Marie, 39, from Democratic Republic of Congo living in Belgium

“I’d rather suffer in the cold than be sent back to a detention centre without my son.”

Marie was living with her two-year-old son and his father when she was arrested and detained. Two weeks later Marie was released, due to the fact that the mother of a child with a residence permit cannot be expelled. (Both her partner and son have a permanent residence permit; Marie is the only one who is still undocumented.) Marie’s son was traumatised by the separation from his mother. Regularisation procedures failed. For requesting family reunion, she has to go back to Congo. But can you demand of a mother of such a young child (who does not have the Congolese nationality) to travel back to Congo? There is no guarantee of success and it is unclear how long it would take before Marie would be reunited with her son and partner. As long as procedures remain as they are, Marie will stay undocumented and as a result, she and her family will continue to live in destitution.

Young and full of hope
My studies brought me to Belgium in 2001. As soon as I graduated, I was offered an employment contract in a nursing home, where I worked until 2008. I loved working there, but my permit expired and the commune refused to extend it.

In the meantime I’d also met my partner; he is Angolan but has a permanent residence permit. We moved to Antwerp as he had a job close to the Dutch border, and we applied for regularisation. In 2010 we had a son. Unfortunately, the living conditions in our apartment weren’t suitable for a child and we were forced to move back to a smaller village, as we couldn’t afford proper housing in the city. Due to the long distance, my partner had to give up his job. For a long time we heard nothing about my request for regularisation. Through an organisation for undocumented migrants we finally found out that my request had been rejected because, as we had moved in the meantime, the Immigration Office was told that we didn’t live on the address we had provided.

The financial pressure increased. My partner couldn’t find a permanent job and had to take on occasional temporary contracts. His income was no longer sufficient to support the three of us, so I took on a job as a fruit picker by using someone else’s papers. In September 2012, I was arrested at work. It was very humiliating; I felt like a criminal. They took me to a detention centre by the airport. All I was told was that unreported employment is illegal in Belgium, but other than that – nothing.

It was awful. The centre itself was fine, people were friendly, but I just felt terrible. I lived there for two weeks, but if they had kept me there for one month I would have died. All I did was worry, I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep…I missed my son and was afraid they might send me to Congo without him, as he has a Belgian residence permit. The mere thought made me sick. You have no idea what’s going to happen, the planes you hear taking off remind you that you could be sent back any minute. Anything seemed possible and that was so, so stressful.

After two weeks my lawyer called and said the Immigration Office had decided to release me. I don’t remember anyone telling me why. I was so happy to have my son with me again. As I was the one who always took care of him, he had been traumatised by my absence. He had hardly slept while I was gone and he’d cried all the time. In addition, my partner had lost his temporary job because he had to take care of our son.

A waiting game
Now all we can do is wait. My lawyer has applied for regularisation on humanitarian grounds again; we have to wait and see what the Immigration Office decides. Even if we have to live in these miserable conditions [the heating is broken and they sometimes cannot afford to pay for electricity], I’m never working illegally again. I’d rather suffer at home in the cold than be sent back to a detention centre without my child.

12 years in Belgium

Still undocumented and unreturnable due to family ties