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The privileged version of immigration

There are many reasons why people will decide to live in another country.

Sometimes it’s by necessity, sometimes by choice, but most of the time, a scoop of both. This is the story of my choice and the truth behind the ocean of paperwork I had to swim through. Spoiler alert: it was all worth it.

I read testimonies of immigrants (mainly westerners) about Kafkaesque acrobatics to get paperwork in order. The legal hoops, the waiting lines at foreigners’ offices, the inconsistencies, the abyssal lack of (or outdated) information on websites, or the impossibility to get any governmental agency on the phone. These stories came from African countries, but also European ones. The one thing they all have in common: vertiginous bureaucracy. And I think they all unveil one, major misunderstanding about the concept of immigration.

Living in a country other than the one you are a citizen of is a privilege. Not a right.

Some will say there are two types of migrants: the immigrants and the expatriates (expats for short). Immigrants generally leave their home country to improve their life conditions. Expats are moved by their employers to another country, mostly for short to mid-term periods (maximum 3-5 years). And there are some, like myself, that fall somewhere in-between.

I moved from Montreal to Brussels in 2011. The very first question I get when I say this (and the few Canadians I know here are asked exactly the same) is: “why?” Incredulity is the general reaction. Fair enough: I wasn’t moved by my employer, and in terms of life conditions, Belgium was not a vast improvement compared to Canada. So I must have moved for someone, right? In the spirit of full disclosure, I did have a partner in Barcelona at the time, but it was only one of my incentives for moving to Europe. (Turns out it was a good thing I had professional motives as well!)

I was completing my master’s degree in international relations at the Université de Montréal and had focused my research on the European Union. I was first in Brussels in 2010 for an epic three-week study tour of EU institutions followed by a summer internship, then had a second internship (and second study tour) the first few months of 2011. I wanted to stay and was still on my work-holiday visa (which allowed me to live and work in Belgium for a year without the need for a work permit), so I went into extreme job-searching mode and got hired at a European association in the fall of 2011.

This is when the bureaucracy waltz started to play its first notes in my life.

Here is the general rule: immigrants don’t complain much about residency or work permit paperwork. Expats do, because they (wrongly) assume that the host country will recognize its incredible luck of having them living and working there. I was guilty of the latter. Again, this is because I didn’t understand that it is a privilege for me to be allowed to work in Belgium, not the other way around.

Every immigration system in the world is based on that basic principle. It’s how each country decides to apply it that differs. This means that I somehow had to prove that I’m a form of “added value” to Belgium and that I wouldn’t be stealing any local’s job opportunity. Once you understand that, you can understand the paperwork. Not necessarily agree with it or enjoy the bureaucracy, but at least get the idea behind it all. Some countries such as Canada and Australia have the luxury of a points-based immigration system, where each candidate is granted a certain number of points depending on several factors, even before they land in their host countries (knowledge of a local language, skills in demand, education level, etc.).

In Belgium (as in many countries), there are two types of rights for foreigners: the right to reside (live in Belgium) and the right to work. There are two main ways to obtain the right to reside: either through family reunification (which includes Belgian/European partners or spouses) or through work. In my case (being single), this means that I have the right to live in Belgium if I have (legal) employment here. Once I have an employer (contract), I apply for a work permit. Once I have the work permit, I apply for my residency card. Note that all of this is in the case of a non-European citizen: nationals of European Union countries have it much easier, since they don’t need any special permit to live and work in the EU. Lucky bastards.

There are four types of work permits in Belgium (A, B, C and European Blue Card): the one that applies in my case is the B permit. There are several categories of work for which a B permit can be granted: interns, university professors, expats, athletes, artists, etc. I applied under “highly qualified worker”. The conditions include a minimum salary threshold and a (recognized) university degree diploma, among others. Please note that all of this applies for the first few years of stay in Belgium: rules change when you’ve been living here for more than five years.

