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Hundreds of migrants stage hunger strike in Brussels for legal status




Hasni Abderrazzek, 44, a Tunisian asylum seeker requesting to be regularised by the Belgian government to have access to healthcare, is seen with his lips sewed together in a room on the campus of Belgium university ULB, where hundreds of migrants are going on hunger strike for more than a month, in Brussels, Belgium 29 June 2021. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Youssef Bouzidi, a Moroccan asylum seeker requesting to be regularised by the Belgian government to have access to healthcare, and who is going on hunger strike for more than a month, is helped by a person in a room on the campus of Belgium university ULB, where hundreds of migrants are going on hunger strike, in Brussels, Belgium June 29, 2021. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Concern over a weeks-long hunger strike by hundreds of undocumented migrants in Belgium's capital has mounted this week after four men stitched their lips shut to stress their demands for legal recognition and access to work and social services, write Bart Biesemans and Johnny Cotton.

Aid workers say that more than 400 migrants, holed up at two Brussels universities and a baroque church in the heart of the city, stopped eating on May 23 and many are now very weak.


Many of the migrants, who are mostly from South Asia and North Africa, have been in Belgium for years, some for more than a decade, but say their livelihoods have been put at risk by COVID-19 shutdowns that led to the loss of jobs.

"We sleep like rats," said Kiran Adhikeri, a migrant from Nepal who worked as a chef until restaurants closed because of the pandemic. "I feel headaches, stomach pain, the whole body is full of pain."

"I am begging them (the Belgian authorities), please give us access to work, like others. I want to pay taxes, I want to raise my kid here, in this modern city," he told Reuters, gesturing from his makeshift bed to where fellow hunger strikers lie listlessly on mattresses in the crowded room.

Many looked emaciated as health workers cared for them, using saline drips to keep them hydrated and tending to the lips of those who sewed their mouths shut in a bid to show they have no say over their plight.

The Belgian government said it will not negotiate with the hunger strikers over their plea to be granted formal residency.

Junior minister for asylum and migration Sammy Mahdi told Reuters on Tuesday the government would not agree to regularise the status of the 150,000 undocumented migrants in Belgium, but is willing to hold talks with the strikers on their plight.

"Life is never a price worth paying and people have already gone to the hospital. That's why I really want to try to convince all persons and all organisations behind it to make sure they don't give a false hope," Mahdi said, when asked about the hunger strikers.

"There are rules and regulations ... whether it is around education, whether it is around jobs, whether it is around migration, politics needs to have rules."

Europe was caught off guard in 2015 when more than a million migrants made it to the bloc's shores, overwhelming security and welfare networks, and fomenting far-right sentiment.

The European Union has proposed an overhaul of the bloc's migration and asylum rules to ease the burden on Mediterranean-shore countries, but many governments would rather tighten borders and asylum laws than accommodate new arrivals.


Cars and pavements washed away as Belgian town hit by worst floods in decades




The southern Belgian town of Dinant was hit by the heaviest floods in decades on Saturday (24 July) after a two-hour thunderstorm turned streets into torrential streams that washed away cars and pavements but did not kill anyone, writes Jan Strupczewski, Reuters.

Dinant was spared the deadly floods 10 days ago that killed 37 people in southeast Belgium and many more in Germany, but the violence of Saturday's storm surprised many.

"I have been living in Dinant for 57 years, and I've never seen anything like that," Richard Fournaux, the former mayor of the town on the Meuse river and birthplace of the 19th century inventor of the saxophone, Adolphe Sax, said on social media.

A woman works to recover her belongings following heavy rainfall in Dinant, Belgium July 25, 2021. REUTERS/Johanna Geron
A woman walks in an area affected by heavy rainfall in Dinant, Belgium July 25, 2021. REUTERS/Johanna Geron

Rainwater gushing down steep streets swept away dozens of cars, piling them in a heap at a crossing, and washed away cobbles stones, pavements and whole sections of tarmac as inhabitants watched in horror from windows.

