.

Travel Alliances in Stark Contrast to Divergent Policies
As economies struggled to reopen and compensate for months of closures, travel bubbles (also referred as “travel corridors” and “air bridges”) created among countries with similar COVID-19 infection rates resulted in lenient entry rules or exceptions to entry bans/quarantine, to facilitate travel and help improve each country’s economy. In stark contrast to coordinated agreements, a key 2020 trend was the diversion of many local/state governments from centralized plans that were created to coordinate travel policy changes. This was particularly noticeable in the European Union (EU), where the European Council recommended that EU countries lift the external border restrictions for a limited number of countries, based on objective criteria related to the COVID-19 infection rate and whether reciprocal policies apply. EU Member States, however, took a country-by-country approach, creating uncoordinated and complex entry rules.

Unprecedented Unemployment Rates Exacerbate Protectionism
In both developed and developing economies, the pandemic is causing unprecedented job losses and business closures. The unemployment rate in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries increased by an unprecedented 2.9 percentage points in April 2020 to 8.4%, compared to 5.5% in March. As economies begin to reopen, unemployment is projected to fall, but remain substantially above pre-pandemic levels. As a result, policies across the world will continue to shift more toward the protection of local workforce to mitigate unprecedented job losses. As history has shown, countries will likely continue to turn inward in response to sustained high unemployment rates but will ultimately seek to improve their fiscal situation by welcoming foreign talent and foreign investment (often an underrated source for economic recovery).

Work-from-Anywhere the New Normal
Many employees were moved to remote work situations in countries with temporary and ambiguous remote working concessions, that were often hastily created in reaction to the COVID-19 crisis. In many cases, companies were compelled to follow temporary government remote work regulations that often led to the employer being noncompliant with labour and other laws. Many times, whether an employee could work remotely under their work authorization depended on several factors, such as the terms of the employment agreement (Austria), the location of work (Canada), or the visa category (United States). These and other scenarios created compliance risks beyond those related to immigration law (e.g., employment law, social security law, tax implications, etc.).

Some employees ended up working in a country other than the one where they applied for work rights. As governments scrambled to catch up to such decisions, lawmakers created ambiguous policies that did not contemplate saving employers and their employees from the various legal compliance risks. The combination of uncharted legislative and policy territory and hasty decisions to address immediate needs resulted in a period of chaotic employer policy changes. This is especially important in the context of the Posted Workers Directive in the EU, where employers are required to comply with strict standards to ensure the posted worker’s working conditions are the same as local workers. In many ways, an ideal approach for remote workers would be if more immigration systems separated the need for company sponsorship from work authorization eligibility, which would allow for more flexible employment agreements, such as employee-leasing or third-party placements.

Immigration Policies and Special Concessions for Essential Workers
The pandemic created a new division in the immigration landscape. Essential workers, such as healthcare workers, production and food processing workers, maintenance workers, agricultural workers, and truck drivers, and other categories of workers deemed necessary in the fight against COVID-19, were exempt from entry bans. This approach may create a new policy focused on workers deemed essential by the destination country governments for various situations (even outside this pandemic) and could create more opportunities for local and foreign medium-skilled workers. Labour protections, such as quotas and labour market tests, traditionally disfavoured such applicants, who in many countries are considered medium- and even low-skilled.

Education-focused Immigration Programs May Increase Opportunities for Medium-Skilled Foreign Workers
Prior to COVID-19, immigration programs in countries that sought to attract the best and brightest featured eligibility criteria based on high standards of professional skills and experience. Conversely, education-based programs, such as the post-graduate practical training program in the United States, were the focus of many immigration-related restrictions. When COVID-19 hit, there was a heightened need for medical professionals and other essential—but lower-skilled, lower-paid—workers. Immigration schemes may start to reflect such needs in entry rules; immigration paths may be created especially for such entrants and protectionism may ease to allow special exemptions and rules for medium-skilled workers with certain educations such as vocational or non-traditional schooling, or otherwise. This is already seen in the United Kingdom, where the new points-based system will create a preferential route just for healthcare workers with a job offer.

Emerging Trends

Fragomen believes the following key trends will strongly impact the immigration landscape in the next several years. While there is no direct action to be taken now, they feel these trends require close observation, as they will likely have a significant impact on how business is conducted in the future.

Health Assessments in the Spotlight
While the topic of an “immunity passport” caught on during the early days of the COVID-19 travel restrictions, the World Health Organization warned that there is no evidence that those who have recovered from COVID-19 have antibodies or are protected from re-infection. Additionally, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that up to half of antibody tests could incorrectly state that an individual has antibodies. For these reasons, among other, immunity passports are not a realistic option as a basis for travel rights. However, health records for travellers, often referred to as a “health passport,” containing antibody test results, recent negative COVID-19 test results and proof of vaccination are now becoming the norm.

Government Need to Increase Revenue May Impact Employer Budgets
Just like nearly every private industry, public government departments suffered from cuts in spending and expenditures in national health and economic recovery programs. As governments aim to rebuild economies post-COVID-19, politicians will have difficult decisions to make with respect to how to recoup funds after months of closures of public services. In some countries, this could result in higher taxes, while in others it may result in cuts on public spending.

Attempts to compensate for losses could have two effects:
∞ Higher application fees and fines for noncompliance. Employers and foreign nationals could see increased application fees for both initial and renewal applications. Fees for noncompliance with immigration regulations could also increase.
∞ Increased enforcement efforts. Government motivations to increase noncompliance fines could lead immigration departments and other governmental bodies that enforce immigration and employment law to expand their watchdog roles and increase the volume of their enforcement efforts, if resources and laws allow it.

This means employers will need to factor increased fees— which could prove to be dramatic—into their budgets. Employers should be prepared for stricter enforcement efforts, including government audits of workplaces and workplace documents, as well as increased strictness in reviewing employer and foreign nationals’ immigration applications.

Mismatch in Demographics to Create Work Opportunities
The working age population in most high-income countries is declining, while elderly populations are growing. By 2050, the prime working-age populations of OECD countries will have shrunk by more than 92 million people, while their populations over 65 years old will have grown by more than 100 million people. This means OECD countries are facing a gap of more than 15 million workers per year, or a total of 400 million workers over 30 years. However, many lower-income countries have working-age populations that are growing faster than job creation rates (e.g., Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, Latin America, Middle East). Since it has been proven that the potential income gain from mobility exceeds the gain from more schooling, this could mean a great opportunity for foreign workers.

Manufacturing Will Move to Home Countries, Decreasing Long-term Assignments
COVID-19 has exposed the fragility of supply chains. Governments and companies will start to review manufacturing locations and move facilities home to create a more dependable and sustainable supply chain. Pharmaceutical and medical supply manufacturing locations were under a microscope during COVID-19, as personal protective equipment shortages loomed and reliance on Chinese production was strong. These may be the first of many industries that shift production to other locations in the long term. In 2021 and after the pandemic, U.S. and European companies will likely reconsider their supply and service ties with China, which could either spur a growth in home country production and service jobs, or a spread of production in other production hubs with low wages.

This could reduce out-of-country travel needs and could instead re-focus hiring efforts on local populations (including immigrants in the home country under local hire work permits). This will also force companies to create new forms of automation to decrease the costs of onshore production, which may create needs to cut budgets elsewhere. Alternatively, COVID-19-related financial losses will, for many companies, undercut the ability to move production at this time, as very little spare capital remains to make such drastic changes. However, the conversation and concern were amplified during the pandemic and, in three to five years, moving production posts could become more of a reality for employers with continued concerns about the stability, both economically and politically, in China.

Finally, Fragomen believes the private sector will play an ever more significant role in shaping immigration policy. With the past several years of immigration restrictions spurring the business community to become more involved in policy development at both national and international levels, organisations such as the Global Forum for Migration and Development help the private sector raise awareness of the benefits of labour migration. The pandemic has brought the role of the private sector into even higher relief as governments and organisations work to balance crucial COVID-19 containment measures with mechanisms to support the global economy.

For the full report, please visit the Fragomen website.

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The Withdrawal Agreement protects the right of residence for UK nationals and their families who have been living in Belgium. It also protects the exit and entry rights of UK frontier workers in Belgium.

Belgium has opted for an extended application period lasting until 31st December 2021 in order to make sure you have sufficient time to submit your application. During this period, the rights of UK nationals living in Belgium before the end of the transition period, and their family members, are protected.

We strongly recommend that you apply as soon as possible in order to protect your rights for the future and ensure as smooth a transition as possible. You can apply for your new card from 1st of January 2021 until the 31 of December 2021.

The new residence document

If you have a residence right, you will receive a residence card for beneficiaries of the Withdrawal Agreement (M card). This card has a validity of 5 years, after you which you can renew your card or apply for a permanent residence right.

The new document for local border traffic

If you have a status as a frontier worker, you will receive a card for local border traffic as beneficiaries of the Withdrawal Agreement (N card). This card has a validity of 5 years, after you which you can renew your card.

Download the full letter from the Belgian State Secretary for Asylum and Migration.

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Since 20 August 2020, the Belgian government continued to seek alignment with the EU recommendations and announced new guidelines that would formalise the broadening of the scope of workers considered as highly skilled essential workers exempt from the travel ban. Updated guidelines applicable as of 11 September, make official solutions for both short- and long-term travellers (being less or more than 90 days in any 180 day period).

Long-term travellers from “White Listed” countries

From 25 September onwards Belgium foresees in a removal of border restrictions and quarantine requirement for all travellers coming from so called ‘While Listed’ countries. Travellers coming from these countries are permitted to travel to Belgium regardless of the travel purpose, provided that they comply with standard visa and entry criteria. These countries originate from the listing originally issued under the Council Recommendation of June 30. Countries currently included in the list are: Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, Rwanda, South Korea, Thailand and Uruguay (list subject to change – check https://diplomatie.belgium.be/nl for a most updated version).

Long-term travellers from countries that are not “White Listed”

All foreign nationals who qualify for a single permit based on a work authorization category exempt from labour market testing are automatically included in the category of essential workers. This includes specialised technicians and shortage occupations in the Flanders and Walloon regions of Belgium. All foreign nationals who have been issued an Annex 46 in the procedure towards obtaining a Single Permit will qualify for the VISA D (B34). Equally, the EU Blue Card applicants continue to qualify for the Visa D (B29).

Short-term travel from countries that are not “White Listed”

Belgium has also included an important exception on the travel ban for short-term travellers who can demonstrate the essential character of their activities in Belgium.. In order to meet these criteria, travellers must obtain an “Attestation of Essential Travel” (template available on the website of the Immigration Office) from the relevant Diplomatic Post. To obtain the attestation, you must submit the documents that prove the essential nature of the activities, such as a work permit B, documents supporting the work authorisation exemption and statement(s) from the employer. We recommend that all travellers obtain this attestation to avoid queries by airline companies or Belgian border inspection services.

Finally it is also Important to mention that self-employed workers will no longer be subject to the travel ban if they can carry the relevant VISA D and/or “Attestation of Essential Travel.” It remains important that all travellers complete the Public Health Passenger Locator Form (PLF) 48 hours prior to arriving in Belgium. Proof that the PLF has been completed will need to be given to the airline when boarding the plane. Travellers will need to quarantine for 10 days upon arrival from a red zone and should only be tested if they present symptoms. Note that that the quarantine can only be lifted based upon the optional self-assessment or to fulfil the essential purpose of the trip and to the extent that this activity cannot be postponed to a later date.

After months of highly restricted access options to Belgium, these adjusted guidelines bring a wind of change and allow companies to reconsider the remobilisation of foreign national staff, which is crucial for business recovery and economic growth.

Opportunities for workforce planning – what companies should do:

1. Keep up to date with government measures. These measures are constantly changing and windows of opportunity for enhanced mobility can appear. It is crucial to develop broad awareness of the restrictions, as well as a deep understanding of business solutions.

2. Develop creative remobilisation strategies. As there are variances among EU countries with respect to border openings, employers can use the more “relaxed” countries, such as Belgium, as entry points into the EU.

3. Explore EU-wide permits/facilitated immigration routes. European legislation and European Court of Justice case law provides facilitated routes for non-EU nationals to work in more than one EU country. This allows companies to explore the full potential of their EU-based workforce while it remains challenging to bring employees from outside the EU.

4. Make sure you remain compliant. The work and travel patterns of your employees may adjust substantially to the current circumstances: working from home and/or client site, furlough schemes and more frequent business travel inside the EU. Employers must remain vigilant to the employment, immigration and social security legislation requirements with which they may have to comply in this new landscape.

For further information and advice on navigating the immigration landscape and impacts of COVID-19, please contact Jo Antoons or Alexander De Nys.

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Fragomen has devised a #COVID19 Impact Statement for each country in the Benelux, relating to right to Travel, Work and Reside. These will be housed on the Fragomen website, and will be regularly updated to take account of emerging government guidance and the changing landscape. They take a risk based approach where policy is not fully developed, and address the business impact of government closures and delays.

The Impact Statement answers all type of questions employers have as they look to protect their workforce and ensure compliance with immigration regulations. It includes travel restrictions, current application processing, delays to start dates, working from home policies, unpaid leave or temporary unemployment, changes to the employment contract and salary, work and residence permit renewals and many other items you need to consider from an immigration perspective.

Please consult Fragomen if you would like access to these documents. In the meantime, please find below a broad description of the current situation in Belgium.

General Situation in Belgium

• Travel ban: until 19 April (extension possible) with limited exceptions such as for those whose travel to Belgium is deemed essential (such as frontier workers) and nationals normally residing in Belgium, holding a Belgian residence permit and returning home.

• Regional Employment Offices & Foreigners Office: still processing all application types, processing times may experience some delays.

• In-country appointments: Town Halls are continuing to provide essential services. We recommend consulting the website of the Town Hall or contacting them via phone or email prior to visiting to confirm whether an appointment should be made or whether it is possible to arrange via email.

Leniency Measures

Given the current situation, the Belgian authorities have instated some “leniency” measures:

• There seems to be flexibility with respect to single permit supporting documents that are difficult to obtain due to COVID-19 such as medical certificates and police clearance documents (these remain mandatory but can be provided at a later stage).

• If an assignee cannot return home and risks becoming illegal in Belgium, they can exceptionally apply for an extended stay and work due to reasons of force majeur.

• Work or single permits allow working from home without a negative effect on the validity of the authorization, provided the working from home measures are temporary and due to the current situation surrounding COVID-19.

