Given the fact that this is a disturbingly subjective question, the best way to give an impartial answer would be to present some statistics. There is indeed a list out there ranking the most welcoming countries, released by the World Economic Forum on 2013 (done during the two previous years), and not updated since. So maybe reality has changed since then. But based on their results, it is possible to say that yes, Belgium is a welcoming country… just not the most one.
The most welcoming country in the world for foreigners is Iceland, followed by New Zealand and Morocco. Belgium’s position is 19, from a total of 140 countries evaluated (in case you are curious, the most unwelcoming ones are the Russian Federation, Venezuela and Bolivia). What was considered when doing the research was the locals receptiveness, bureaucracy and general living conditions.
Belgium is quite well positioned, when different factors are taken into account – like the fact that is it not absolutely mandatory to speak French or Dutch (the official languages) to survive here, as most people speak English. Besides that, there’s the fact that, since there are a lot of important headquarters here (like NATO and European Commission), the expats community is impressively high, dominating the nightlife and the cultural activities in the capital.
Yet, all of this does not really answers the question of whether it is a welcoming country or not. And since the question seemed too big to be answered by only one set of statistics, some expats decided to share their opinion on the matter. And here are their answers:
“Belgian people were very welcoming when I arrived. I guess they are used to foreign people, at least in Brussels. But you have to be careful; I didn’t speak French that well at the time, and the first landlord with whom I did business with took advantage of that. I had to denounce him. Bureaucracy is a nightmare; everything takes too long to be done. And the living conditions are fine – except for the taxes!” – Maria Escrigas, Venezuela.
“For me, it was welcoming because there are a lot of expats here – contact with Belgian people was more difficult; it is possible, but harder. It was difficult to understand the medical system; I didn’t find a lot of info. But I was happy at how fast it was to get the registration card. All in all, it’s a good place to live”. – Cristina Cardeno, Spain.
“My first few days here were rather disorientating because of the sheer volume of paperwork that needed to be filled in. Getting the required no-criminal certificate translated to Dutch (from Italian) proved to be quite a challenge in Hasselt. The next step sounded even more foreboding: getting a doctor to certify that I wasn’t the bearer of any contagious diseases (turned out doctors here are super-trusting, at least mine was: he asked me if I suffer from any dangerous diseases and then simply scribbled my reply of “no”). Finally, when all the documents were ready, I was inexplicably asked to write the mayor of Hasselt a letter, which I filled with clichés. The general living conditions are usually top notch; except for the occasional Brussels shutdown”. – Hussain Kazmi, Pakistan.
“In terms of general life, I find Brussels more difficult to live in, compared to Auckland. Registering for services (like banks, internet, commune, and health insurance) seems needlessly complex and time consuming, with very little flexibility with regards to access hours. On the social side, I’m finding the language barrier more intimidating than I’d anticipated, but I completely understand the desire to speak in the language most comfortable for you, and while many Belgians can speak English well, they’re very self-conscious of it and would rather not. The public transit is great, though I feel it closes far too early”. – Leslie Sanderson, New Zealand.
“In general, people are nice and welcome you. Maybe it takes a while until you can say you have found Belgian friends, but it’s fine. However, and compared to other countries, sometimes they can be really rude, and you get the impression they simply don’t care. For example, something very basic as going to a shop (where the customer should be welcomed and the shop assistant might be helpful) can be an awkward experience, since it seems you are bothering them, and you are lucky if you get a “bonne journée” when you are leaving the shop. You can find nice people, of course, but it’s not the rule, I think. About the bureaucracy: that’s the biggest mess! It takes you months and months to get the ID Belgian card for foreigners. It’s a very inefficient system”. – Blanca Rivera Campos, Argentina.
So, what is the verdict, after all? That Belgium is a welcoming country in some aspects, but not all. Iceland is probably better, if that 2013 list is any indication. But, oh, don’t we love this freezing-and-unjustly-taxed-and-bureaucracy-addict country?
What about you? Let’s talk about this. Tell us your opinion on whether Belgium is or not a welcoming country! We are keen to hear your side of the story!