Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Flemish, French, German
Main religions: Christianity (50 per cent Catholic and other smaller non-Catholic denominations), Islam (5 – 7 per cent), Judaism (0.4 per cent), and other groups including Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Mormons and others which together make up less than 5 per cent.
Population groups include Flemings 6.6 million (57 per percent), Walloons 3.6 million (32 per cent) and German-speaking Belgians 77,200 (0.7 per cent).
There are also an estimated 30,000 Roma in Belgium. This includes some 20,000 Roma who do not have Belgian citizenship but are nationals of their country of origin, as well as around 7,000 Travellers (Voyageurs), 1,500 Sinti (Manouches) and 750 Roms with Belgian nationality.
In Belgium, linguistic censuses were abolished in 1961. It is therefore difficult to collect reliable data concerning the linguistic communities. Usually, estimations take into account the number of people living in each of the administrative regions (Wallonia, Flemish and Brussels-Capital regions).
As of 2018, the largest number of foreign nationals were settled in Flanders (571,300), but the highest proportion of the total population is in Brussels (35 per cent) compared with 10 per cent in Wallonia and 9 per cent in Flanders. The total foreign population was almost 12 per cent of the total Belgian population. Foreign nationals occupy a wide range of jobs from highly paid professional work to low-paid manual and seasonal work. Many have set up businesses.
The Belgian state recognizes six religions and one secular philosophical group. It pays for the construction and upkeep of religious buildings, and the salaries and pensions of clergy. The six religions are Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Anglicanism, Orthodox Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
Updated May 2020
Language has long been a source of division in Belgium, with its Flemish-speaking majority concentrated in the northern region of Flanders and the French-speaking community located predominantly in the southern Wallonia region, while a smaller German-speaking community reside in the east. Political devolution and the creation of parallel structures of schooling, administration and public life in Flemish and French have resulted in two distinct societies within Belgium. While in the capital of Brussels there is now more intermingling of the different linguistic communities, elsewhere in Belgium significant barriers of language and geography remain.
Alongside increasing immigration from other countries within Europe, due in part to the role of Brussels as the de facto capital of the European Union (EU), Belgium also encouraged immigration from North Africa and Turkey for decades to meet its labour demands. The most significant non-European minorities in Belgium are Moroccans and Turks, but these communities still face significant discrimination despite government investment in police training and enforcement of anti-discrimination laws. Although there are provisions for authorities to fine employers for poor working conditions and for instances of trafficking, migrant workers in particular are still vulnerable to exploitation as frequently they can only find work in the informal sector.
Many members of ethnic minorities also experience religious discrimination as the country’s Muslim community, estimated at 5 to 7 per cent, face increasing restrictions including a 2011 nationwide ban on burqas and other full-face veils in public spaces such as schools, workplaces and on the street. These restrictions have been justified in terms of security and promoting social harmony. Though there have been calls for Belgium to fully abide to international human rights standards for the protection of freedom of expression and freedom of religion, in particular to ensure that Muslim women are able to fully participate in public life, in July 2017 the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) upheld Belgium’s right to impose restrictions aiming to ensure the principles of ‘living together’ and the ‘protection of the rights and freedoms of others’. In January 2019 the ritual slaughter of animals, including halal and kosher methods, was also formally banned.
Following a number of violent attacks by ISIS sympathisers in 2016, including a series of coordinated bombings at Brussels airport and Maalbeek metro station in March that left 32 civilians dead and more than 300 injured, there was a jump in anti-Muslim incidents in Belgium including demonstrations attended by hundreds of protesters in Antwerp, Brussels and Ghent as well as reports of violent attacks against some Muslims. In addition, a petition was circulated in the Anderlecht district of Brussels calling for Muslims to ‘go back home’ and urging Catholics to set a mosque to a fire. Violent incidents have continued since then, including a failed train bombing and knife attack in 2017, and the killing of two police officers and a civilian in Liège in May 2018, apparently by an ISIS sympathiser. This violence has prompted measures from the government to curb extremist activity, including its decision to take back control of the Grand Mosque in Brussels in 2018 due to concerns around radicalization; the building had previously been leased to Saudi Arabia.
Belgium’s Jewish community, numbering some 40,000 people, have also been subjected to hate speech, targeted violence and discrimination. A targeted attack on the Jewish Museum of Belgium in May 2014 that left four dead and the subsequent escalation of ISIS-linked violent activity in the country has reportedly resulted in increased awareness at an official level of the need to protect the community, but community members have highlighted the persistence of everyday discrimination, including hate speech, verbal harassment and other anti-Semitic acts. A recent review of anti-Semitism across Europe, published by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency in December 2018, highlighted the high levels of anxiety among Belgium’s Jewish community, with 81 per cent of those surveyed stating that anti-Semitic abuse in the street and other public spaces was a ‘very big’ or ‘fairly big’ problem.