Once I have gathered all the documents to apply for a B work permit, which includes a “request to employ a foreigner” signed by the employer, the paper package is submitted to the federal foreigner’s office. If I did not fulfil all the conditions for the permit, it can be rejected (as it was the very first time) and the process is then extended to include more paperwork (form to explain the detailed job description and why no other local can do it, search for candidates in the government agency database and explanation of why they don’t fit the profile, etc.). I was finally granted my first work permit in early 2012. Since I fulfilled all the conditions thereafter, I didn’t have additional issues in the following years. Just lots of paperwork. Again and again. And so many trips to the Commune.

The B work permit is valid for one year, renewable every year (officially “four years twice”, whatever that means). Once I have my work permit, I can apply for my residency card. Since I have a one-year work permit with no family ties in Belgium, I get a one-year residency status: the A card. 

There are several residency statuses in Belgium, translated into as many types of residency cards: A, B, C, D, E, E+, F, F+, H, annex 15, orange card and special card (if I’m not forgetting any). The A card is a “temporary residency” card: it’s valid for one year and granted on the basis of a one-year work permit, for example, or a one-year work-holiday visa (other conditions may apply, as they say). B, C and D cards are granted under other conditions to non-Europeans and grant various levels of flexibility (no need for a work permit, right to work in other EU countries without a permit, depending on the card). E and E+ are ID cards for Europeans; F and F+ are for family members of Europeans/Belgians. The annex 15 is given in-between applications for A cards (maybe in other cases too, who knows), the orange card is a three-month temporary card (which doesn’t count as legal stay in Belgium); the H card is granted on the basis of the European Blue Card work permit and the special card is for individuals that have a special status (working for an international institution such as the EU, UN, etc.). The special card is not counted as legal stay in Belgium: it’s a right to live here, but recognizing that the person is not legally bound to the country. These details can matter in the longer term, for example when applying for Belgian citizenship.

In summary: I get the work permit, then I get the residency card. Both need to be renewed every year, in a strategic way (I can’t let any of the two expire), so I have to renew my work permit first, then renew my residency card based on my new work permit. This usually takes a couple of months in total. The renewal conditions for my residency card have varied from year to year: sometimes the work permit was enough, some years the Foreigner’s Office requested additional proofs that I have not been a burden on the state in any way. I had to produce a copy of my Belgian judicial record (mercifully empty), a document from the social security office proving I had not benefited from any government social support (sounds worse than it is: I have the right to social security, just not the very-last-resort kind), copies of all my payslips (which I had already submitted to renew my work permit, so if I got the work permit it means I got paid, so why would I have to submit the payslips again?), etc. As you can see, this is where it gets a bit Kafkaesque.

However, to Belgium’s credit, once you find the right information (but that’s the key), it is clear, straightforward and there are no exceptions to the rules. In other words: produce all the right documents in time and all will be well. There is very little arbitrary ruling on granting work permits and residency cards: the conditions are there and if you follow the instructions, you’ll be granted what you need within a reasonable timeframe. That sounds obvious, but it is not in many countries, some of which apply a more subjective ruling to their conditions, approved paperwork, etc. (cough cough, France…).

The conditions may be rigid, the information quite difficult to find (agents at the Communes are notoriously misinformed, sadly) and I’m in denial of the number of hours I spent at the Commune’s office, lining up to submit or collect paperwork, but in the end, anyone going through a similar process will express the same ridiculously inflated pride of “making it”. Getting the permit. Getting the ID card. It’s an intoxicating feeling! As if you had beaten the system somehow. It’s a strange but very gratifying victory over bureaucracy. I have witnessed plenty of sad stories of foreigners that have been brought down to their knees and had to give up, most of the time because they were very close to, but not quite, fulfilling all the conditions to get permits or residency cards. Immigration bureaucracy is a cold, heartless affair: it will never matter how much you feel attached to your host country, how much you think you are contributing, how much of a saint you are. It will only matter if you can prove that you are paid at least 40.124 EUR per year. However, I think there is no better life lesson on how privileged many of us are than to fully experience the challenges of moving to a new country. Expats of the world, aspiring Europeans, nomads at heart: never forget how lucky you are to be living abroad.


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