EFIL has been approached by AFS Belgium Flanders to support advocacy on a national matters, very much linked with European legislation in the field, namely visas and residence permits.

In fact, as from 2 March, there is a new law in place in Belgium.  Any non-EEA citizen over 18 years who wants to apply for a D-visa (long stay) now has to pay an additional cost before applying for the visa; the so-called retribution fee. For students this fee is € 160, for volunteers the cost is € 215. Volunteers are considered like labour fource since there is no specific visa category for volunteers. The law was designed by N-VA Secretary of Asylum and Migration Theo Francken and the goal is to discourage long-term migration to Belgium. The money raised by this new measure (an estimated € 9 million a year) will be used to create extra places in closed asylum centres and repatriation of illegal immigrants.

The fee needs to be paid to the Belgian account of the Ministry of Home Affairs – Immigration Office before applying for a visa, otherwise the visa application will not be handled (admissibility contribution). The actual visa costs an additional € 180. When entering Belgium, students and volunteers need to apply for a residence permit for the extra cost of 7-20 euros, depending on the municipality.

Following a dialogue between AFS Belgium Flanders and EFIL, EFIL was able to find out that this new measure is not in line with EU legislation-directive 2004/114, which states that “Fee shall be proportionate and based on services actually provided for processing of applications and the issuance of permits”. Since the tax is used by the Home Affairs Ministry for repatriation instead of issuing the residence permit, and not granted to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs which is responsible for issuing the visa, the fee is not based on services provided for processing applications or issuing permits. This argument based on EU legislation will be presented to the Belgian government.

Another result of the law is that money of the development cooperation funds and EVS funds (for non-EEA nationalities such as EU neighbouring countries like Armenia and Russia) will be used up to pay back visa costs of these students or volunteers (big universities like UGent and KU Leuven already complained about this to the Minister of Development Cooperation Alexander De Croo ) – resulting in less mobility since the funds will be used up faster. This is called a “pocket-to-pocket operation” in the Belgian media; money from the “fund pocket” will go to money of the “immigration pocket” and is in fact just a transfer of funds within the same government. This again, is a national provision that endangers the benefits of the EU funded programmes.

In the media, Secretary of State Theo Francken argues that “almost every country in Europe has a similar retribution fee and we are not even that expensive compared to other European countries”. This in fact is not true; should the fee be paid to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, then it would be comparable but no other European country has a similar measure where the money is paid directly to the Home Affairs Ministry and used for purposes like repatriation. Should we compare the cost of a visa (as it is in the perception of the visa applicant), then Belgium is the most expensive European country for a student to get a visa: € 180 + € 160.

The European directive on visas and residence permits for third country nationals is now under revision and EFIL is strongly advocating for measures that would not allow Member states to issue national legislations such as the one just approved in Belgium. Unfortunately, Member states are very reluctant to agree on  legislation favourable to pupil exchanges and international volunteering and the Belgian law is the mirror of this attitude. EFIL has urged the European Youth Forum to act on this matter and ensure that there will be clear visa categories for volunteers and pupils and that the costs are reasonable and based on services provided.

For more information: elisa.briga@afs.org