As you can see, the situation is highly complex but Belgium remains open for immigration processing, albeit on a limited basis.

Fragomen also wants to confirm that for individual cases, solutions are available and they are happy to help determine what can be done for each individual impacted by this situation. Fragomen can also assist with looking at your broader European workforce, both for urgent solutions now and preparing to remobilise, while equally addressing posted worker and social security compliance, as well as cost saving strategies.

Finally, Fragomen has invested thousands of hours and manpower in creating a unique microsite on the immigration impacts of COVID-19, for which there is no charge to access. This site is updated on a daily basis by the Fragomen Knowledge Team in conjunction with Fragomen legal experts around the world and includes a daily updated tracker including more than 135 countries’ specific COVID-19 policies.

If you have not had a chance to visit the site lately, please access our free microsite at https://www.fragomen.com/about/news/immigration-update-coronavirus

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What led you to develop this platform?

“Thousands of expats move to Europe every single day and most of them do this without support from their employer. They’ll ask family, friends and acquaintances who have relocated before them for advice or end up on Google. And much as they’ll receive useful information, a lot of it will be contradictory and can be hugely confusing.”

“In fact, the platform is a great solution for expats who are already living here too. To give an example, I’ve been living in Belgium for 10 years, but when I recently wanted to look into extra dental cover, I was lost. There’s a sea of information out there, but if you search for ‘dental cover plans Belgium’ you end up with a list of dentists and articles on social security. All I wanted to know was which providers offer which plans. Imagine how confusing it is for new arrivals. Where do you even begin looking?”

“This is the problem we want to solve with Xpatris.com. We’ve carefully selected the market’s service providers, filtering them for dedicated expat services where possible. The clear overview not only lets users compare different plans and providers, but directs them to the most relevant pages. Trying to find the right dental plan via Google took me more than ten clicks, whereas the platform let me filter, select and sign up for the dental coverage I was looking for within three clicks.”

Is this the new way to relocate?

“Expats are increasingly expected to relocate themselves, but no, we’re definitely not a relocation service provider. The platform is complementary. The same client company that sends over a VIP CEO sends over junior profiles who don’t get the same level of support. Instead of spending unpaid time explaining the difference between Telenet and Belgacom, relocators can simply direct expats to the platform. We see Xpatris as a support tool for everyone active in the global mobility industry; it’s a daily solution that saves time and money. Time that you can spend focussing on delivering the personalised services that clients pay for.”

You’ve been live for just over a month, how has the platform been received?
“Initial response has been better than we dared hope: over 500 unique users registered during the first week, and we hadn’t even started our social media pages yet. We’ve already received the support of some really important players such as BNP Paribas, Radisson, Everis… Their HR departments are delighted with the platform. We’d love to see everyone using our platform and are very happy to collaborate. If you’d like to partner up with us, get in touch! That said, we’re not resellers: we are completely objective and every service provider is given the same amount of visibility. The platform is free for both users and providers. And because users can rate and review providers we ensure the quality and competitiveness of services offered remains high. Think of Xpatris as the Tripadvisor for expats.”

Who is behind the platform?

“Xpatris is the culmination of our own experiences as expats in many different countries and now in Belgium. We are two cofounders – Salvatore from Italy and Pari from India – who put our combined knowledge at your service. Pari used to work in Silicon Valley and combined with my experience in the financial world, it makes for a strong business and development background. Not to mention our personal experiences: we’re expats helping other expats get the most out of their new life in Belgium. We’re supported by a Buddy Community as well; all volunteers who have come to Belgium as foreign nationals. And then of course we have strategic partners such as ABRA, International House Leuven, Commissioner. Brussels and other institutions who are helping us power the platform.”

What’s next?

“We’ve chosen to focus on Brussels, Antwerp, Leuven and Ghent as these are the most popular Belgian destinations with expats, but we’re looking forward to going international, penetrating new markets and developing new technology.”

www.xpatris.com

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Before I joined the project, I asked myself whether I was the right person for such an experimental programme. I had just finished my first interview with the employees of Vormingplus, who were responsible for the selection interviews of the buddies. I was asked about my personality, wishes, sexuality, hobbies and work situation. At the end of the interview I was told that I would be a great candidate for the programme. The two staff members suggested I should think it all over for a while and give them a call as soon as I knew what my answer was going to be.

“So many questions came to mind.”

When I walked to the station to take the train to Amsterdam, my home town at that time, one question after the other came to my mind. What would I like to achieve within this project? Am I really open to living with someone from a different culture? Do I want to show that Flemish people are actually cool? How can I ensure that he becomes self-sufficient? I noticed that in each of the questions a word came up each time: “me”.

By asking myself these questions, I realised I would have to go into the project with an open mind and without expectations, because my newcomer would set the pace. It was not just about my expectations, but especially about his. After being matched with Izat, our introduction and first conversation, and then of course our move, I tried to make that initial connection. This proved to be difficult as Izat did not immediately trust me.

However, after a few months he started coming out of his bedroom more and more often and we would talk, sometimes deep into the night. His Dutch evolved admirably fast as he was going to class full time and using Dutch in daily life. There was another side to the story however. Izat was very ill with tuberculosis, which was diagnosed fairly late and therefore difficult to cure. Izat often struggled with abdominal pain and ate badly during certain periods, which worried me. In my opinion, the OCMW did not monitor his situation well enough and there was not enough guidance. This was not the OCMW employee’s fault but was due to policy, in which far too little time is allocated to each client.

“Our conversations became more frequent, went deeper and often lasted for hours.”

As a result, I increasingly took matters into my own hands: a doctor’s appointment that needed to be arranged, teaching him how to make bank account transfers, talk about medication and encourage healthy eating. I took on the care function and changed from buddy to a kind of mother figure. We both felt really good about this; for the first time it felt like we were a team. Our conversations became more frequent, went deeper and often lasted for hours. He would tell me about life in Afghanistan and the things he experienced during his flight. Living in the mountains and peacefully herding the family’s animals during the day stood in stark contrast to the nights, when he would huddle up close with his brothers and sisters as bombs fell around them. Stories such as those, in which friends were shot or acquaintances taken prisoner by IS, were beyond shocking but after a while even I got used to them.

As his life in Belgium began to expand, Izat started becoming less emotionally tied to the horrors that had taken place in Afghanistan and on the road. This confused him, and coupled with the fact that he was living with a woman who was not a family member or a partner, Izat started to struggle within himself. He began locking himself away in his bedroom again, invited male friends over more often and stayed away from home overnight. Religion was his stable safe haven in this strange new life.

“I hadn’t expected that I wouldn’t see him once during Ramadan.”

At the dawn of Ramadan, he informed me that he would come home less often during the month of the fast. However, I hadn’t expected that I wouldn’t see him once during that period. Going to the mosque, praying, fasting, going to school, working and eating at night took so much time that he found it easier to spend it with friends. At least, that’s what he told me.

Later he said he did not come home because “he was not allowed to be in contact with a woman of Allah during Ramadan.” I tried to find out on Google why the Qur’an prescribed this, but could not find a clear answer to my question. I realised that I shouldn’t care if he didn’t come home, but it hurt and it made me angry. I did read that a Muslim should not have unchaste thoughts during Ramadan and suspected perhaps there was more at play. Those late nights talking about life, coupled with the care I showed while he was ill, had evolved into a crush he later admitted. This caused a lot of awkwardness in our little household.

“Whichever way you turn it around, it stands in strong contrast with our Flemish way of thinking.”

I still can’t understand why within Islam there is such a strong emphasis on the differences between men and women. It makes being friends with someone from the opposite sex hard when you have so many preconceived ideas about how relationships should be. Whichever way you turn it around, it stands in strong contrast with our Flemish way of thinking.

A month before Ramadan, I had decided to leave the project early as an opportunity with a new home came up. Somehow I had hoped that during those last two months, we would have enough time to restore our connection, which had once grown into a friendship. Unfortunately, we didn’t and I feel like I have failed.

From a rational point of view, no one has failed and the extreme cultural and religious differences simply made living together no longer feasible. This was also apparent when our OCMW contact explained that I was moving out and asked him whether he would once again live with a Flemish woman in this way. A shocked “no” was his answer. That one word touched my heart. I know he didn’t mean it that way and that he was masking his hurt about me leaving before the project officially ended. But knowing that I was able to give him the basis of Flanders and that we had wonderful moments, I made peace with it. Who knows, the future may still bring a beautiful friendship.

* while typing this last column I received another message: “hey Deborah, before you move, I’ll cook for you again.” All is well that ends well.

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As professionals in the global mobility sector we know all about managing culture shock, helping our assignees adapt to new environments, and spend a lot of time considering matters such as cost of living allowances and hardship locations. But what about those who move halfway across the globe with no help whatsoever? The people who leave their homes behind for entirely different reasons than a (temporary) foreign assignment? Freelance journalist and millennial Deborah Seymus has a monthly column on living with a young refugee with Knack online and is republished here with their permission. We look forward to bringing you her column over the coming issues as we explore a brand new view on life in Belgium.

Just over twelve months ago I met Izat*. Izat fled Afghanistan at the age of 19. He and his family lived in the village of Tagab in the northeast of Afghanistan, which has been under Taliban control since 1995. War has been raging in the region since 2001, and with Tagab trapped between the Taliban militia on the one side and government soldiers on the other, his village is under constant fire. Going to school is not an option as schools ceased to exist some time ago and career opportunities for young men are limited to being recruited by either the Taliban or the army. Realising this, his parents concluded there was no future for him in Tagab. They saved up 10,000 dollars and with a heavy heart helped their son flee to Belgium.

“Call me naive, but I hadn’t considered the impact religion might have on our cohousing experience. We talked about basic things at first.”

When I was first introduced to Izat, I was expecting to be faced with different cultural customs and habits. I had however not expected to live with someone for whom religion is such an important part of life. Call me naive, but I simply hadn’t considered it. Izat is an avid follower of Islam, but it took me a while to figure that out. Because we only talked about basic things such as housekeeping, school and work, I had no idea how important being faithful to his God was to him and how much that would end up influencing our living together.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Afghanistan had around four million inhabitants; that number has now been multiplied by at least eight. Almost all (more than 99.7%) residents are Muslim. The large majority (80 to 85%) is Sunni, a minority (15 to 19%, more than two million and mainly Hazara) is Shiite. 1% adheres to a different religion. This is because when the communist regime in Afghanistan came to an end in 1992, the Republic of Afghanistan ended too. At the end of the Afghan Civil War in 1996, the Taliban took control over Afghanistan and renamed the country the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

“I never expected that I would have to explain that praying is an extra, not something that precedes attending classes or going to a job interview.”

I left for my annual holiday shortly after moving in together with Izat in July 2018. Coming back from my Italian travels, I arrived at an apartment where prayers rang through the speakers. Things had changed since I left. There was, for example, a carpet in his room and Izat was dressed in a long white robe. He went to pray in his room a number of times a day, closing the door behind him. I wondered how that would work when he’d start school in September. He wouldn’t have the space and time to isolate himself four times a day. I wanted to point this out to him, but was afraid to. It was too early and our contact was still very superficial.
From September 2018, Izat started attending school and took additional courses through Curant. He also enrolled in a course to help him find a suitable job organised by JES. JES is a city lab for children and young people in Antwerp, Ghent and Brussels. As a partner of Curant, they strengthen the self-reliance of the refugees in our project. They organise excursions so that the group can get to know each other better and work around specific themes such as finding work.

After the course ended, the registered boys and girls were given the opportunity to show their buddies what they had learned. Just before Izat had to give his presentation he said to me: “Deborah, I have to leave now. It is time to pray.” I tried to explain this wasn’t the right time, but he had already disappeared. I spoke to one of the OCMW employees who was there too and asked for her opinion. Together we went in search of Izat to explain this wasn’t the time for prayer. He struggled with the idea that he could not pray where and when he considered it necessary.

“As an atheist, I just don’t get it. I don’t understand how dogma can make you put everything else aside to pray.”

I could not, and still do not, understand how a religion can expect you to put everything else aside so that you can pray. You also have to follow certain rituals, such as cleaning your body with water, before you can turn to Allah. Repeating the ritual and praying six times a day takes quite a bit of time. It also required a lot of empathy from me. Sometimes I came home from work late at night and then we’d sit and chat outside, until Izat’s alarm would go off: time to pray.

But as time went by, I heard his phone ring less and less often. Izat spent less time in his room praying and spent more time outside or with friends. School was going well and his Dutch progressed quickly. During Ramadan, I noticed Izat had stopped coming home in the evening and stopped sleeping in the apartment. For a month I lived there alone and when I asked him about it I received a vague answer. He said it was not my fault and that he would come home occasionally. In the meantime, I asked acquaintances, and they explained it’s not acceptable for a Muslim to live with a woman they are not married or related to.
“The only answer that became truly clear to me was that I had to look things up on Google.”

After a long conversation on Messenger, because live communication remained quite hard, I was finally able to explain to him why I found the situation so difficult. He seemed to understand that. He did, however, stick to what he had said. With the last months of our cohabitation coming up we both did our best to make living together as pleasant as possible. Summer had returned to Belgium, which meant that we often sat outside until late on the terrace, talking about politics in Belgium and Afghanistan, and also about faith. What particularly struck me during those conversations was that his answers were always based on what the Quran said or what someone had told him. Never on his own research or from personal experience. For example, I repeatedly asked him why a woman should wear a scarf or hijab, and added that it would seem that women had to do certain things that men needn’t do. The only clear answer to the question “why” was that I had to look things up on Google.

“To me ‘Because the Quran says so’ is not a satisfactory answer. I need to you formulate your own thoughts.”

Sometimes my relentless questioning of dogma would get him thinking however, and he’d try to find answers that he could explain within himself. To me “because the Koran says so” is not a satisfactory answer. Despite my best efforts, he kept repeating that one day I would see the light and if I spoke to a certain person (a guru who lives abroad), I would be convinced of the Islam. After a while I understood that Izat would always hope that I would repent, so that he wasn’t doing wrong by faith. Coming home and chatting with me caused him conflicting feelings. The moment I realised that, I understood I had to make a decision. It’s a shame Curant never considered how much value he attached to his faith. If they had, they would not matched a deeply faithful Islamic man and an atheist Flemish woman for a cohousing project.
Yet I don’t want to blame Curant. Izat and many of the other boys struggle to look inside or talk about their innermost musings. Their culture is one where men do not share their thoughts or feelings. This makes it difficult to paint a correct picture of the situation. Also, over 50% of the buddies in the project are female, and more than 70% of newcomers are male. Which makes it difficult for the project organisers and sometimes they have to take a gamble.