Belgium’s estimated 30,000 Roma also face many challenges. Human rights groups have highlighted that despite provisions for undocumented European families, mainly Roma, to receive a residency permit, in reality this process is extremely challenging for many Roma to navigate. As a result, homelessness occurs frequently, with Roma children particularly at risk. The government has been called upon to fully implement its National Roma Integration Strategy and guarantee the housing rights of Travellers.
Since the beginning of the recent migration crisis in Europe, Belgium has accepted some refugees from Greece and Italy, though the numbers remained low. In 2017, under the Dublin III Regulation enshrined in EU law determining the EU member state responsible for examining asylum applications, authorities resumed the transfer of asylum-seekers back to Greece. In 2017, new laws broadened the scope for detention of asylum-seekers and curtailed the right to appeal negative asylum decisions. Also, several laws were introduced requiring social workers to share private information regarding potential suspects of terrorism-related offences. Authorities have been criticised for not having effectively assessed the human rights impact of measures against terrorism and radicalization, which could be having a disproportionate impact on some minority communities. This included instances where the Belgian government engaged Sudanese officials to identify undocumented Sudanese within Belgium to facilitate their deportation to Sudan: a number of returnees later report ill treatment and torture by security officials on their return to Sudan.
In March 2019, the Belgian government launched a campaign to combat racism. It comes following a dramatic increase in racist incidents, namely a 55 per cent jump in five years, according to the Inter-federal Centre for Equal Opportunities (Unia). In 2018, Unia registered 866 complaints concerning racist incidents; this represented an 11 per cent increase compared with the year before. A quarter of these concerned instances of racism in the media, and another quarter related to the purchase of goods or services (including property). Finally, 19 per cent were workplace related. Staff warned that these figures do not necessarily mean that racism has increased as drastically as they would imply; a contributing factor could also be that victims know more about their rights and where to turn for help. Unia submitted 16 cases to the courts in 2018, considering them to be too serious to be dealt with through negotiation or mediation.
Belgium is in north-western Europe bordering the North Sea, the Netherlands, Germany, Luxembourg and France. Flanders lies in the west and north, Wallonia in the south and east. The German-speaking community is in the eastern border area with Germany.
The present-day geographic area of Belgium has been divided roughly between the Germanic and French languages since the early Middle Ages. As part of the Low Countries (with present-day Luxembourg and the Netherlands) it was one of the most prosperous trading and cultural areas of Europe until the mid-seventeenth century and the conclusion of the 80-year rebellion against Hapsburg rule. In 1648 the provinces north of the River Scheldt gained independence, while the rebellion failed in the south, in Flanders and Wallonia. In 1648 France annexed southern Flanders, including the city of Lille. The new Republic of the Netherlands took part of north-west and north-east Flanders. Rich Flemish merchants moved north from the key Flemish cities of Antwerp, Ghent and Bruges to Amsterdam and other Flemish cities, and Flanders went into decline. French revolutionary forces annexed Belgium in 1794 and imposed French language and culture. After the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 Belgium was given to the Netherlands. By 1830 it gained its independence under a new German king although many Flemish wanted to remain under Dutch rule.
The 1831 Constitution guaranteed the use of the Flemish, French and German languages by their respective communities. However, in practice, and particularly from 1839 when the Netherlands gave up its claim to Belgium, French was used exclusively in politics, administration, the law, and in secondary and higher education. The aristocracy and educated classes, whether Flemish or French-speaking, spoke French. French became the only official language. In 1839 the German-speaking canton of Eupen was separated from Belgium and became part of the German Confederation. The German-speaking canton of Sankt Vith and other territory was taken from Luxembourg and given to Belgium. In 1842 primary education was required to cover the basics in all three languages as the need arose. The 1846 Census showed that 57 per cent of the population was Flemish, 42.1 per cent French-speaking and 0.8 per cent German-speaking. Language laws in 1898, which recognized newly standardized Flemish as an official language, made Flanders bilingual in French and Flemish, while Wallonia remained unilingual. Brussels was a largely Flemish-speaking city at this time. In 1914 the law required teaching at all levels to be given in the child’s mother tongue, but this was not consistently applied. The language law of 1932 established unilingualism for public administration in Flanders and Wallonia and bilingualism in Brussels. The linguistic boundaries were reset, particularly in Brussels, after each census.
