In 2018, Belgium received 109 000 new immigrants on a long-term or permanent basis (including changes of status and free mobility), 1.4% more than in 2017. This figure comprises 58.5% immigrants benefitting from free mobility, 4.6% labour migrants, 27.1% family members (including accompanying family) and 9.6% humanitarian migrants. Around 6 200 permits were issued to tertiary-level international students and 1 100 to temporary and seasonal labour migrants (excluding intra-EU migration). In addition, 157 000 intra-EU postings were recorded in 2018, a decrease of -6.4% compared to 2017. These posted workers are generally on short-term contracts.

Romania, France and the Netherlands were the top three nationalities of newcomers in 2018. Among the top 15 countries of origin, Palestinian administrative areas registered the strongest increase (1900) and Syria the largest decrease (-1 900) in flows to Belgium compared to the previous year.

In 2019, the number of first asylum applicants increased by 27.4%, to reach around 23 000. The majority of applicants come from Syria (2 700), the West Bank and Gaza Strip (2 300) and Afghanistan (2 200). The largest increase since 2018 concerned nationals of Afghanistan (1 200) and the largest decrease nationals of Guinea (-200). Of the 17 000 decisions taken in 2019, 38% were positive.

The single permit system was introduced in Belgium in January 2019 following transposition of the EU Directive. Applications must be submitted first to the regional authorities and then, if successful, transferred to the federal immigration authorities. The single permit system also introduced changes for dependents, given that they are now granted unlimited access to the labour market without the need to apply for a work permit.

Since the State Reform of 2014, Belgian regions can develop their own labour migration policies. In 2019, Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels introduced policy changes. In these three regions, work permits for the highly skilled are now valid for up to three years, instead of one year. Salary thresholds are adjusted annually. In Flanders, they are lower for young (under 30) highly skilled local hires and for health care nurses than nationwide.

Flanders and Wallonia took further measures to increase their attractiveness and retention of skilled migrants. In Flanders, a shortage occupation list was published for medium skilled occupations and which exempts listed jobs from labour market inquiry. Qualifying foreign nationals can also apply for work permits from within Belgium, are no longer restricted to specific employers and have an open-ended work authorisation after four years of employment.

In 2019, the Belgian federal and regional governments transposed the EU Directive on seasonal workers, who may now apply for a single permit at the level of the region, valid for up to 150 days in a period of 360 days. The federal and regional governments have also transposed the EU Directive on highly qualified workers. Highly qualified foreign workers may apply for a single permit to work and stay in Belgium for a period of more than 90 days at the level of the region. The permit granted is valid for a period of up to 3 years (EU Blue Card).

Commission Bossuyt started a two-year evaluation of the national return policies in 2018 and produced a first report in 2019. This evaluation was spurred by the case of Sudanese nationals who allegedly suffered maltreatment upon their forced return in late 2017. The Immigration Office has since adapted its practice when issuing an order to leave the territory. Foreign nationals’ fear or risk of return may be considered as an “implicit” application for international protection, even when the person concerned did not express a wish to apply for asylum.

During the COVID-19 crisis, despite some organisational challenges, applications for visas and permits were still accepted. Single permit applications could be submitted via email in all regions and pending applications, including renewals, were still processed. Temporary migrants and business visitors who, due to the crisis, stayed longer than expected in Belgium were requested to apply for a work authorization extension or a work permit. Similarly, foreign visitors were required to extend their visas in the event of an overstay.

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