I did learn from our conversations that religion is not for me. I respect someone’s faith and their adherence to a religion, but I don’t want to be converted. And that’s exactly where the crux lies: the faithful find it incredibly difficult to understand how you cannot believe in God, Allah or YHWH. To them it feels as if you don’t believe them, which implies that where they have put their trust in, is not reliable. Some experience that as a personal rejection of their faith, and therefore also of their personality, and that is the problem for me. Because when exactly did personality become inextricably linked to religion or belief?

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As professionals in the global mobility sector we know all about managing culture shock, helping our assignees adapt to new environments, and spend a lot of time considering matters such as cost of living allowances and hardship locations. But what about those who move halfway across the globe with no help whatsoever? The people who leave their homes behind for entirely different reasons than a (temporary) foreign assignment? Freelance journalist and millennial Deborah Seymus has a monthly column on living with a young refugee with Knack online and is republished here with their permission. We look forward to bringing you her column over the coming issues as we explore a brand new view on life in Belgium.

Just over six months ago I met Izat*. Izat fled Afghanistan at the age of 19. He and his family lived in the village of Tagab in the northeast of Afghanistan, which has been under Taliban control since 1995. War has been raging in the region since 2001, and with Tagab trapped between the Taliban militia on the one side and government soldiers on the other, his village is under constant fire. Going to school is not an option as schools ceased to exist some time ago and career opportunities for young men are limited to being recruited by either the Taliban or the army. Realising this, his parents concluded there was no future for him in Tagab. They saved up 10,000 dollars and with a heavy heart helped their son flee to Belgium.

“Our differing views are the cause of a fair amount of frustration.”

I have never asked myself so many questions about the subject of relationships, as since I’ve been living with Izat. Never before have I had so many problems expressing myself and explaining things to someone else when talk turns to the Belgian view on love and friendship. And to be honest, it’s the cause of a fair amount of frustration because our views on these themes are so vastly different.

Let me begin by answering why our views are so different. In Afghanistan almost all (99%) of inhabitants are Muslim, of which 80-85% are Sunnite. The Sunnites follow, besides the Quran, the Hadith, which is a vast collection of established Islamic legends about the life of the prophet Mohammed. The Hadith is essentially an extension and interpretation of the Quran, with often strict rules to be followed. Additionally, Sunnism is subdivided into different ‘madhahib’ – also known as hadis – which are different schools of religious thought. The most important of these are Hanafism, Malikism, Shafism and Hanbalism. Each was named after an ‘imam’, or pastor in prayer. Izat and his parents follow Hanafism, which means Izat was raised according to certain religious rules which influence his interpretation of the differences in sex, love and relationships.

“You need to be respectful of women, turning round to look at a pretty girl is not acceptable.”

One of these rules is that Muslim women should cover their entire body and wear a headscarf, or ‘hijab’ in Afghanistan. They do this so that men in the street would not look at uncovered parts of their bodies. Here in Belgium we’d be up on the barricades if we were not allowed to dress in public the way we want to, and see this as repression of women. When I speak with Izat about this, he explains: “You need to be respectful of women and turning round to look at a pretty girl is not acceptable. It’s very disrespectful for the woman, she could be married. She must be able to stay pure for Allah and her marriage.”

“My feminist beliefs tell me it sounds like a lame excuse to keep women subservient.”

I struggle with this last part. My feminist beliefs make me think it sounds like a lame excuse to keep women under some sort of control and keep them subservient. Even so, I can’t deny the fact that I’ve been stared at hundreds of times and don’t particularly enjoy it. When I confront Izat with the fact that I’ve been stared at by Muslim men too, he explains that not all Muslims know how to behave as they don’t know or understand enough about our Belgian customs.

“Many of the young men who come here for the first time are simply shocked by what they see. This can cause strange behaviour or expressions that we struggle to understand in Belgium. Good guidance and follow-up are essential so that newcomers learn how to deal with differences and not to misinterpret Western behaviour, or dress sense,” Anneloes Van Osselaer, project leader at Curant explains. “A few lessons during an integration programme simply aren’t enough as these programmes usually only cover some theoretical knowledge. In the best case we can discuss these topics in a group with other young refugees. Themes like these require more in-depth and sustainable guidance and follow-up; by OKAN schools, teachers, imams, role models from their own culture, social assistants and youth workers.”

“No matter how hard he tries to explain the premise of our cohousing project, his friends don’t understand.”

I can imagine that it’s not easy to understand Belgian freedom when you come from a completely different culture. And if you have to make do with the limited information given during your integration course, you end up with more questions than answers. Izat honestly shares with me that he’s looked at a woman here before. His friends tell him off immediately; he’s not supposed to be looking at women when he has one at home (me). No matter how hard he tries to explain the premise of our cohousing project, the boys don’t – or won’t – understand. As far as their concerned, when you live with a woman, even in Belgium, you are a couple.

Within the Afghan culture, women stay at home to take care of the children. They run the household and the man has very little input on this. Most adult Afghan women have never been to school, but considering the country has been plagued by war for 30 years, this is hardly surprising. Even so, things are slowly beginning to change within the educational system. Girls in Kabul have been going to school for a while now and a school has just been built in Tagab* where young girls can follow classes.

“Who else would take care of the children and the family?”

When I ask Izat whether men and women are equal in his culture, he emphasises they are equally worthy and women are considered enormously important. Families in Afghanistan are almost always large, with everyone living together under the same roof. “Without women, who would take care of the children and the family?” It’s not because women don’t work, raising large families instead, that they are treated as lesser.

Afghan women’s lives are traditionally controlled by their male relatives. Women symbolise the honour of the family and community and they are expected to be pure and modest. Over the last two decades however, armed groups have used these cultural norms as a weapon. The arrival of the Taliban in 1994 caused an extreme increase in violence against Afghan women. Using rape and sexual assault, they are able to dishonour entire communities. So what does this daily reality do to your views on sexuality and relationships as a young man?

“You need to be respectful of women and turning to look at a pretty woman is not acceptable.”

When Izat and I had been living together for about a month, I met someone. Just like many Belgian couples, we regularly met up and started spending the night together. I always let Izat know whether we would be staying at our apartment or at his place. Perhaps I shouldn’t have said anything, because I soon realised that Izat would disappear anytime we were in my room. When I asked him about this, he pretended nothing was wrong and he had no idea what I was talking about. His curt reply was clear: “no, no problem”.

Only after many conversations with him did I begin to understand how incredibly uncomfortable this made him feel in his own home. He was already living with an open minded young woman he often struggled to know how to be around. But her sleeping with a partner who was not her husband, was simply too difficult to understand. Staying over at a friend’s house seemed to be the right solution; this way I wouldn’t feel guilty. I’ve now come to accept this, after all, it seems a little absurd to change my love life to meet his religious standards.

The truth? Living together will always be a quest to find the perfect middle ground, but I consider the freedom women enjoy here a vested right. A hard earned right I wouldn’t like to see changed.

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As professionals in the global mobility sector we know all about managing culture shock, helping our assignees adapt to new environments, and spend a lot of time considering matters such as cost of living allowances and hardship locations. But what about those who move halfway across the globe with no help whatsoever? The people who leave their homes behind for entirely different reasons than a (temporary) foreign assignment? Freelance journalist and millennial Deborah Seymus has a monthly column on living with a young refugee with Knack online and is republished here with their permission. We look forward to bringing you her column over the coming issues as we explore a brand new view on life in Belgium.

Just over six months ago I met Izat*. Izat fled Afghanistan at the age of 19. He and his family lived in the village of Tagab in the northeast of Afghanistan, which has been under Taliban control since 1995. War has been raging in the region since 2001, and with Tagab trapped between the Taliban militia on the one side and government soldiers on the other, his village is under constant fire. Going to school is not an option as schools ceased to exist some time ago and career opportunities for young men are limited to being recruited by either the Taliban or the army. Realising this, his parents concluded there was no future for him in Tagab. They saved up 10,000 dollars and with a heavy heart helped their son flee to Belgium.

“If it doesn’t happen today, it’ll happen tomorrow, and if not tomorrow, then surely another time.”

Time is precious. For most of us probably so much so that it takes up a large amount of our lives. Making and planning our time for all sorts of things such as work, appointments, social occasions, ourselves and our partners, can be quite frankly, exhausting. Like no other people, the Flemish are masters at explaining why we really can’t meet for at least another three weeks because, well, our diaries simply won’t allow it.

When Izat* arrived here he had no idea about the busy lives we lead. Our lives are controlled by time and finding yourself suddenly thrown into such a hectic rollercoaster is anything but self-evident. His biggest obstacle, to this day, is the concept of dividing and scheduling time. In Afghanistan there is no such thing as an agenda. You live from day to day, especially in the region where he’s from. What doesn’t happen today is for tomorrow, and if it’s not tomorrow then it will certainly happen another time. This also means he experiences time differently than we do. When Izat first arrived, he only knew the terms ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’. Imagine trying to adapt to our ridiculously hectic lives, full of tight schedules and double bookings.

“Our lives are controlled by managing time and making our schedules work.”

I came home one evening and told him that I was sleeping badly as my mattress needed replacing. He suggested buying a mattress tomorrow to which I replied that driving to IKEA next week suited me better. I might as well have said next month, because he didn’t understand. “What does next week mean, Deborah?” I tried explaining that next week is the week following after this one, but that the day itself needn’t be set yet. “So next week can be in four days, but also nine days?” He looked even more confused. I nodded and told him we Flemish people are a little weird with time. Unsurprisingly, he struggled with interpreting a ‘next week’ appointment for a long time.

In the early days I sent him two messages per appointment. One to confirm that he had an appointment and a second message as a reminder an hour or two before the appointment. I also made a weekly schedule and hung this on the fridge. This way he gradually started learning about the concept of having appointments and meeting them. And although Izat still isn’t quite ready yet for the kind of carefully planned lives we Belgians lead, he has come a long way these last six months. He understands what it means when I tell him that I am away next weekend, but even so, the social worker and I still send him a message the day before one of his appointments to be safe.

“Family responsibilities.”

Since two months Izat has a job. On weekends he works as a dishwasher in a local restaurant. Never has he been late, and he isn’t happy when they ring to cancel his shift. His motives are different than mine. Every hour he works is an hour he earns money. Part of the money he earns goes to his family in Afghanistan. Now that the Taliban have shot his father in the leg, he is no longer able to work. Izat feels responsible for his family and sends money each month. To put this into perspective: a newcomer can earn up to €240 per month on top of his integration income. Any more than that and his living wage is docked. Considering that this is just €910,52, there is little room left to save, and time is running out.

“The programme deals with what is right in front of us, but spends very little time on what will happen after it ends.”

Izat and I will live together for a year and a half. We’re now six months in. In October 2019 the project ends and he will be expected to have learned enough to live completely independently. It frightens me. He is progressing in leaps and bounds and was recently crowned top of his class, but even with the money he can(not) save right now, things are going to be very difficult.

The project focuses on the situation now and current issues (such as Izat’s unstable health), however very little time is spent on preparing the boys for what will happen once the programme ends. Key of course is helping them integrate into society as quickly as possible, but that’s a long process. Social workers have a very limited amount of time per client. Each social worker has to make priorities, and oftentimes this is a choice between head and heart. They are exceptionally aware of how difficult it is for newcomers to create a sustainable future.

When Izat first arrived in Brussels he was sent from pillar to post. For forty days he was dependent on a crisis centre where, if he was lucky and on time, he could eat and spend the night. Sometimes he couldn’t. Then he’d sleep in the Maximilliaan Park. “That was very cold, often I do not eat or sleep,” he tells me.

While we sit here talking on our settee, I look outside. I’ve just come back indoors after managing not even five minutes on our terrace. I try and imagine lying on a park bench in these temperatures, surrounded by people who only wish for the night and time to pass by faster. What must it be like to not know anyone? To be surrounded by strangers speaking a strange language? I brush away a tear. Sometimes I struggle to grasp what he has gone through just to get here.

“A pretty impressive workload if you ask me.”

From Monday to Friday Izat attends school fulltime. On top of this he follows a course on ‘social interaction’ on Tuesday evenings that aims to teach him how we communicate in Flanders. Topics such as how to cope with stress, how to manage time, habits and customs between men and women, and more are discussed here. And then he works on weekends. Depending on the restaurant’s need, one or two days. Which I consider a pretty impressive workload.

His parents have no idea what his life here is like, how much time he spends practicing the au-sound or the word ‘voraw’ (vrouw) or even that he is living together and spending time with a female who is not his wife. During those early months Izat spent a lot of time in his room, alone. Slowly he has started to get to know me and open up to me. Not an easy task for someone who has been through so much and has had his trust abused so regularly through the constant transfers and leaving behind of friends. The trust he places in me, the openness with which he speaks now and the moments he wants to spend together mean the world to me.

“Never ever have I experienced such respect and generosity.”

I’ve a fair amount of experience of living together with people. But I have never enjoyed the respect and generosity that I am given by this young man, in any kind of relationship. Recently he came home after a long weekend’s work with some money in his pocket. “For you,” he said “because I see you replace lamps and they expensive.” I was left speechless. Of course I couldn’t accept the money, but his offer said so much more. We’re a family now and we share expenses so I want to contribute was what he was really saying. Is there anything more heart warming to start the year with?

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The most frequent questions immigration providers receive from clients are:
∞ What Brexit scenario should we prepare for?
∞ When should we start preparing?
∞ How should we prepare?

Answering these questions is difficult, but not impossible.

Preparing for a soft or a hard Brexit?

So what scenario should you prepare for? To answer this question, companies should look at what decision makers are currently doing. Both in the UK and in the EU (at EU and at national level) decision makers keep highlighting their commitment to finding a deal. However at the same time, everyone is also preparing for a no-deal scenario. For example, the French government published a draft law in November 2018 to create a no-deal legal framework. Other countries, such as Germany, Netherlands, Sweden, Italy, Czech Republic have made public their no deal preparations as of the beginning of 2019. In addition, the European Commission published three communications last year – one in July, one in November and one in December – urging all stakeholders, from national administrations to citizens and economic operators, to prepare for a hard Brexit.

