Open letter of 31 August to the Belgian government

Open letter of 31 August to the Belgian government

concerning the entry of binational couples on Belgian territory

Prime Minister, Ms Sophie Wilmès

Deputy Prime Ministers, Mr Koen Geens, Mr Alexander De Croo and Mr David Clarinval

Minister of the Interior, Mr Pieter De Crem

Minister of Public Health, Ms Maggie De Block

Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Philippe Goffin

 

The closure of international borders in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic was – and still is – sensible and even necessary. It is obvious that we must halt tourism to protect ourselves and others. However, for many Belgians with a partner or a family member outside of the Schengen area, the closure of the border means that they have not seen their loved one for more than half a year.

As our country already acknowledged in the Ministerial Decree of 17 April 2020, partner visits are essential and exceptions must be made to ensure that couples can be together. In July, the European Commission urged its member states to exempt unmarried binational couples from COVID-19 travel restrictions. On the 20th of August, and in response to the incessant lobbying of ‘Love Is Not Tourism’ and ‘Belgians separated from loved ones by travel bans’,  Belgium’s Security Council announced that, from the 1st of September onwards, unmarried binational couples would be allowed to cross the borders again to reunite.

While we were initially happy that our voices were being heard, this was swiftly followed by disappointment with the strict requirements that were put into place. To qualify to reunite with one’s partner, couples need to prove the ‘durability’ of their relationship. A durable relationship is defined as either having lived together for at least one year, having a child together, or showing proof of an intimate relationship of at least 2 years with at least 3 meetings for a total duration of 45 days.

 

The requirements are arbitrary and discriminatory

The collectives ‘Love Is Not Tourism Belgium’ and ‘Belgians separated from loved ones by travel bans’ consider these rules to be arbitrary and discriminatory. The durability or the seriousness of a relationship is not determined by its length: all serious relationships have a beginning and start with one month. 

The rule of having spent a minimum of 45 days together is also discriminatory towards Belgians and their partners who, because of work, studies, or visa requirements, have not been able to be with their partner for as long as they would have wished. Furthermore, due to the travel restrictions that have been in place since March 2020, many of us have had to cancel meetings, thus further reducing the number of days we would have spent together, were it not for the global pandemic and its travel restrictions.

The requirements that are being used are the same as for family reunification. Yet, we are not asking the government to allow our partners to live or reside in Belgium indefinitely; we are only asking for a temporary visit so we can finally hold them in our arms again. Furthermore, the requirements to see our partners are the same as those used by our government to prevent ‘marriages of convenience’. We understand that the government worries that some people might ‘take advantage’ of the crisis for migration purposes. However, we believe this concern to be ungrounded, as the official rules for obtaining visas invariably continue to apply and do not allow unconditional entry into Belgian territory.

We would also like to insist that our purpose is not tourism. The name of the collective ‘Love is not tourism’ makes it clear. Our non-EU partners are willing to follow all the preventive measures imposed upon them to protect public health and to prevent the further spread of COVID-19. We have no intention to abuse the privilege of receiving a short-stay Schengen visa to travel around the EU: we just want to be reunited with our partner and spend some quality time together, safely, at home, without putting anyone’s health at risk.

We believe that the rules should be about public health and preventing further outbreaks of the virus. Hence, we do not understand why a relationship of 2 years would be less of a risk than a relationship of 6 months. The virus does not discriminate based on the length of a relationship.

 

Long-distance relationships with non-EU partners

We understand that our politicians might not be familiar with the reality of long-distance relationships with partners from outside the EU. For many of us, it is always difficult to meet with our partners due to strict visa requirements, even when there is no global pandemic. These visa requirements do not reflect the reality of life and love in a global world.

For most of us, a long-distance relationship is not our preference, but the only available option due to professional responsibilities, studies, family situations (e.g. illness and care duties) and visa requirements. Most of us have plans to close the distance in a foreseeable future – plans which were disrupted by the pandemic.

Our relationships might not fit the mould of what our politicians believe to be ‘sincere’ or ‘durable’ relationships. Yet, the fact that we decide to be together despite the challenges that come with having a long-distance relationship, and that we stick together in times of global pandemic, are the irrefutable proof of our commitment to our partners and the sustainability of our relationships.

Being apart from our significant other, especially in times of global pandemic, strongly affects our mental health. Some of our members have since been diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorders. No one should be forced to go through a global crisis without their partner by their side.

We would like to kindly remind our politicians that we are adults –  of all ages and walks of life –  who have the agency and right to determine for ourselves whether our relationships are sincere and durable. We feel that the current requirements infantilize us and minimize the importance of our relationships.

 

Solution: do it like Denmark

We believe that there is a solution which would still protect the interests of the government to avoid an increase in infections and to avoid abuse of the migration system. The Danish model requires a relationship of 3 months, presenting a negative COVID-19 test, and two weeks of quarantine. This model prevents the further spread of the virus. In addition, the usual visa requirements remain in place, thus preventing the exemption for unmarried binational couples from being abused for immigration purposes.

Furthermore, the Danish model not only applies to sweethearts, but also to the spouse, live-in partner, fiancé, parent, step-parent, sibling, step-sibling, grand-parent, step-grandparent, child, stepchild, grandchild or step-grandchild of a Danish national.

We would also like to remind the government that some of our partners are stuck in other countries than the country of their residence due to sudden national lockdowns and can thus not return to their country of residence to apply for a visa. Others cannot reach the Belgian embassy until domestic flights start operating again. Again others are in countries without a Belgian embassy or consulate. We would therefore like to ask our government to allow our partners to apply for a visa at the nearest Belgian embassy or consulate or, if not possible, online or via post.

 

In conclusion, we ask the Belgian government to soften the rules of entry on Belgian territory for unmarried binational couples and family members and to adopt similar measures to EU countries such as Denmark. We also call on the government to provide alternative possibilities to apply for a visa (at the nearest embassy, online, or through post) for partners of Belgian nationals who, for different reasons, cannot reach the Belgian embassy in their country of residence. We ask from our government to adopt rules that reflect the reality of a globalised world. Rules that are inclusive and where nobody is left behind. We ask our government to make it possible, for all of us, to be with our loved one during these trying times. 

 

Please accept, Madam Prime Minister, Misters Deputy Prime Ministers, Madam and Misters Ministers, the assurance of our highest consideration.

 

 

Love Is Not Tourism

Belgians separated from loved ones by travel bans