There was no precise estimate of the damage, with town authorities predicting only that it would be "significant", according to Belgian RTL TV.

The storm wreaked similar havoc, also with no loss of life, in the small town of Anhee a few kilometres north of Dinant.

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Death toll rises to 170 in Germany and Belgium floods



The death toll in devastating flooding in western Germany and Belgium rose to at least 170 on Saturday (17 July) after burst rivers and flash floods this week collapsed houses and ripped up roads and power lines, write Petra Wischgoll,
David Sahl, Matthias Inverardi in Duesseldorf, Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels, Christoph Steitz in Frankfurt and Bart Meijer in Amsterdam.

Some 143 people died in the flooding in Germany's worst natural disaster in more than half a century. That included about 98 in the Ahrweiler district south of Cologne, according to police.

Hundreds of people were still missing or unreachable as several areas were inaccessible due to high water levels while communication in some places was still down.


Residents and business owners struggled to pick up the pieces in battered towns.

"Everything is completely destroyed. You don't recognise the scenery," said Michael Lang, owner of a wine shop in the town of Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler in Ahrweiler, fighting back tears.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited Erftstadt in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where the disaster killed at least 45 people.

"We mourn with those that have lost friends, acquaintances, family members," he said. "Their fate is ripping our hearts apart."

Around 700 residents were evacuated late on Friday after a dam broke in the town of Wassenberg near Cologne, authorities said.

But Wassenberg mayor Marcel Maurer said water levels had been stabilising since the night. "It's too early to give the all-clear but we are cautiously optimistic," he said.

The Steinbachtal dam in western Germany, however, remained at risk of breaching, authorities said after some 4,500 people were evacuated from homes downstream.

Steinmeier said it would take weeks before the full damage, expected to require several billions of euros in reconstruction funds, could be assessed.

Armin Laschet, state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia and the ruling CDU party's candidate in September's general election, said he would speak to Finance Minister Olaf Scholz in the coming days about financial support.

Chancellor Angela Merkel was expected to travel on Sunday to Rhineland Palatinate, the state that is home to the devastated village of Schuld.

Members of the Bundeswehr forces, surrounded by partially submerged cars, wade through the flood water following heavy rainfalls in Erftstadt-Blessem, Germany, July 17, 2021. REUTERS/Thilo Schmuelgen
Austrian rescue team members use their boats as they go through an area affected by floods, following heavy rainfalls, in Pepinster, Belgium, July 16, 2021. REUTERS/Yves Herman

In Belgium, the death toll rose to 27, according to the national crisis centre, which is co-ordinating the relief operation there.

It added that 103 people were "missing or unreachable". Some were likely unreachable because they could not recharge mobile phones or were in hospital without identity papers, the centre said.

Over the past several days the floods, which have mostly hit the German states of Rhineland Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia and eastern Belgium, have cut off entire communities from power and communications.

RWE (RWEG.DE), Germany's largest power producer, said on Saturday its opencast mine in Inden and the Weisweiler coal-fired power plant were massively affected, adding that the plant was running at lower capacity after the situation stabilized.

In the southern Belgian provinces of Luxembourg and Namur, authorities rushed to supply drinking water to households.

Flood water levels slowly fell in the worst hit parts of Belgium, allowing residents to sort through damaged possessions. Prime Minister Alexander De Croo and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited some areas on Saturday afternoon.

Belgian rail network operator Infrabel published plans of repairs to lines, some of which would be back in service only at the very end of August.

Emergency services in the Netherlands also remained on high alert as overflowing rivers threatened towns and villages throughout the southern province of Limburg.

Tens of thousands of residents in the region have been evacuated in the past two days, while soldiers, fire brigades and volunteers worked frantically throughout Friday night (16 July) to enforce dykes and prevent flooding.

The Dutch have so far escaped disaster on the scale of its neighbours, and as of Saturday morning no casualties had been reported.