This is indeed the most cautious thing to do. On the one hand, possible disturbances caused by a hard Brexit could be very costly for companies. On the other hand, all the efforts put into preparing for a hard Brexit would not be wasted if, eventually, a soft Brexit occurs. Why? Because the hard Brexit and the soft Brexit scenarios are in the end not so different from each.
Three main aspects distinguish them. The first one is the two year transition period (30th of March 2019 – 1st of January 2021) which would be implemented only if the Withdrawal Agreement is ratified and enters into force by 30th of March 2019 (soft Brexit).

The second one is the level of protection to be granted to UK/EU nationals residing in the EU/UK prior to the Brexit day (less generous in case of a hard Brexit). And the third one is the nature of the future EU-UK relationship. In a hard Brexit scenario there would be no time to negotiate. So, from an immigration perspective, we would fall back immediately on already existing immigration schemes (GATS mode IV, EU permits, national permits) as of 30th of March 2019. This does not mean however that, in the future, this could not be re-negotiated and amended. In a soft Brexit scenario, there would certainly be talks about the future arrangements during the transition period, and some more ambitious schemes could be put in place.

Nevertheless, understanding what impact Brexit will have on current employees and future employees is crucial for all businesses. And some of this analysis will be the same in both scenarios. The major consequences will be felt only two years later if there is a soft Brexit. Yet, the sooner companies start preparing, the better chances they stand to avoid all possible disruptions and negative consequences on their employees.

When should companies start preparing?

Ideally, preparations should already be on-going. Although there is still a lot of uncertainty, companies and employees can already take steps to protect their rights and prepare for the future, irrespective of what the future will look like. All concerned people must make sure they are making use of all existing tools and schemes already in place and that they are ready for when new ones will be available for them.

How should companies prepare?

The first thing to do is classify the stakeholders within the company who will be impacted. Some of the stakeholders are easy to identify: EU nationals locally hired in the UK or UK nationals locally hired in an EU country. But Brexit might also have an impact on cross border workers, business travellers, employees temporarily assigned in the UK or an EU country, and even third country nationals in some situations. Moreover, Brexit will also impact future employees. Therefore, recruiters and HR departments must be aware of how their work will be influenced by Brexit.

Once the stakeholders are identified, it is crucial to put a communication strategy in place with tailored messages to all groups of stakeholders. Employers should reassure employees to make sure they retain them. In addition, they should train recruiters and HR specialists to help them understand the implications of a soft or a hard Brexit.

The third step – not necessarily in a chronological order as some of these steps can be taken simultaneously – would be to collect data about the impacted employees. It is no longer sufficient to know who they are. Companies must also have information about their length of stay in the host country, nationality of their family members, type of employment, employment conditions, education, etc. All of this data is necessary to create preparedness strategies and contingency plans.

And lastly, get ready to implement these strategies and plans. Brexit is an ever changing landscape and is very difficult to keep up with. There are no exact deadlines, no exact timelines, no precise outcome. Companies must be flexible. They must make sure they have all the necessary resources and are ready to act at any time. With all the uncertainty around Brexit, only one thing is certain. As cliché as this may seem, companies should definitely hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

With thanks to Andreia Ghimis, Senior Consultant EU Government and Client Advisory at Fragomen

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“We’re here for anyone who wants to express themselves in English,” CHS board member Michael Penning tells us. “Our Helpline is staffed by volunteers who offer a listening ear to anyone who needs information or is struggling with a problem. The calls we receive vary as widely as the support we offer. A lot of our calls are fairly straightforward requests for information. Where to find a notary who understands the difference between Belgian, American or Indian legislation. Where to find a GP or medical specialist who speaks English – it’s so important that you can clearly express what the problem is, especially if you’re not confident in your adoptive language – phone numbers for emergency electricians, plumbers or locksmiths … we’ve built up quite an extensive database since we first opened our ears in 1971!”

Offering a 24/7 Helpline, a Mental Health Centre and an Educational Testing Programme, CHS has grown to an organisation which comprises 18 multilingual therapists and some 40 volunteers, as well as a board of trustees. And although English is the main language spoken, some ten languages are spoken by the team of therapists, ensuring clients from all over the world are offered the very best of support. Where the Helpline is staffed by a team of trained and dedicated volunteers, the Mental Health Centre is staffed by a team of health care professionals – psychologists, psychotherapists, psychiatrists – who are there for adults, adolescents and children alike.

“We receive a lot of calls from people who find themselves at a loss when they first move to Belgium. Rather than drinking their evenings away at the local Irish pub, they want to play cards with likeminded people, join a cricket or tennis club or some other kind of activity. On the other end of the spectrum, we also deal with more pressing calls for help. Very occasionally we’re confronted with someone who is thinking about ending it all. Thankfully, when someone reaches out to you, they’re usually looking for a way out in the positive sense of the word. Much as they might maintain the rope is ready in the garage, the fact that they are calling means they just want to be heard. There are a lot of lonely people out there and lending a listening ear can really help make the difference.”

“We’re making a concerted effort to reach out to more youngsters and adolescents by going out to schools, and they are increasingly finding their way to us too. Youngsters today get so tied up with their smartphones and video games that they crave a personal exchange. They don’t want to talk to their parents, teacher or friends – convinced they won’t understand them anyway or embarrassed to say what’s bothering them – and just want a little guidance.”

The Educational Testing Programme in particular has proven to be popular with CHS clients, as the psycho-educational assessment programme is the only one of its kind in the Benelux. Aimed at children between the ages of 3 and 18, it is there for children who are experiencing difficulty in the classroom, struggle with homework or finding it difficult to pay attention in class. “We understand parents would like to have their child tested before the start of the new school year, but you have to match the right therapist with the child. It all depends on the problems they’re experiencing,” explains Michael. “Interestingly, we sometimes see that when a child has for example been found to suffer from attention deficit disorder, the parents want to get tested too! If you are struggling with any type of question at all, please don’t hesitate to reach out to CHS. Their team of highly trained volunteers and therapists are on hand to help you understand and adjust to the demands of life as an expatriate. It can take just one comforting phone call to help someone through a crisis or set up a course of therapeutic treatment.”

“Relying on the support of volunteers to ‘woman or man’ the phone lines and run the administrative office, CHS needs help too,” Michael tells us. “We don’t ask for much, but the time people are able to give us is very valuable. Whether they want to help on the Helpline or are happier doing administrative tasks, or even helping with our fundraising efforts, we’d love to hear from anyone who can spare a few hours during the week or weekend. It’s important our volunteers are good listeners and have a fluent grasp of the English language.”

The Community Help Service annual calendar is much more than a calendar. It’s full of useful, practical and sometimes ‘out-of–the-way’ information for both newcomers to Brussels and long-term residents. Costing €10 each, sales are an important way of raising funds. CHS is offering a discount on multiple purchases for readers of ReLocate and for ABRA members who would like to include them in their welcome packs and a sale-or-return arrangement can be discussed.

www.chsbelgium.org/en/
Helpline (24/7) – 02 648 4014
Book an appointment – 02 647 6780

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ReLocate spoke with professor Greg Clark, urbanist and Senior Fellow at the Urban Land Institute Europe, to find out more. He is a widely published author on city development and investment issues and advises a wide array of international organisations. In May 2016 he presented a new report analysing the competitiveness of Brussels and Antwerp. Where most analyses of a city’s competitiveness rely on economic performance, The Urban Land Institute report looks at a much wider range of issues. Ranging from liveability to geopolitical risk and sustainability, these are the things that influence a city’s attractiveness to residents and companies alike.

Brussels and Antwerp are very different in nature: how did you approach the comparison?
“We put together two benchmarking groups, ran workshops, visited the cities and conducted a ton of interviews before running this comparative analysis in which we measured Brussels and Antwerp against groups of peer cities to arrive at an assessment of their competitiveness,” explains Greg Clark. “We didn’t just look at economic performance, but at other issues that impact a city’s attractiveness to residents too. Matters such as liveability, governance, geopolitical risk and sustainability are just as important in urban life. Brussels was tested against well established capitals such as London and Paris, cities that provide tough competition. Antwerp on the other hand was held up against peer cities that are reinventing themselves – some of them port cities – like Hamburg and Amsterdam, and other (former) industry greats such as Manchester and Liverpool.”

What are their main selling points?

“Both cities have very good fundamentals, and their own, unique attractions. Antwerp is compelling for its extraordinary DNA. It has always been one of the world’s greatest trading cities and has invented many ideas about the connection between trade, innovation and discovery. Antwerp knows how to build a city around a port. Located within a north-western European economy of roughly 100 million people with a huge GDP, it’s well connected with Belgian, Dutch, Northern French and German cities on all sides. Antwerp has a huge opportunity to build a central role for itself as part of a regional system of cities.”

“The Antwerp port is embracing innovation in terms of how goods are managed, how energy is used and what technology is applied. They’re building an innovative port and energy complex, with a big focus on the circular economy, which is important and fascinating. Of course, the city of Antwerp is synonymous with the craft and design of high-quality goods. From the diamond industry to its fashion sector, Antwerpians know how to make items of high value work in the market place. This mercantilist attitude means it is truly open for business.”

“Boasting a young and vibrant population that is committed to taking the city forward, Antwerp is further boosted by a government with big ambitions. From building a canopy over the ring road to creating more public spaces and developing the left bank, the city is redesigning its urban fabric to make a future-proof city. Smart citizen initiatives activate people to act as the eyes and ears of the city, giving feedback on the quality of bicycle lanes or roads and public facilities that might need maintenance. These distinctive edges of Antwerp amount to things that are quite exciting considering its small size. Thinking about the business opportunities that arise from disruption runs deep within the Antwerp DNA.”

“Brussels on the other hand is distinctive in a completely different way,” Greg continues. “It is a major capital city, and as home to the various European institutions and NATO it has an influential presence on the global stage, although it is yet to leverage this to its full potential. It’s interesting when you compare Brussels with cities like Washington DC or Singapore, which play an influential role by hosting global institutions, international summits and other gatherings that really work for the city.”

“It has a youthful population and great cosmopolitan mixity giving rise to a highly scientific, entrepreneurial labour force that is willing to work in all sorts of industries. The high calibre of educational institutes in Brussels is somewhat obscured by the presence of international institutions such as the EU and NATO, but the educational cluster has enormous potential thanks to leadership in fields such as IT, life sciences, or medicine. Most obviously it has enormous potential to be a global school of government, public policy and management.”

“When you look at productivity progress in Brussels a lot of it is to do with the dynamism of the labour market and its liquidity. People want to spend time in Brussels, partly because of its influence, but then find they want to stay and do other things too. It’s important to remember that government institutions feed and support a huge cluster of other kinds of decision making and communication activities. There are very big, positive spill-overs and multipliers that you can leverage into other industries. If you thought a government town can only ever be a government town, you’d be wrong.”

Part of the problem is that Brussels and Antwerp are located in Belgium, and, great as Belgium may be, it is not a country that enjoys a clear institutional framework.

All attractive qualities indeed, surely there must be some drawbacks?

“They also both suffer from a number of challenges,” agrees Greg. “Part of this is that they are located in Belgium, and, great as Belgium may be, it is not a country that enjoys a clear institutional framework. Both Brussels and Antwerp struggle to build their identity and present themselves in a way that cities in less confusing countries do not. Brussels has far greater assets than say Vienna or Zurich, yet these cities have fewer difficulties presenting and promoting themselves on an international stage. Similarly, whilst Antwerp has greater or equivalent assets to Liverpool, Lyon, Genoa, and Turin, it has difficulty articulating what it is, where it is, and why.”

“They’re also rather late to the urbanisation agenda compared to other European cities. Citizens in Brussels and Antwerp are highly dependent on their cars and prefer the suburbs to the city centre. The Belgians tend to sub optimise the use of land and real estate, which translates into low levels of densification and very few mixed-use development projects. It also means there has been very little focus on transport and connectivity as a way of embracing and spurring on urbanism.”

“The third thing that seems to be true for both of them – although each city has a slightly different version of this – is that they have had some difficulty creating the right geographical and institutional space through which to apply leadership to the city.”

“Brussels Capital Region struggles due to the way it is defined; geographically it’s too small for the – much larger – Brussels metropolitan area and then of course there is the fragmentation of having 19 separate municipalities, which rather effectively prevents an integrated governance model. You need a leadership platform for the whole area, otherwise you end up with different policies being pursued in different parts of the region, which is not particularly helpful. For Antwerp it was more of a question of leadership appetite in the past, although I think this is now being addressed. The current leadership has the appetite to succeed and a vision for moving the city forward. It’s just been slow getting there.”

“The public sector almost has a monopoly on leadership control in Belgium. Other sectors, such as business, cultural and higher education, have not played active civic leadership roles like they do in other cities of comparable sizes. There’s been too much waiting around for city government to put things right, rather than civic leadership working hand in hand with city governments to create forward momentum. I suppose you could say both cities have become somewhat institutionalised. This is now being addressed in Antwerp where civil and trade movements are working together with the city towards creating a more sustainable future for the city.”

Both cities need to build a strong brand and identity. Getting together with organisations that will back the city and help create a new global story will help put them on the map.

How might Brussels and Antwerp improve their competitiveness?

“We focused on three main areas for our recommendations on addressing these weaknesses,” Greg tells us. “First, Brussels and Antwerp need to start embracing urbanisation. This means being proactive in extending and developing public transport as a way of reducing car dependence. By strengthening the urban mix, you create excitement and vibrancy. Creating exciting city centres and sub centres, together with a more active transport mix, helps attract and retain corporate investment and the dynamic workforce needed by these companies.”

“Secondly, the institutional frameworks have to be right. This creates room for city leadership that is continuously thinking about their city as somewhere people will want to live and work, rather than getting stuck in Belgian politics. Thinking about public and private partnerships on a city level is a big part of this, just look at how Antwerp is involving its citizens in the maintenance of its city.”

“This in turn leads into our third point: the promotion of Brussels and Antwerp. Both cities need to build a strong brand and identity. Getting together an alliance of organisations that will back the city and help create a new global story will help put them on the map. This is certainly happening in Antwerp, and I believe efforts are underfoot in Brussels now too.”