Separatist Flemish and Walloon movements began at the turn of the century and gathered pace with increasing bitterness through two world wars and the collaboration of some Flemish and Walloon nationalists with the German occupying forces. Parts of the nationalist movements have advocated union with the Netherlands and France respectively. The northern German-speaking canton was restored to Belgium definitively after the end of the Second World War.
In 1962 the cultural and linguistic border was drawn for the first time between the Flemish– and French-speaking areas. In 1963 language laws established Flemish, French and German as the official languages for their geographical areas. When the Constitution was amended in 1970 it set up three cultural communities (Flemish, French-speaking and German-speaking) and three regions (Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels). The new Constitution provided guarantees for the French-speaking minority, in particular the national parliament was divided into language groups and a special majority of the two main groups, French and Flemish, was needed to alter laws affecting the constitutional rights of the people. In addition, the national government should be composed of equal numbers of Walloon and Flemish ministers, excluding the prime minister. Subsequently the main political parties, Christian Democrat, Liberal Democrat and Socialist, split into Flemish– and French-speaking groups.
In 1980 the powers of the communities and regions were more closely defined, and extended, and they were endowed with governments and parliaments. The Flemish region and community combined their structures and adopted Antwerp as the regional capital, but Wallonia had no such cohesion. French-speakers were still hoping to make Brussels their cultural capital, as the structures for the Brussels region had not yet been set. The Walloon region set up its government and parliament in Namur, which also included the German-speaking community. In 1989 the details of the Brussels region were agreed, in particular the arrangements for the suburban districts with significant French-speaking and Flemish minorities. The Constitution was amended again in 1993 to reflect these changes. The French-language community subsequently set up its parliament and government in Brussels. The Flemish parliament and government then moved from Antwerp to Brussels. Brussels itself has a regional parliament and government. Therefore, the capital city has four parliaments and governments, federal and regional.
Guest workers or economic migrants have been a feature of Belgian industry since the nineteenth century. After the First World War Belgium absorbed 170,000 new immigrants from 1920 to 1930. In the 1930s many Jews fled from Germany to Belgium to avoid Nazi policies. With economic depression, the government sought to restrict immigration. In the late 1930s work permits, the concept of ‘illegal immigration’ and deportation centres for Jews were introduced. This pre-war legislation became the basis for the post-war control of refugees.
After the Second World War the government signed guest worker agreements with Italy (1946), Spain (1956), Greece (1957), Morocco and Turkey (1964), Tunisia (1969), and Algeria and Yugoslavia (1970) to cope with the economic boom. Other migrants came from France and the Netherlands. The guest worker policy ended with the oil crisis in 1973. The total number of immigrants fell in the 1970s. Although many immigrants settled in Belgium, there were and still are many who stay for short periods. From 1990 there has been a constant flux of foreign workers with net immigration of around 20,000 a year; that figure has increased in recent years – for 2016, it was 44,000 people.
Belgium is a constitutional monarchy. Its current head of state is Philippe, King of the Belgians, who ascended the throne in July 2013.
Reflecting the country’s federal organization, Belgium’s anti-discrimination laws are passed and implemented by a range of different legislative bodies representing the three communities (Flemish-, French- and German-speakers) and the three regions (Flemish, Walloon and Brussels-Capital). Aside from the federal parliament, there are a total of five other legislatures.
Belgium is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights. In 2007 as part of the process of amending relevant pre-existing legislation to reflect European Union (EU) anti-discrimination Directives, Belgium adopted at a federal level the General Anti-Discrimination Act, the Gender Act and the Racial Equality Federal Act.
In February 1993 the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism was established with a remit to combat discrimination, encourage equal opportunities, safeguard foreigners’ fundamental rights, support the fight against human trafficking and inform government authorities about the nature and extent of migration flows. In June 2013, this Centre was replaced by the Inter–federal Centre for Equal Opportunities (Unia) with a remit to address discrimination on the basis of a wide range of grounds, including ‘race, skin colour, nationality, ancestry (Jewish origin) and national or ethnic origin’, and ‘philosophical or religious beliefs’. Unia’s work focuses particularly on government authorities, public institutions and companies, as well providing support to citizens experiencing discrimination.