Scientists have long said that climate change will lead to heavier downpours. But determining its role in these relentless rainfalls will take at least several weeks to research, scientists said on Friday.

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35 years - and still going strong!



The year 1986 was marked by both advances and setbacks. Technology advances helped the Soviet Union launch the Mir Space Station and had the UK and France building the Chunnel. Sadly, it also saw the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster and the explosion of one of the nuclear reactors at Chernobyl.

In Belgium, the country’s footballers came home to a hero’s welcome after finishing 4th in the Mexico World Cup.

The year was also notable for one other event: the opening of L’Orchidee Blanche in Brussels, now one of the acknowledged best Vietnamese restaurants in the country.


Back in 1986, when Katia Nguyen (pictured) opened the restaurant in what was then a quiet Brussels neighbourhood, she could not have realised what a huge success it would be.

This year, the restaurant marks its 35th anniversary, a real milestone,  and it has come a long in the intervening years, so much so  that it is now a byword for fine Asian cuisine, not just in this now-bustling area of Brussels but further afield.

Indeed, word had spread so far about the quality of the excellent Vietnamese food available here that, a few years ago, it was awarded the prestige title of “Best Asian Restaurant in Belgium” by the renowned food guide, Gault and Millau.

Katia is the first to accept that her success also owes a lot to her team, who just happen to be all-female (this partly reflects the traditional role women occupy in the Vietnamese kitchen).

The longest serving among them is Trinh, who has been dishing up wonderful Vietnamese meals in the small, open-plan kitchen her for a couple of decades now, while other “veteran” staff members include Huong, who has been here 15 years and Linh, a  relative newcomer having worked here for four years!

They, along with their colleagues, are beautifully dressed in authentic Vietnamese costumes,something else the resto is famous for. To hold on to staff for so long also reflects well on the excellent management style of Katia.

It is all a long way from the days, back in the 1970s, when Katia first arrived in this country for her studies. Like so many of her compatriots she had fled the Vietnam war in search of a better life in the West and she set about starting a new life in her “new” home – Belgium.

For connoisseurs of great Vietnamese food that was, well, rather good news.

The standard set when Katia, still relatively freshly arrived in Belgium from Saigon, opened the restaurant back in 1986 is just as high today as it was then.

Despite the awful health pandemic that has wrought havoc in the hospitality sector here, Katia’s “army” of loyal customers are now flooding back to sample the wonderful delights concocted by her highly talented, Vietnamese-born team.

The restaurant is located close to the ULB university and everything here is prepared in house. The dishes are based on either traditional or more contemporary recipes but similar to the best you might find in Vietnam itself. Many diners here consider the spring rolls the best in Belgium but if they are succulent, the gourmet riches of this house take you on a culinary journey, stretching from North to South Vietnam and all stops in between.

The restaurant never really closed during the lockdowns as it continued to serve a brisk takeaway service. Now fully reopened, takeaways account for about 30 per cent of the business. Customers can either collect their order or have it delivered to their home/office.

With summer upon us, it’s good to know there is now a terrace seating up to 20 people on the street outside while, at the back, is a pleasant outside area with space for about 30 and open until October.

Inside, the restaurant seats 38 people downstairs and 32 upstairs. There is also a great value-for-money, two course, lunch menu, costing just €13, which is particularly popular.

The a la carte choice is huge and features a range of meat,fish and poultry dishes – all are fabulous and very tasty. There’s also a great drinks and wine list and look out too for a lovely suggestions menu which changes weekly.

The charming and very welcoming Katia has come a very long way since she first set foot in Belgium. For a restaurant still to be thriving 35 years after it opened is a massive achievement, particularly in this “post-pandemic” era but for that same place to have been under the same ownership all that time is quite remarkable… which, actually, also very accurately describes both the cuisine and service here.

Happy 35th birthday L’Orchidee Blanche!

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