“Finally, both cities have really creative industries which are part of the impact of the cosmopolitan diversity of the city. You should be able to really use that cosmopolitan diversity as a driver of creative endeavour. The idea is that diversity creates competitive advantage through interaction. To realise that, you’ve got to address the challenges of social exclusion and segregation. Brussels has two cosmopolitan populations: one is the elite that services the global institutions, the other is the population of migrants who have come from a poorer set of countries in search of a better life. Somehow, you’ve got to make those two kinds of populations work together.”

To read the full report or the individual city case studies, visit the Urban Land Institute website:
https://europe.uli.org/brussels-antwerp/

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As professionals in the global mobility sector we know all about managing culture shock, helping our assignees adapt to new environments, and spend a lot of time considering matters such as cost of living allowances and hardship locations. But what about those who move halfway across the globe with no help whatsoever? The people who leave their homes behind for entirely different reasons than a (temporary) foreign assignment? Freelance journalist and millennial Deborah Seymus has a monthly column on living with a young refugee with Knack online and is republished here with their permission. We look forward to bringing you her column over the coming issues as we explore a brand new view on life in Belgium.

Just over three months ago I met Izat*. Izat fled Afghanistan at the age of 19. He and his family lived in the village of Tagab in the northeast of Afghanistan, which has been under Taliban control since 1995. War has been raging in the region since 2001, and with Tagab trapped between the Taliban militia on the one side and government soldiers on the other, his village is under constant fire. Going to school is not an option as schools ceased to exist some time ago and career opportunities for young men are limited to being recruited by either the Taliban or the army. Realising this, his parents concluded there was no future for him in Tagab. They saved up 10,000 dollars and with a heavy heart helped their son flee to Belgium.

It’s safe to say Izat experienced culture shock when he arrived here. Many of our habits and customs are completely alien to him. When I got home after a trip to Italy, Izat had taken his desk out of his bedroom. A bit awkwardly it stood there, pushed into a corner of the living room.

I toddled towards his bedroom and knocked. Izat opened. “Deborah, hello! You had a good holiday?” Poking my nose round his doorway while smiling my affirmation of a great holiday, I noticed a large rug on the floor. “Izat, don’t you need the desk to study soon?” Izat shook his head and said with a broad smile: “I am studying on the ground, much better.” A day later I received a phone call from the civil servant of the Public Centre for Social Welfare, or OCMW, asking me how the flat share was going. In passing, I mentioned that Izat had put out his desk and that it seemed better to have the desk and some other old furniture collected. This turned out to be a huge issue because ‘Izat must learn to work at his desk, as otherwise he would not study’.

I tried to explain to Lydia* that Izat could study on the ground perfectly well, as was his custom back home. She informed me she would be visiting our apartment to make sure the desk was back in his room as this was ‘very important’.

Thankfully it occurred to me to say that this way he would be able to study with me in the living room after school hours, and I could keep an eye on things. She became a little milder and admitted perhaps it wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

“The desk-drama got me thinking.”

The effort I had to put in explaining the absence of a desk in his bedroom got me wondering. Was this cohousing project prepared to give Izat a chance to integrate with respect for his values and standards? Something minor like a desk created such an upheavel, as Izat would ‘not integrate well’, while all he wanted to do was hold on to his own culture. In Afghanistan, it is customary to do almost everything while sitting on the ground. Eat, study, talk, rest, and so on. To him – and me – it seemed only logical that he should study however he feels most comfortable, but the OCMW clearly felt otherwise.

Much later it would transpire there was a more practical reason why the desk wasn’t allowed to be removed. As the apartments are rented out fully furnished and the OCMW does not have storage space, they had nowhere to put it. Thankfully, it’s not all doom and gloom, and we often have fun with the situations we find ourselves in. Situations that confront me with the facts of life and that serve to emphasize our cultural differences.

“Here, everything is a little crazy.”

Enjoying one of the last balmy evenings, we sat together on our apartment’s terrace. Me with a glass of wine, Izat with his mint tea. When we notice someone walking by through the park onto which our terrace looks out, Izat greets the man. I wondered why he said hello to a stranger. “Isn’t that a normal thing to do then? In our country we greet every stranger. Even more, we invite strangers to our home and eat together.” At my explanation that no, we don’t usually greet strangers, let alone invite them into our homes, he went a little quiet. Having given this some further thought, he smiled and said: “Here everything is a little crazy. If you want to see friends, you must make an appointment. I do not understand that. If I want to see friends, I just drop by.”

A few days later we went food shopping together. I showed him mussels and while I’m explaining this typical Flemish specialty a man appears behind us. “Ah,” he grins “you’re going to cook tonight, what time do you expect me to be at your place?” I gave him a smile in response, but Izat – not understanding it as a joke – simply asked me “What time Deborah man has to be at our place?” Charmed as I was by his hospitality, I had to explain it was just a joke.

“Turns out it really is all-purpose.”

The next morning I noticed the apartment desperately needed mopping. Due to my busy work schedule I couldn’t do it myself and asked Izat if he would be okay with doing that. “No problem, I mop,” was his cheery answer. In the evening I came home and the entire apartment had indeed been mopped. With a tea towel. I have a dozen different cleaning products and at least as many accompanying cloths. But if I’d never used all those different things before, I would probably have done the same.

Which reminds me of the time we went to do our laundry together and he proudly brought the all-purpose cleaner he’d purchased for the job. I didn’t have the heart to tell him and thought I’d take the risk. Turns out it really is all-purpose: our clothes came out looking clean and smelling pine-fresh.

“The unexpected kindness of neighbours is humbling.”

In the early days of our flatshare, one of Izat’s friends slept outside on the floor of our terrace. Without a blanket or pillow, because it was summer. The next morning our neighbour knocked on our door, wanting to know if we needed an extra bed. When I didn’t understand her offer of an extra bed – I hadn’t even noticed our very quiet overnight guest – she explained to me that ‘another boy than Izat had slept on the terrace’. Such thoughtfulness from a Belgian neighbour, perhaps we’re not all that unwelcoming after all.

My new realities: guests are always welcome, eating together happens on the floor, if it’s late you stay over, mint leaves are put in the tea kettle, not the cup, and showering or brushing teeth is not a daily requirement.

“All of a sudden I realised the permanent nature of cultural differences.”

Recently I realised the extent and permanent nature of the differences in our habits and customs. I had always assumed that it would take ‘just a little bit’ of adjusting, but now I realise that this is a near enough impossible expectation. Afghanistan will never leave his head, and his customs and habits will always remain close to his heart. A Belgian who moves abroad will live by his own habits and customs. Expecting a refugee to make a sudden and complete turnaround and follow all local customs from one day to the next isn’t realistic. When you leave your country, you don’t consciously choose to leave your customs and values behind. You consider them a safe haven in a strange port – a little bit of ‘home’ – an important and valuable coping mechanism I am sure.

“Afghanistan will never leave his heart and you don’t just change your habits. You should respect them.”

The incredible drive with which Izat goes to school, the zest with which he tackles household chores and the understanding he shows for my way of life is admirable. And although we are most impressed by people who adapt quickly, we must also learn to give newcomers a warm welcome by respecting and valuing their customs. When foreigners are appreciated by Belgians, they are much more motivated to adapt to our way of living.

Izat* and Lydia* are not their real names.

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Deborah Seymus lives together with the 22 year old refugee Izat*, through the cohousing project CURANT which brings together young Belgians and refugees under a ‘buddy’ system. CURANT stands for Cohousing and case management for Unaccompanied young adult Refugees in ANTwerp.

Just under two months ago I met Izat*. Izat fled Afghanistan at the age of 19. He and his family lived in the village of Tagab in the northeast of Afghanistan, which has been under Taliban control since 1995. Izat speaks Pashto, one of the two official languages in Afghanistan. War has been raging in the region since 2001, and with Tagab trapped between the Taliban militia on the one side and government soldiers on the other, his village is under constant fire. Going to school is not an option as schools ceased to exist some time ago and career opportunities for young men are limited to being recruited by either the Taliban or the army. Realising this, his parents concluded there was no future for him in Tagab. They saved up 10,000 dollars and with a heavy heart helped their son flee to Belgium.

His route started in Afghanistan, going by way of Pakistan to continue through Iran to Turkey. A journey of about 5,000 km and a solid 1,000 hours walk. Because yes, he went on foot. “Sometimes I walked, sometimes I had to run,” he told me. “The trip was very long and I crossed many forests and mountains.”

From Turkey Izat took a rubber dinghy to Greece. You know the type; it’s used as a lifeboat by rescuers, although they wouldn’t dream of ferrying 36 people across the Aegean on one. He doesn’t tell me much about the boat journey. From here he continued his journey on foot, until he arrived at Fedasil in Brussels. Following a bone scan to prove his age, fingerprinting and the granting of subsidiary protection, Izat was granted asylum, only to be moved from one asylum centre to another as they tried to find a more permanent place for him to stay. He spent three and a half months in Brussels, four months in Dendermonde, two years in Kapellen and five months in Boechout.

After three years in Belgium his Dutch still isn’t quite what it should be, being limited to what he has picked up in the various asylum centres, but in September Izat was finally able to start Dutch lessons through adult education. He’s excited about going to school, and I am about being able to help with his homework.

A Purpose in Life

Looking back upon our first encounter, it was rather awkward. Arriving at our newly assigned apartment, we were received by someone from the Public Centre for Social Welfare, or OCMW, and someone from CURANT. Smiling broadly, they handed us a large sheet of paper with a lot of blank text balloons and instructions on what we needed to write in them.

I hadn’t even known Izat for five minutes and he was expected to share his dreams and favourite breakfast with me. It was all very surreal. I had to explain to him what the word breakfast meant and what on earth a purpose in life was. I quickly gathered he was feeling incredibly lost and put an end to the mandatory getting-to-know-you round.

The four of us went for a walk around our new neighbourhood and our two well-meaning civil servants enthusiastically explained how the two of us could “take walks around the sports field together”. Very touching for a social Flemish girl like me, but for Izat it was highly discomfiting.

A Roof over your Head

Following our walk the ladies took their leave and Izat climbed on his bike to visit his friends in Boechout. Was I concerned Izat had doubts about living with me? Of course, but CURANT had impressed upon me the importance of being patient and having a little faith, especially in the beginning.

A few days later we found ourselves sitting at our kitchen table, where Lydia* of the OCMW handed us our tenancy contract. After writing our signatures in the appropriate boxes, Izat stood up and carefully walked around the apartment. I heard water running in the bathroom and went to have a look. He was trying out all the taps. He then walked around the living room and started tapping on the walls. His conclusion? We had a solid apartment. That’s when I realized how big of a shock it must be for him to be here.

Houses of stone and cement with double glazing, running water, a full and working fridge, a separate shower and bath, and a woman with an abundance of clothes who orders her furniture online. He’s never even heard of the latter. Izat assumes that you go to the shop and buy things there, online delivery simply does not exist for him.

Following his inspection, he looked around the apartment with satisfaction. Sitting back down at the table he smiled so sweetly that it almost brought tears to my eyes. I saw a little boy in the body of a growing man. Lydia made it clear that he should count himself lucky to be living with me. Izat gave a small smile, submissive in his response. I know Lydia meant well, but I found it painful. Why should he be grateful to be living with me? Isn’t it true that he lets himself live with a woman, going against everything his faith tells him? According to the Quran, a man and woman can only live together when they are married or blood relatives. Regardless of what you and I believe, that is his conviction and he is putting it aside just to have a roof over his head.

Running Water

Izat receives 892,70 euro per month. Of that amount, 330 euro goes to rent and utilities in the apartment, 50 euro to the payment of the deposit and 50 euro to the repayment of the fire insurance, which the OCMW paid for us. The rest is meant to pay for health insurance, food, telephone bills and other expenses. Instead Izat sends money to his family in Afghanistan. Izat’s father was shot in his leg last month and can no longer work. The only breadwinner in the family has fallen by the wayside.

31.82 million people currently live in Afghanistan and 68 percent of them do not have access to clean or running water. The most basic of utilities for us, a privilege for the people of Afghanistan. When I first started living with Izat, I thought he would consider my Macbook or iPhone luxuries. The truth is that he hasn’t once taken a look at them. It’s the things we take for granted that he considers to be the most important.

A little later Lydia leaves and I find Izat moping around the kitchen looking shy. Suddenly he whips out his phone to show me a photograph. Seven smiling boys of around seventeen look back at me. “Some dead, some still live,” he says. I’m not sure how to respond and stare ahead for a moment. “How?” I ask him softly. “Taliban and police shot. That’s why my friends dead.”

I try to imagine this and try taking a mental picture of a situation where I am laughing with my friends. Carefree. Those seventeen year old boys were hardly carefree but they were able to laugh together. I shake my head and say, “Sorry, I no understand.”

Izat* and Lydia* are not their real names.

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Primary Motivations for Moving to Belgium

Without a question, work is the most important reason for moving to Belgium. Almost a quarter of survey respondents found a job in Belgium of their own accord, 13 percent of respondents were assigned by their employer and 9 percent were recruited here. After work comes ‘love’ as the most important motivation for moving to Belgium with 17 percent of respondents relocating for their partner’s job or education and 11 percent of respondents wanting to live in their partner’s country. These figures closely reflect the survey’s overall results, with the exception of those who found a job in their adoptive home country on their own (22% Belgium vs. 12% global).

Support Network

As any expat will tell you, having a support network is essential to settling in somewhere new. Whether this means weekly Skype calls back home or joining friends and family in your adoptive country for a drink, surrounding yourself with those who can offer moral support and knowledge is key. The vast majority of expats (77%) report they did not have any friends or family living here before deciding to move. Of the 23 percent that did have friends or family here only 8 percent had a support network in the same city.

Language Matters

Just as cultural differences matter, so does language. For the ease of Settling In Index, the Expat Insider survey looks at language: out of all the subcategories for this index, Belgium performs best when it comes to language, ranking 30th. Just over a third of respondents (36%) agree that learning the local language is easy, but 56 percent say that it is easy to live here without speaking the local language (vs. 33% and 46% respectively, across the world). Moreover, a large proportion of expats in Belgium (62%, including 8% who are native speakers) say that they speak the local language at least fairly well, compared to only 54 percent globally saying this about their host countries’ local language.

