Ask any expat* in Belgium and they will confirm there is nothing as painful as the official registration process that must be endured.
The all-powerful Commune (local authority, borough, township, district, call it what you will) has, over the last 4 months, been a thorn in the proverbial for Mr B and myself.
Normally as an EU citizen I should have no trouble entering Belgium and getting the requisite ID/SIS (social security) card. However, because I had no job on arrival, the embassy in Beijing told me I would need to enter under the “dépendant” process. Sensing doom ahead, I had no choice but to grimly agree.
All expats are forced to the infamous “Bureau des Étrangers” in the part of the city where they reside. Last time round, before we were married, Mr B and I lived in the central Brussels Commune. When we left, Mr B vowed never again to live there due to the painful nature of the process involved in the annual renewal of his work permit.
And so we find ourselves instead living in the Commune that is agreed by all Belgians we know to the be absolute worst in Brussels. It has the highest proportion of non-Belgians and some of the highest unemployment rates in the capital**. Yet, armed with the self-confidence that can only come from having dealt with bureaucracy in the developing world, Mr B and I prepared for registration with a sense of steely determination.
Our first trip to the Commune was a strong reminder of our time in India. Absolute anarchy. Gross incompetence and lack of organization meant at 7.30am when some unfortunate official tried to hand out the 50 tokens necessary to be processed that day, there were scenes of near rioting. Fearing for his safety the official retreated indoors, shouting he was calling the police. Not to be outdone, the assembled masses shouted back that he should and started pounding on the door demanding he come out. One woman was screaming, “Malorganizé! Malorganizé!”, at the top of her lungs, another bewildered man muttered, “mais, c’est pas le Congo ici?”, as if to reassure himself that he was, in fact, in the right country.
Reinforced with two minders, the official re-appeared and hurriedly handed out the tokens. We were lucky enough to be seen, were given a raft of requests for additional documents to show that Mr B could support me financially and told we would need to come again together when the police had been to check our doorbell and mailbox for name-tags to verify that we lived where we said we did. This whole doorbell inspection thing is an odd Belgian requirement within an odd Belgian process that provokes a lot of headshaking and bewilderment amongst expats.
This was all done, we got the requisite certificates translated and notarised. I went a second time to the Bureau, arriving at 6.15am to find the crowd had self-regulated, with a Congolese man writing people’s names on a bit of orange juice packing case as they arrived and presenting it to the official who in turn called everyone’s names and handed out tokens.
And then on the home stretch, disaster struck.
The final, necessary part of our file was a certificate from the Hygiene Service who are responsible for inspecting people’s houses if they come in as a “dépendant”. The process allowing the government to enter private homes has recently been challenged in the Belgian Courts and, as a result, the process is frozen.
This means no “dépendant” can have their papers processed without jumping through major hoops and going in person to the Foreign Ministry to beg for their lives. I had to try and explain this to a bemused Indian who did not speak French. Naturally, he took it in his stride.
Thanks to the immense efforts of Mr B’s HR lady, we managed to get an appointment with the Chef of the Bureau des Étrangers to beg him to process our files at local level given the fact that in the intervening 3 months I had managed to get a temporary work contract and so could go through the normal EU citizens process.
We arrived at 6.05am for this begging appointment to scenes of more near-rioting. Despite the self-organized list system, the backlog of processing has got to the point in our Commune that people are arriving at 2am to try and get one of the 50 daily slots to beg for a resolution.
It is almost impossible to do anything in Belgium without an ID card, for example to get kids into schools. Everyone is desperate. And tempers are running short. The Commune has introduced bouncers to enforce crowd control on the advice of the police. That’s how serious it has become.
The long and short of it is that the Chef was (wearily) accommodating and, fingers crossed, within the next month Mr B and I should be fully ID’d up. The bad news is we have to go through it all again next year.
I’ve heard, incidentally, the process in Waterloo is a breeze, and that Forest is the best commune in Brussels proper. I’m sure the Woluwe’s (home of many an embassy official) are pleasant, brief experiences too.
*Here is Belgian Waffle’s take on the Commune experience. As normal she captures it beautifully.