The Federal Migration Centre, renamed Myria in 2015, is responsible for issues relating to migrants, non-nationals’ fundamental rights and their humane treatment. In addition, the Institute for the Equality of Women and Men, created in 2002, works towards the promotion and realization of gender equality as well as fighting against all forms of gender-based discrimination and inequality.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Institute for the Equality of Women and Men
The Federal Migration Centre (Myria)
European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages
[Promoting European linguistic diversity, linking language communities]
Tel: +32 2 218 2590
Mouvement contre le Racisme, l’Antisémitisme et la Xénophobie
Tel: +32 2 209 6250
La Ligue des droits de l’Homme (Belgian League of Human Rights)
Inter–federal Centre for Equal Opportunities (Unia)
Centre Culturel Arabe
Tel: +32 2 218 6474
Amnesty International Vlaanderen (Flemish)
Tel: +32 3 271 1616
Tel: +32 3 366 1850
Overlegcentrum van Vlaamse Verenigingen
[Consultation Centre for Flemish Movements]
[Publishes a monthly magazine against capitalism and for Flemish independence]
Tel: +32 2 223 3140
Amnesty International (French)
Tel: +32 2 538 8177
Centre Culturel du Brabant Wallon
Tel: +32 1 061 5777
Institut Jules Destrée
Tel: +32 7 147 1975
Union Culturelle Wallonne
Tel: +32 4 342 6997
Ministère de la Communauté française, Service du Secrétaire général, Espace 27 Septembre
Tel: +32 2 413 3428
Frauenliga/Vie Féminine VoG
[Women’s League of the German-Language Community in Belgium]
Tel: 087/55 54 18
[The Theatre of the German-Language Community of Belgium]
Tel: +32 8 022 6161
Caritas group of VoG
Tel: +32 8 022 6733
Sources and further reading
‘Belgium: right to vote/foreigners’, Robert Schuman Foundation Letter 155, 23 February 2004.
Alen, A. and Ergec, R., Federal Belgium after the Fourth State Reform of 1993, Brussels, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1994.
Dirk J., ‘The debate over enfranchisement of foreign residents in the Netherlands and Belgium: absence of the ethnic minority voice?’, in Joint Sessions of the European Consortium for Political Research, Mannheim, Germany, 1999.
Fidrmuc, J. and Ginsburgh, V., ‘Languages in the European Union: the quest for equality and its cost’, CEPR Discussion Paper, 2005, retrieved May 2007, http://ssrn.com/abstracts=694481
Irving, R.E., The Flemings and the Walloons of Belgium, London, MRG, 1980.
Jamin, J., Migrants and Ethnic Minorities in Belgium, Liège, CEDEM, 2003.
Lambert, P., La Participation politique des allochtones en Belgique – Historique et situation bruxelloise, Louvain-la-Neuve, Academia-Bruylant (coll. Sybidi Papers), juin 1999.
Laponce, J., ‘Babel and the market: geostrategy for minority languages’, in J. Maurais (ed.), Languages in a Globalising World, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003.
MRG, Minorities and Autonomy in Western Europe, London, MRG, 1991.
Neels, K., ‘Social mobility and equal opportunities: the case of Turkish and Moroccan minorities in Belgium’, Population Association of America, 16th Annual Meeting, 1998.
Wolff, S. (ed.), German Minorities in Europe: Ethnic Identity and Cultural Belonging, Oxford, Berghahn, 2001.
Fiers, J., ‘The Flemish community of Belgium’, European Journal for Education and Law 1, 1997, pp. 111–16.
Gorik [quarterly publication for Brussels of the Vlaamse Volksbeweging]: http://www.gorik.be/
VlaanderenDeLeeuw [web portal for Flemish organizations]: http://www.vlaanderendeleeuw.be
Bureau of the Chamber of Local Authorities of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe, CPL/BUR(14)2, Information report on the fact-finding visit to Belgium concerning the non-appointment by the Flemish authorities of three mayors, 21 May 2008.
Destatte, P., L’Identité wallonne: essai sur l’affirmation politique de la Wallonie (XIX–XXèmes siècles), Institut Jules Destrée.
L’Arsouye [Walloon cyber-gazette] http://www.arsouye.com/index.php
Mercator-Education, The German language in education in Belgium, 2004
Belgische Rundfunk (BRF), http://www.brf.be/brf
Deutschsprachigen Gemeinschaft (German-Language Community portal), http://www.dglive.be
Grenz-Echo/Netecho (daily newspaper and online service), http://www.grenzecho.be/DE/zeitung/default.asp
Parlament der Deutschsprachigen Gemeinschaft (Parliament of the German-Language Community), http://www.dgparlament.be
A.Vanden Boer, 2009, ‘Does Belgium´s language policy concerning German fit the population´s needs?’ Available at: http://alppi.eu/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/Anneleen.pdf