Beyond the Expat Bubble

Though stereotypes are all about expats tending to stick together, the InterNations survey suggests that the proverbial ‘expat bubble’ may be on its way out. Although almost half (46%) of expats report their social circle mainly consists of other expats, another 43 percent say it is made up of a mix of locals and expats, showing that expats do socialise outside of the ‘bubble’. These results contrast with the global responses, where just a third (33%) have mostly expats friends and the majority (48%) enjoying friendships with fellow expats and locals alike.

Socialising with Expats

Half of the respondents (49%) say this is due to the fact that most of their work colleagues are expats too and 41 percent believe that expats make up a high percentage of the Belgian population. Just 13 percent live in an expat neighbourhood and a mere 7 percent report their partner has mainly expat friends. A quarter of all expats surveyed regularly attends expat events or belong to an expat club or site.

Ease of Settling in

“When it comes to the Ease of Settling In Index, Belgium ranked 45th out of 65 countries overall,” says InterNations Media Spokesperson Vera Grossman. According to the Friendliness and Finding Friends subcategories, Belgium ranked 54th in both. Just 55 percent of expats rated the general friendliness of the Belgian population positively, compared to 70 percent saying the same about their host countries globally. Furthermore, only a quarter of respondents agree that it is easy to make local friends, whereas 42 percent say this globally. The fact that 45 percent of expats regard Belgians as distant rather than welcoming might play a role here.

Although Brussels ranks 29th overall according the Getting Settled Index (the city-counterpart to the country-specific Ease of Settling In Index), it ranks 40th for the subcategory of local friendliness. However, 51 percent of expats in Brussels rated the general friendliness of locals positively. And in addition 43 percent of expats agreed that it was easy to make friends in the city, compared to two-thirds of expats worldwide.

Family Life Abroad

Belgium boasts an overall ranking at the 16th place for Family Life and does best when it comes to the Quality of Education (10th) and the Cost of Childcare & Education (10th), despite the fact that only 44% of parents feel childcare to be easy to afford. Belgium even manages to outperform Sweden (2nd place) and is hot on the heels of global number one Finland when it comes to children’s general wellbeing. About 50% of expats opted for a local state school, whereas 26% choose an international school and only 2% opted for homeschooling. Eigthy-four percent of families are satisfied with their life in general in Belgium, compared to a global average of 80%.

Affordability

The survey results show a gap between satisfaction with personal finance (23rd) and cost of living (40th), which led us to ask InterNations what in particular was viewed as being expensive about life in Belgium. “Although the survey did not ask expats what they found most expensive,” Vera tells us “we did ask participants to rate the affordability of healthcare and housing, in addition to the question on how they rate the local cost of living. So, we cannot say what is the most expensive thing, rather the Cost of Living index aims to give a general overview of expats perception of costs in their host country. The Personal Finance Index, on the other hand, takes into account respondents’ satisfaction with their financial situation and in how far their disposable household income is enough to cover daily costs.” In numbers this translates to 51% of respondents feeling housing is affordable and 73% feeling healthcare is affordable in Belgium. With regards to disposable income, 47% felt it was more than enough for daily life, 38% felt is was about enough and 15% reporting their household income to be insufficient.

Satisfaction of Working Abroad

Getting to know the locals might not be the easiest but expats in Belgium generally report they are quite happy living there. When it comes to career and work-life balance, Belgium ranks above the global average coming in hot on the tail of the top three global destinations: the Czech Republic, New Zealand and Bahrain. With the global average for overall job satisfaction clocking in at 64 percent, no less than 67 percent of expats in Belgium report being satisfied with their jobs. When it comes to work-life balance, 62 percent of survey respondents report they are satisfied with their personal lives thanks to an average working week of 42 hours (44.3 global), compared to a 60 percent global average. On top of that, job security is where Belgium outshines the global average with 69 percent vs. 57 percent. Finally, the career prospects in Belgium satisfy over half of respondents (54% vs. 53% global), with the state of the economy keeping almost six in ten happy (58% vs. 56% global).

For the global survey results visit the internations website: www.internations.org/press/press-release/

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“What makes you feel at home?” Iliv, the Belgian information platform on daily life at home, asked over 2000 respondents last year. Exactly half of these respondents feel it is imperative that the people they love live there too. And over thirty percent listed ‘my things’, ‘decoration’ and ‘crockery’. Almost a third felt a pet was an essential part of home life and over a quarter feels a garden or terrace and own furniture are important, just as connections with friends, family and furniture play a role in how at home we feel. In short: it’s both our favourite people and our favourite things that turn a house into a home.

“It is both our favourite people and our favourite things that turn a house into a home.”

That we like having our favourite people around seems obvious. But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy living together. Creating a warm and stable home for your family is essential according to the Flemish child- and youth psychiatrist Peter Adriaenssens. Last year he wrote a book entitled ‘Nesten’ in which he attempts to answer the question of what makes a family home. “It’s a work in progress,” he feels. “A house becomes a home when each family member feels free to be themselves, and where there is noticeable effort to form a unit. A nest really. And seeing as you can’t just buy one, nor create one from one day to the next, nesting equals some serious work,” he writes in his introduction.

Adriaenssens pleads for slow and steady creation, a critical view and including the children in the process of furnishing the home. “A house takes care of our physical needs, as it provides warmth, quiet and a safe haven. But nesting is only possible when you are free to turn your house into your own.” Inspiration, he says, can be found anywhere: in your own past and the house you grew up in, through talking to family members, from other families, or from magazines and books, but putting your own stamp on it is essential.

“Interior magazines shouldn’t dictate how you create your home. That the lamp by designer X works so well with the table of Y is a possibility, one of a thousand. But we wouldn’t wish a life in an interior upon any family with young children. We shouldn’t begrudge them life in a living, breathing environment; we should allow them to experience a real home.”

That we should want to keep our favourite things close by, as shown by the Iliv survey, makes sense according to Ruth Mugge. Ruth is an associate professor at the Industrial Design Faculty of the Technical University Delft and researches product attachment; the strength of the bond that we feel with a product. “An object that we feel an affinity to conjures up emotions. People can feel happy, proud or warm towards their favourite things. Or sad in regard to an heirloom. An object to which you are attached has a special meaning that brings about feelings of protection.”

“People can feel happy, proud or warm towards favourite objects.”

“These are also the things we take along when we move house.” Her research shows there are four main reasons for attaching to an object: because they give expression to your own identity, because they bind you to a group, because you enjoy them or because they remind you of something or someone. “Of these reasons, memories are the strongest binding factor, as they make an object irreplaceable. Logically this is the most important reason to keep them with you or to display them in your home.”

“Moving often means a change of identity, whether it’s becoming a resident of a new town or a new country. If you want to keep your old identity intact, then it’s important to give the objects that show your identity an important place in your home. But if you’re looking forward to a ‘new you’ then they will be less important,” And, Ruth Mugge admits: “Extreme expats, people who move regularly for professional reasons, have one of two strategies: either they are less likely to bond with objects than others would as they know it is only temporary. Or they will take a little bit of ‘home’ with them with each move.” A kind of survival kit that can easily be integrated into a property, essentially.

This product attachment may partially explain why we are seeing so many display cabinets in furniture catalogues these last few years, both in high-end and high-street design. The still life’s you can create here are literally that; they bring instant life to a home. Only recently British interior magazine Elle Decoration devoted no less than six pages to ‘the art of display’; smart ideas for modern-day still life’s in trendy colours.

“An absolute must for any home is a great sofa; somewhere you can retreat to and relax.”

“An absolute must for any home is a great sofa; somewhere you can retreat to and relax,” says Katja van Putten, project manager at Iliv. “It’s surprising how many people find this indispensable to feeling at home somewhere,” she stresses. And then of course there are the tricks of the trade that will make any house feel warm and welcoming.

In her book ‘Home is where the heart is’ interior design specialist Ilse Crawford highlights the most important ones. “There are certain basic things that make us feel safe – and have for centuries. They are irrational and independent of style: drawers and doors that close with a sturdy clunk (why else would car manufacturers add the noise digitally?); high back furniture; overscale tables, beds and lamps; things that resonate of home, and help us create a new and deeper sense of domestic comfort.”

She feels it makes sense that we should like vintage furniture, as it reminds us of childhoods spent at parents’ and grandparents’ homes, and she knows that our bodies much prefer rounded shapes. That we should love rocking chairs, sheepskin rugs, traditional textiles and cosy corners to sit in is logical, as is a warm environment with mood lighting and healthy, clean air. It’s hardly surprising to her that comfort and decoration have become important again in the world of interior design. “Patterns, wallpapers and artisanal items bring more intimacy, privacy, sensuality and beauty and offer a counterbalance to the more clinical designs. “Home,” she writes, “ is a mental state as well as a place.”

Five easy suggestions that will ensure you feel at home instantly:

• ensure you have somewhere to retreat to;
• make sure your house is warm, literally, but also through the use of warm colours, materials
and mood lighting;
• involve all housemates in the decorating and be flexible;
• put together a survival kit of your most precious items when moving house;
• have a display cabinet with favourite photographs, memories and meaningful objects.

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The Recognised European License
Member countries of the European Union give out a European model driving license. These driving licenses are recognised throughout the European Union (EU) and European Economic Area (EEA) as well as many other locations around the world. In broad strokes, if you have a European driving license and are living in Belgium you need to exchange it before it runs out, or if you are settling here on a more permanent basis (exchange within 2 years of settling in Belgium).

Although you can drive here with your Guadeloupian license (yes, as an overseas department of France it’s part of the EU), it may be worth considering exchanging it for a Belgian one if you plan on being here for a while. At the very least you should get your license registered with your local commune, so that if you were to lose or damage it you can easily request a replacement. So far, so good. The matter gets somewhat more complex however as we venture further afield.

The Recognised non-European License
If you are the proud owner of a recognised non-European driving license then according to the conventions of Vienna and Geneva you may legally drive your car here. However, this only holds true providing you do not possess either a Belgian ID card, or an A, B, C, D, E, F, E+ or F+ card.

As soon as you are officially registered as living here you receive your Identification Number of the National Register (rijksregisternummer/numero national). Your newly acquired residential status automatically means you will need to exchange your license for a Belgian one as you are now a Belgian resident. This in theory should be a straight-forward exchange of licenses.

The non-Recognised non-European License
The same system applies with a non-recognised non-European driving license: you can legally drive here with your foreign driving license until you are awarded residential status. As soon as you have received your national number you will need to exchange your driving license for a Belgian one.

However, as your license is not recognised here, you will need to sit both theory and practical exams before it can be considered for exchange. Unfortunately, a letter from your embassy attesting to the validity of your license is of absolutely no value in this process.

The International Driving License
If you are here on a business trip visa (90 days max) then you may want to request an international driving license from your home country to cover the duration of your stay. Check with your home country whether you need an international driving license to go with your national license in Belgium. This will differ from country to country, but your embassy will be able to advise you.

The international driving license has no actual legal value in Europe. It merely serves as an additional document to go with your national license. An international driving license is valid for one year only and must be collected in person from your home municipality, which means you should have obtained it before coming over.

The Exchange Process
The process of exchange is simple in theory: you go to your local municipality with your current driving license and your Belgian ID card and request an exchange. Your license is sent off for a check and then exchanged for a Belgian one.

It is important that your license meets the following requirements: you have the same nationality as your license – or you can prove you were residing in that country for at least 185 days in the year you received it – you received it before moving here, it is valid, and the categories awarded are recognised here.

If your license is not in one of the recognised national languages, you may need to have it translated by a sworn translator before it can be considered, especially if it is not in our Latin alphabet. If your country does not follow the Gregorian calendar (as we do in Europe) then the valid from/to dates will also need translating. Some embassies provide standard translations of national driving licenses, so it is worth checking with your embassy.

Your license is then sent off to the FOD Mobiliteit en Vervoer who will verify that your driving license is not counterfeit. Providing your license is real and you do not need to sit any additional tests it will be exchanged for a Belgian one. This usually takes between six and eight weeks. The commune essentially acts as a letterbox, so how quickly they send it on to the Ministry can also depend on their own backlog.

If you have to sit both theory and practical tests, then you will need to pass these before your license can be exchanged for a Belgian one. Larger cities such as Brussels and Antwerp offer driving tests in a number of different languages, or you can bring a sworn translator along at your own expense.

Again, much depends on how long it takes for you to book (and sit) your exams and receive your test results. Bring your results along with your national license (and any translations) to your local commune and ask for the exchange process to be initiated. You should have your new license within 6 – 8 weeks.

Practical Advice
Good to know: a national foreign license (whether recognised or non-recognised) always exempts you from driving lessons, providing you are requesting a license with the same categories (AM, A, B, C, D, G) given out in Belgium. You may however still need to take theory and practical tests, depending on the license you hold.

You can start taking theory lessons online even before you arrive in Belgium and can book your exams the day you receive your national number. Sending off proof of passing with your current license gets things moving as quickly as possible.

We have to remind expats that driving without a license is illegal in Belgium and leaves you open to fines if you are stopped by the police, and worse: potentially uninsured should something happen. Although some communes provide a document stating your license has been sent off for exchange, we are told this has no legal value at present.

Leaving Belgium
You can request your national license back when you leave Belgian territory and give up your residential status. Should you come back again in future years, you will have to start the exchange process again. Until you have physically received your Belgian license you can still change your mind and request your national license back.

Useful Websites

List of recognised EU and EEA driving licenses:
https://mobilit.belgium.be/nl/wegverkeer/rijbewijs/vreemde_rijbewijzen/europese_rijbewijzen
List of recognised non-EU and EEA driving licenses:
https://mobilit.belgium.be/nl/wegverkeer/rijbewijs/vreemde_rijbewijzen/niet_europese_rijbewijzen
FOD directive on exchanging European driving licenses:
https://mobilit.belgium.be/sites/default/files/downloads/hoofdstuk_27_europese_nationale_rijbewijzen.pdf
FOD directive on exchanging foreign driving licenses:
https://mobilit.belgium.be/sites/default/files/downloads/hoofdstuk_28_buitenlandse_rijbewijzen-niet_europese.pdf
Exams with an interpreter:
http://www.goca.be/nl/p/rbw-tolk

Read about how ABRA is hoping to speed up and simplify the driving license and exchange issue and get behind our cause.

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When an expat moves to Belgium they are legally required to exchange their national driving license for a Belgian one. Although the FOD Mobiliteit en Vervoer provides us with a list of countries that award recognised non-European driving licenses (countries not listed are not recognised), and although each and every local commune has received exactly the same directive when it comes to handling foreign licenses, many members report long delays, lengthy processes and conflicting instructions.

One thing is clear: you can drive here with your foreign license as long as you are not registered as a Belgian resident. As soon as you are registered, you need to exchange your license for a Belgian (European model) driving license. It’s this registration process where some of the perceived delay comes from: whereas you can get registered within 2 weeks in a smaller commune such as Waterloo, it can take up to 5 months in a busy commune such as Brussels city centre. Going back to the commune to initiate your driving license exchange after you’ve already been living and working here for five months can feel like red tape for the sake of it.

It is also clear that legally you may not drive without a valid driving license. If your current license has been sent off for exchange, you cannot drive until you have received your Belgian one. Quite simply because under Belgian law you cannot be insured without a valid driving license. The question is at which point your foreign license becomes invalid: is this as soon as it is sent off or only once you’ve received your new one?

“Getting stopped by the police for a routine control and being fined is a risk that some people are willing to take,” Eric explains. “However, it’s not the fine that’s the problem, the problem is if an accident happens. We know of companies that ask their employees to return their car keys to HR on the day they receive their Belgian ID cards. The car stays in lock-up until they have received their Belgian license, it’s a strict policy. A few years ago an expat had an accident while his license had been sent off for exchange and the lease company refused to cover the accident. Thankfully it was mostly material damage to the car, but imagine if you seriously injured someone. You’d be paying both financially and emotionally for the rest of your life.”

“Some communes provide the expat with a document they can show the police in case they are stopped,” adds Koen. “Unfortunately, we’re not sure what the legal validity of this is, even if it is provided by the commune itself. Whether or not this document will get you out of a fine may depend on the policeman who stops you, but you have to take into account your insurer as well. Will they cover you if you drive with a document that certifies your license is being processed? Many brokers will, but you never know for certain until something happens. And finally, the Ministry tells us that such a document holds no legal value. It’s a very murky situation with a lot of grey areas. The expat thinks they are covered and upholding the law, but in actual fact they may not be.”

With the exchange of a foreign driving license taking around six to eight weeks on average it is easy to see why expats, employers and relocators alike would like to see this process speeded up. ABRA’s relocation committee has been exploring the options.

“There are a number of different avenues we have been exploring,” Eric tells us. “The very best outcome would be a faster process altogether. But we understand there are just two people at the Ministry to cover all the driving license exchanges, which means there is an immense backlog. More funds to process foreign arrivals isn’t exactly a popular request.”

“As an interim measure we would like the Ministry to ratify a standard document nationwide that covers expats during the exchange process,” Koen continues. “This of course is a big challenge and one we can use help with. Finally, this document needs to be accepted by insurance and car lease companies, although insurance coverage is for a large part the employer’s responsibility. But it would be good to be able to advise clients which insurance companies will accept such a ‘covering’ document.”

“We have a few client companies who have already expressed an interest in supporting our efforts for this interim document and a faster exchange process. ABRA members – and ReLocate readers – can be of great help here: the more companies that get behind our cause, the stronger our voice will be as we lobby the government. So please ask your clients if they would be willing to attest to the impact of the exchange process on their business. Companies make a serious investment every time they bring over an expat and for them to then have to turn around and say ‘sorry boss, I can’t drive until January’ is problematic to say the least.”

If you would like to get behind our cause and help us lobby for a faster driving license exchange process as well as an official interim document for drivers, then please contact Eric Klitsch or Koen Reekmans via: admin@abra-relocation.com

Read about the basic principles of the exchange process here.

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What kind of preparations are recommended before relocating to Belgium in regards to immigration and visas?

“It is key to find out if you need a Belgian visa or permit to visit, live, work or study in Belgium. The Belgian legislation applicable to the employment of foreigners makes a distinction in the rules applicable to the right to enter and stay and the rules applicable to the right to work. EU/EEA and Swiss citizens can work without a work permit in Belgium. Third-country nationals, however, will typically need a work permit to engage in economic activities.”

What is the Blue Card System? Why is it necessary to differentiate between highly-skilled / highly-paid workers and everyone else?

“In 2000 the European Council met in Lisbon to define the strategic plan that could help the Union’s competitive position in the global market in terms of employment, economic reform and social cohesion as part of a knowledge-based economy. In that meeting the Union set the strategy to become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion.

In order to establish this goal the EU established measures to attract highly skilled employees from outside of the EU, one of those being the European Blue Card. Why exactly was it deemed so important to put the focus on this? At the time the Council concluded that the growth of the EU would be at stake because of the lack of highly qualified and skilled human capital. Therefore, special schemes and measures had to be put in place to increase Europe’s attractiveness towards highly-educated and talented foreigners to help build this competitive knowledge-based economy.”

There are three types of work permit:

Type-A work permits allow you to work for any employer indefinitely;
Type-B work permits allow you to work for a specific employer for up to a year (renewable);
Type-C work permits allow those staying in Belgium only temporarily – such as students – to work for any employer for up to a year (also renewable).

There has recently been some reform to the “Blue Card System”, have the changes benefited workers or have they made the process more difficult and restrictive?

The EU Blue Card scheme has been in operation since 2009. The scheme was proven unsuccessful for a number of reasons, including more attractive national parallel schemes, limited associated rights and its limited ability to attract young talent. The European Commission adopted a proposal to review the EU Blue Card scheme to address those weaknesses and to improve the EU’s ability to attract and retain highly skilled workers in 2016. It foresees more flexible admission criteria, extended labour market access and intra-EU mobility rights for EU Blue Card holders and facilitated access to EU long-term residency. The Commission’s proposal is currently discussed between the European Parliament, the European Commission and the Council and will hopefully be adopted in the course of 2018.

What are the most common queries that your team deals with in regards to visa processes in Belgium?

  • Can my spouse work? Not automatically. “The spouse of a foreign worker does not have an immediate right to work on the basis of the dependent residence permit. They still require a work permit B sponsored by an employer. The good news on the other hand is that the status of dependent spouse offers access to a work permit B category with more relaxed eligibility criteria.”
  • Can we expedite the procedure? “Unfortunately it is not possible to opt for an expedited procedure in Belgium. The relevant authorities usually handle applications on a first come first serve basis and strive to deliver in a consistent manner against stable processing times (2-4 weeks for work permit applications and 5-15 working days for visa applications).”
  • Does the embassy keep my passport? “Some of our clients who have a very busy travel schedule are terrified of having to surrender their passport at the Embassy while applying for their visa. Luckily we often have good news as most embassies quite cooperative towards the requests from applicants to to give the passport back if they can substantiate the urgent need for this (eg. Business travel).”
  • Does the EU Blue Card offer me the right to work in the entire EU? “Unfortunately this is not yet the case. The EU Blue Card only grants work rights in the member state that has issued the EU Blue Card. I have to explain to our clients that they still require work authorisation if they would go to work in any of the other member states.”
  • Can my (non-married) partner come with me? Again, not necessarily. “This often creates a “reality shock” for non-married couples as they are forced to make a choice to apply for family reunification by either marrying (abroad or in Belgium) or concluding legal cohabitation upon arrival in Belgium (subject to various eligibility requirements).”
  • My work visa is about to expire, should I renew my visa even when I’m already in Belgium and have a residence permit? “The work visa is “transferred” into the residence permit upon completing the town hall registration procedure. The legal status of the foreigner in Belgium is not defined by the visa as soon as they have the valid residence permit. Their status is 100% compliant and covered when they have a valid work and residence permit.”

What is the process from work permit (A, B or C,) to residency (D) to citizenship?

  • To apply for unlimited residency you have resided legally in Belgium for an uninterrupted period of five years.
  • If you hold a Blue Card from another EU-member state, and have lived elsewhere in the EU, this can count towards your five-year period.
  • Acquiring citizenship requires the applicant to have a permanent residency status.
  • Once permanent residency is acquired it then follows a ‘Nationality Declaration’ track.
  • Nationality Declaration:

– Legal residence of between five and 10 years in Belgium;
– Be able to prove that you speak one of the three main languages;
– You are socially and economically integrated.

Want to acquire citizenship through marriage to a Belgian national?

  • You must have been living together for three years;
  • Still fulfil the five-year residence requirement;
  • Also have knowledge of one of the three main languages.

Are entrepreneurs able to apply for a Professional Card without holding any other visa for residency in Belgium? Are the visa and immigration rules different for entrepreneurs?

“As a rule, a foreign national exercising a self-employed activity in Belgium needs to be in possession of a Professional Card. Some foreign nationals are exempt from this requirement, such as foreign nationals who come to Belgium on a business trip, provided that the trip does not exceed three consecutive months. Whether the entrepreneur needs a visa and/or Belgian residence permit will depend on their nationality and duration of stay in Belgium. The general rules apply which are similar for foreign employees and self-employed.”

What is the EU Intra-Corporate Transfers directive and when do you think it will be transposed into Belgian legislation?

“The EU ICT directive harmonises the conditions of entry and residence for third-country nationals amongst the EU Member States (excluding UK, Ireland and Denmark) in the framework of an intra-corporate transfer (ICT). An ICT is the temporary secondment of a third-country national who resides outside the EU, from a company established outside the EU to which the employee is bound by an employment contract to a group company located in a Member State. This directive introduces for the first time a European ICT work permit that enables the third-country national to work under certain conditions in EU Member States other than the one that issued the EU ICT permit.

Given the intra-EU mobility rights associated with this new EU ICT permit, it is crucial that Belgium implements the European Directive as soon as possible. Not doing so places Belgium at a significant competitive disadvantage not only in attracting this type of skilled worker but investment as a whole. It creates an obstacle for economic growth and strategic planning for multinational companies that have their regional headquarters in Belgium and have positions with pan-European duties or have to develop skills in a multicultural international environment. The transposition of the Single Permit and the EU ICT permit is anticipated for the second half of 2018.”

The European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS) was adopted by the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs on 19 October 2017. What does this mean for travellers?

ETIAS is an electronic monitoring system and will be compulsory for third country nationals who do not need visas to travel the Schengen Area. It will be the equivalent of ESTA (similar system in the US) and it will aim to ensure that people travelling to the EU do not threaten the security of the Schengen countries and to impede irregular migration.

Legislation setting ETIAS up is being discussed internally in the European Parliament and the Council of the EU. Once both institutions agree upon their respective position, discussions in trialogues between the European Parliament, Council and European Commission will begin.

EDIT: 23/11/2022

The European Union has postponed the launch of the European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS) for another six months to November 2023.

With thanks to Jo Antoons, Alexander De Nys, Christine Sullivan, Andreia Ghimis and Rimma Abadjan of Fragomen.

www.fragomen.com

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Thanks to Leuven University, Europe’s eldest, the city has long been an international hub for students, researchers and companies. Their presence has done the region good, but it doesn’t mean the people who want more for Leuven can sit back and rest on their laurels. That’s why, in 2016, Mohamed Ridouani (alderman for SP.A) initiated Leuven MindGate, a network of local institutions, government bodies and industry sectors joining forces to guarantee long-term sustainable development, innovation and welfare in the region. How? By creating optimal circumstances for businesses (e.g. attractive tax conditions), research & development, studying and living.

Research + White Paper
Everything starts with people. With the aforementioned survey Leuven MindGate wanted to “investigate what makes Leuven an attractive place to live and work and where there’s room for improvement. A special taskforce was created to come up with practical recommendations and to specify the right actions required to establish this high-level living and working climate within the region”. The results are bundled in a white paper titled ‘Towards An Outstanding Working and Living Environment: needs and practices for supporting international knowledge workers’.

To start with a general conclusion: success boils down to integration. Not surprisingly these are the paper’s three main focus points: integration of the worker in his or her job, the family or partner into the new environment, and both of them into the Leuven community. In spite of the abundance of help on a wide variety of subjects that is offered by relocators and other specialists, several gaps in the supply of information for newcomers kept surfacing. It is here that the city has decided to step up and take responsibility.

A selection of conclusions from the report:
• The knowledge workers were least happy with the help offered in the search for a daytime activity (e.g. a job) for the partner, a school or day-care for the children and cultural integration;
• The partner’s wellbeing often seems to be the determining factor for a longer or even permanent stay in the Leuven region. Fewer than half (42%) of international staff currently feel part of the local community, 45% of partners who want to work in Belgium experience difficulties;
• The City of Leuven plays a vital role in the integration of international knowledge workers, but their initiatives are scattered and not all accessible;
• [Most] people want the City of Leuven to inform them about administration and registration, activities and healthcare;
• The gap-analysis between the importance rated and the quality of the support shows that in the future the greatest improvement (high importance combined with current low quality) can be made with actions targeting partner job search, housing, relocation, schools and childcare and tax matters;
• 54% of respondents indicate that more information from the City of Leuven about cultural and social activities would be useful.”

Leuven, hidden pearl (policy)
Alderman Mohamed Ridouani makes it his personal matter to address these issues. From an interesting but rather unusual portfolio containing (among others) economy, education and real estate, he works on the internationalisation of Leuven. Again integration is key here. “I try to make it one of my assets, because a city with a high quality of living – liveable, tolerant, bustling – is an attractive city. I visited Shanghai during the course of our research for MindGate, and found they’re experiencing trouble attracting knowledge workers partly because of the smog.”

Like many innovations, Leuven MindGate and the dream of an International House originate in frustration. Ridouani: “Leuven has and offers a great deal of opportunities. Everyone knows it as university town, but it’s much less known that we’re also leading in research. Because of that we’re only reaching part of the international talent that might be interested in working here, which means less companies, and less European research funds.”

Ridouani wants the world to see Leuven for what it is: a pearl. In order to do this Leuven MindGate has set two main goals. One: putting the city on the map for health, hi-tech and creativity (Did you know Teno-fovir, one of the most frequently used medications to treat AIDS was developed there?). Two: Combining forces for a larger (social) coherence. “There’s research going on at IMEC (world renowned nano-electronics research centre), there’s research going on at the university hospital, combine those two and you get biotech. This in turn opens up a world of possibilities for start-ups, investments and so forth,” Ridouani enthusiastically explains.

“The university is good for six hundred years of scientific development and gaining knowledge,” Riduani continues, “twenty years of transforming that into products and solutions lead to companies like IMEC that brought wealth to our region. And I don’t just mean financially, with 156 nationalities in one city we can speak of cultural wealth as well. The next step is to make sure we attract and foster activity and business for more prosperity, more jobs, an even higher quality of life. We can only make that happen if people stay.”

Laying the Foundations
When asked about remarkable conclusions that came out of the Leuven MindGate research, Ridouani says: “I was surprised to learn that such a large percentage of respondents like to live here, but they don’t feel integrated. I think 80% of the respondents said they don’t know who their neighbours are. In fact a very important reason for people to leave Leuven is their partners’ lack of activities and integration. I was also surprised that the city’s offerings like cultural activities, schooling, child day care, etcetera are hardly known. It supports my conviction that social cohesion starts on a very local level.” That’s where the International House comes in. Besides investing in affordable workspace and housing, issues like schools for accompanying children are a necessary means to remove the barrier to come to Leuven. In Ridouani’s words: “integration into the local society is a top priority”.

Even though the idea of one location where everything the expat needs is concentrated under one roof was a product of his own imagination, Ridouani is humble enough to admit that he might not be the only one to have had this thought. Research took him to Denmark, to the International House in Copenhagen. The house accommodates public authorities, public services, private services and the University International Staff Mobility team. It offers support before, during and after relocation and integration. “We also visited the International House in Eindhoven. Each has it’s own specialties, but the basic offer is the same: an overview of online resources and forms to prepare the expat’s stay and help in his or her search for accommodation. Once they arrive they will be guided through their emigration process. The International House will be a home base where expats can find all possible information they need to integrate as quickly as possible: information on schools, (cultural) activities, volunteering, job markets. Besides practical and administrative help, we are planning to organise events and a festive International Day. What I think will be unique in the Leuven International House is the integration of the International Primary School that is currently situated in Heverlee.”

“We already have 17.000 international workers in Leuven. I want them to feel at home, to break the barrier between them and the Flemish community, something the people from Leuven would like as well.” Ridouani sounds inspired. “The International House should become the central place for all affairs international, but I hope it will also become a symbol or flagship for Leuven’s international aura and ambition.” By no means is Ridouani planning to replace the service providers that are currently operating in Leuven: instead he’d like to join forces. As far as integration goes Ridouani is thinking big. “Think of all the local applications that research could lead to: city planning, mobility, safety, air quality…”

It looks like 2017 is the year in which many a relocator, expat and employer’s dream finally comes true: Belgium’s first International House is well on its way to becoming a reality. We highly recommend reading the report. Find it here:
www.leuvenmindgate.be/en/news-press/hr-event

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ReLocate does away with all the drama and takes a “stiff upper lip” look at Brexit. We’ve  consulted leading immigration law firms Fieldfisher and Fragomen, who in preparing their own clients for change during and after Brexit negotiations, have shared a few practical steps with us to keep us on the straight and narrow.

Overview of Outcomes
Yes, uncertainty is set to reign until negotiations commence in early 2017. Considering that the European Treaty established a negotiation period of at least two years in case of an exit, it is unlikely that there will be any immediate changes in the near future.

These negotiations could have a wide range of outcomes:
• The Norwegian, Icelandic and Lichtenstein model: the UK would remain subject to the majority of EU legislation, however there would be no role played in the decision-making process and no right to veto, including no independence from EU legislation nor the European Court of Justice;
• the Swiss model: ability to develop mutual agreements with the EU;
• the Turkish model: remaining part of the Customs Union;
• the “sui generis” model*: a completely new approach to UK / EU relations;
• total withdrawal from the EU*: if this is to occur, there would be swift changes to UK legislation.

From an International Business Perspective – Fieldfisher
Companies are best advised to anticipate change and ensure they are in a position to identify possible issues that need to be addressed as they arise. In doing so they can reassure staff on all levels. So what could possibly change? Establishing which regulations may be the most heavily impacted can be difficult, Fieldfisher has broken down the main points to be addressed into three main areas to be assessed within internationally operating companies: social security/welfare, employment law and of course, immigration. Fieldfisher has highlighted the existing regulations that may be affected, and what the knock-on effects of these changes may be.

1. SOCIAL SECURITY / WELFARE
883/2004 and 987/2009: regulates the social security scheme applicable to internationally mobile workers

Changes?
These regulations are likely to be repealed once the UK leaves the EU, and the mutual treaties previously established between countries will once again be activated.

Knock-on effects:
• The original mutual treaties limit the determination of the social security/welfare scheme to be applied and benefits covered therein;
• they do not provide for any regulation on simultaneous employment (two or more social security/welfare schemes operating at the same time);
• they do not systematically provide for regulations on accumulation of social security/welfare benefits/entitlements;
• they do not systematically provide guaranteed rights in respect of health/sickness costs.

2. EMPLOYMENT LAW
593/2008: determines the law applicable to employment contracts in a cross-border situation

Changes?
Employment contracts between EU and UK will no longer be viewed in the frame of the “free movement of workers” principle.

Knock-on effects
UK legislation will have to be rigorously applied in cases of EU staff employed in the UK being brought before a UK court with an extraneous element, and vice-versa. When UK employers employ staff on EU territory, they will have to rigorously apply the legislation of that EU state.

3. IMMIGRATION – from a business perspective
Changes?
This is still a hot topic of speculation. The UK Government could implement a points system not unlike that of Australia, although there have been indications that this is not preferred by the May administration. The UK borders are unlikely to close completely, however the UK Government is expected to implement some forms of restriction before the “divorce date” to limit a massive influx of people.

Knock-on effects
The knock-on effects of changes to immigration between UK and the EU are wholly dependent on the outcome of the negotiations. If the right to free movement ceases to apply or is restricted, those businesses built on sourcing international talent will then have to look to the new immigration and employment rulings for guidance regarding any future employment. Attempts to limit net immigration to tens of thousands will then result in severe restrictions to the pool of potential employees in the UK.
Fieldfisher’s advice on handling these potential changes within businesses:
• “Nominate a person or team of people who are responsible for monitoring employment issues. Ensure all staff have a contact person to whom they can address questions or express concerns in all the countries in which the organisation operates. This will ensure that all staff, wherever located get the same consistent message which in turn will give reassurance that the organisation knows what it is doing and what needs to be done as we approach Brexit.”
• “Staff may feel unsettled and anxious about how restriction to free movement may affect their right to live and work in the UK or other EU member states. Given the fact some EU legislation will be repealed, international mobility policies may need to be assessed and adapted, and ensure specialist advice is utilised.”
• “Encourage workers to list their entitlements to pension and other social welfare benefits when starting to work outside the UK.”

“The criteria for nationality applications are not always more demanding than those for long-term or permanent residency, and nationality is the more secure option to guarantee residence rights in the long term.” – Jo Antoons, Fragomen

From an Individual’s Perspective – Fragomen

Companies and individuals are naturally concerned about what Brexit will mean for EU nationals living in the UK and for UK nationals who are residing in another EU country. While UK politicians figure out what approach they will propose for those affected, individuals are wondering what actions they can take now. Fragomen suggest three key points of consideration for UK citizens currently living, working or studying in an EU member state who wish to take measures to safeguard their mobility rights.

1. REGISTER YOUR RESIDENCE IN THE HOST COUNTRY
According to Fragomen the first action step is to register your residence if this was not already done. UK citizens without a residence document who have been residing for more than three months in an EU member state should be encouraged to contact the national authorities and obtain one. Not all EU countries impose registration regulations on EU nationals, and in this case obtaining an official residence document before a divorce date is the safest way to avoid grey areas and maintain your right to reside in the EU even after a formal separation.

2. APPLY FOR PERMANENT RESIDENCE
Permanent residence rights and regulations vary from EU state to EU state. Some require five years of legal residence, some (including Belgium) request only three years when specific conditions are met. Fragomen suggest this action step with two reasons in mind:
• This confirms that you fulfill the requirements for the right to permanent residence, useful in cases of long absences from the EU member state where you currently reside;
• this maintains as many other rights as possible after Brexit. British EU permanent residence holders may have their status automatically transformed to that of non-EU nationals, whereby they are granted long-term residence for the whole of the EU or just the country where they currently reside.

EU or national long-term residence does not boast the same breadth of rights as EU permanent residence, however it does guarantee the right to continue residing in the host member state.

3. APPLY FOR NATIONALITY – but only if it is the right option for you
Obtaining the nationality of the EU country where you have been residing may appear to be the obvious option, however, before taking on an additional nationality, ensure that you’ve considered what is involved in the application process:
• Is dual citizenship allowed in your host country?
• What knock-on effects may a change in nationality have on your taxation status?
• Would this lead to a loss of rights? For example, some EU states grant less generous family reunification rights to citizens as opposed to those granted by EU free movement legislation.

That said, criteria for nationality applications are not always more demanding than those for long-term or permanent residency, and nationality is the more secure option to guarantee residence rights in the long term. Nationality can only be revoked in exceptional circumstances, while residency can be lost after two consecutive years of absence from the host country.

It is essential for businesses to maintain their own sense of structure and identity in this time of uncertainty. When approaching Brexit from an individual’s perspective, each unique personal situation must also be taken into consideration before making a decision. If we are able to maintain a sense of order, promote clarity and adaptability within organisations and keep open channels of communication we will ensure the best outcomes are achieved and business operations and lives carry on as calmly as possible.

With thanks to Stefan Nerinckx of Fieldfisher and Jo Antoons of Fragomen.
You can download their whitepapers by following these links:

www.fieldfisher.com
www.fragomen.com

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Increasing Mobility
There is a clear consensus that the volume of workers is expected to keep climbing. A strong majority of employers indicates the number of mobile employees in their organisations will increase or stay the same. As many as 89% of organizations indicated they plan to increase their mobile workers in the next two years according to PwC’s “Moving People with Purpose – Modern Mobility Survey 2014”.

KEY DRIVERS

Talent Gaps
Talent gaps continue to be cited as the top motivator for moving employees abroad with as many as one in three (34%) employers cited as “having trouble filling key positions.” (Moving People to Work)   The dynamics are also changing. The profile of the Western senior executive being sent to explore foreign market opportunities is long replaced with a more complex, horizontal portrait.

“Talent management has become a headache for CEOs, with only 30% saying that they have the talent they need to fulfill their future growth ambitions.”  (Talent Mobility 2020)

Expanded Reach
Employers also cite market expansion as a key driver for sending employees abroad. While this was also true in the past, the opportunities and barriers of market expansion have evolved. The balance between developed and emerging markets is shifting; while Western economies continue to send employees to emerging markets in droves, mobile employees from emerging markets are going not only to more developed countries but to other developing markets too.

“Nearly half of firms (45%) indicate some form of expansion impacted their relocation volumes.” (Corporate Relocation Survey Results)
“[Mobility professionals] regard new market growth as the principal driver behind the growing need for global mobility (60%).” (Strategic Global Mobility)

Leadership Development
Successful organisations are planning for their futures by making sure their high-potential employees develop a global mindset through international experience. They will have to be comfortable leading colleagues, and pursuing market opportunities, from very different corners of the world.  International experiences are seen as opportunities to build intangible leadership skills.

Attract and Fulfill
A key evolution is that employees themselves are asking for international assignments. It is not lost on the broader talent base that global experiences have become a stepping stone to promotion and mandatory for senior leadership.  While previous generations held mixed views regarding the personal value of international work, millennials in particular are increasingly requesting these assignments. International posts, then, are a key tool in the global contest for young talent.

The millennial generation will make up 50% of the workforce in less than a decade and a recent study by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) reports that of 4000 millennial generation survey participants, 80% state that they want to work outside of their home country at some point during their career. It will be seen as a rite of passage.

Cost Pressures
Global economic confidence has hardly recovered from recent effects of the European debt crisis, let alone the global economic crash of 2008-2009, and cost management continues to place pressure on mobility professionals. This pressure isn’t slowing mobility volumes or even shrinking budgets, but is driving managers to more clearly demonstrate effective management and return on investment.

Compliance
Changing tax requirements and government regulations are quickly becoming the top risk faced by global employers. Governments in every corner of the world are ramping up pressure around enforcement of these regulations. As compliance becomes increasingly complex and increasingly important, employers appear to be increasing the levels of outsourcing this work to external consultants. Despite this rising need, many companies are facing avoidable penalties for non-compliance.

“Over-regulation is cited by 78% as a concern.” (Global CEO Survey)
“Some 40% of respondents reported that they did not have a formal risk control framework to monitor payroll tax and social security compliance, with 64% reporting they incurred avoidable penalties for non-compliance in 2012.” (Global Mobility Effectiveness)

Key Trends
Steven Cryne concludes that there are four important key trends that can be taken from the various reports:
(1) flexible program design as a result of a globalised talent pool, shifting employee demographics and demands; (2) increasingly strategic role for mobility in the organisation; (3) heightened focus and expertise in ROI and data analytics; and (4) more collaboration between business and government on labour regulations.

1. Global Talent Pool and Option Diversity
We are likely to continue to see an increasing variety in the types of assignments and policies, which is being driven by a number of factors. Cost pressures are driving employers to consider less expensive options for mobilising talent, ranging from short-term assignments and employing regional staff to virtual teams and “local plus” packages. Technology is making these different options easier to manage and demand from employees, especially millennials, is also driving flexibility.

2. Integrating Talent Mobility in Organisational Strategy
As the value proposition of mobility shifts, so might its role in the organisation. Mobility professionals and consultancies are all advocating for mobility to play a more strategic role and to become embedded in a diverse range of activities, playing a broader role in human resources.

3. Proving Return on Investment Becomes Crucial
All surveys that asked about tracking, evaluating, and other elements related to ROI clearly show organisations are not excelling in this area. “95% of companies don’t measure international assignment ROI… respondents simply are not sure how to do so” (Mindful Mobility).

“Three in four respondents expect to be measuring return on investment from mobility in two years’ time, compared with  just 9% who do this today. Fewer say they  can accurately quantify the cost of their programme. Even by 2017, only around half (49%) expect to be able to do this accurately.” (Moving People with Purpose)

4. Increased Government Collaboration
Employers have not been passive in response to heightened pressure over government regulations and compliance requirements. Even when their governments do not see it, employers know that mobile labour is a national economic advantage. Developed countries with ageing populations will become less dependent on domestic labour and employers – and associations – are helping them to recognise it.

“Indeed, 44% of CEOs plan to work with their governments to develop a skilled and adaptable workforce over the next three years. Twenty-seven percent want to collaborate with government to create a more competitive and efficient tax system.” (Global CEO Survey)

For the full presentation, please contact EuRA.

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