Indians in Belgium Jun03

Belgium has a population of 10.2 million and it has done well by hosting both NATO and the European Union institutions. There are over 1 million immigrants (10% of population) and of these there are 14,000 of Indian origin. About 3000 Persons of Indian Origin” (PIOs) from India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Mauritius are awaiting their residency to be legalised. A further 2500 Indians have acquired Belgian citizenship because Belgian families have adopted them.


The bulk of the Indian community is concentrated in Antwerp and in Brussels. Only a few years ago the top 10 diamond merchants in Antwerp were Jewish but today the top six are of Indian origin. These rich Indian diamond merchants have substantially improved the diamond trade between India and Belgium creating many jobs in Belgium and many more in India. The Antwerp Indians have an active Antwerp Indian Association that works closely with the Global Organization of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO).


Indo-Belgian trade has soared to $5bn and gems and jewellery account for almost 75% in value terms. Belgium, with only 16 Belgian companies operating in India, is now India’s 7th largest trading partner and 3rd most important in the EU – a significant achievement in view of its small population and limited resources. Indian companies have shown interest in investing in Belgium, especially in the energy, ports, software and biotechnology sectors. The Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement, the Bilateral Investment Promotion Agreement (1997) and the Agreement on Economic, Industrial, Scientific and Technological Co-operation (1990) between India and Belgium facilitate bi-lateral trade and joint ventures. Indian software companies such as TCS, HCL and Infosys are active in Brussels. Belgian companies continue to employ Indian IT experts and it is estimated that Belgium needs a further 6000 IT experts.


There is evidence of racial discrimination in employment in Belgium, especially in the service sector at management level. Anti-immigrant political parties have gained in recent elections forcing the Belgian government to be  less welcoming in processing asylum applications from India, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Linguistically, Indians are disadvantaged compared to the French speaking Moroccans, Tunisians and Algerians. Those Indians and their children who acquire Belgian citizenship have difficulty in securing meaningful employment in the public sector e.g. civil service and parastatal organisations.


There are far more Indians working in Belgium than Belgians working in India. At present, Indians working in Belgium for many years and returning to India before reaching retirement age lose any right to pensions although they contribute each month for the full period of their work in Belgium. This impoverishes the workers in an unacceptable manner whilst enriching the Belgian government by millions of Euros.


Many countries have bi-lateral treaties with Belgium e.g. Algeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey etc that allows social security contributions of their workers to be accumulated towards a pension that is payable in the country of origin of the worker. It is essential for the Indian Government to establish a reciprocal agreement with the Belgian Government so that Indians working in Belgium would qualify for their pensions to be paid in India when they retire.


India’s relations with Belgium are good and India can do business with Belgium as there is a culture of enterprise and flexibility on both sides. There is scope for the successful Indian pharmaceutical industry to establish joint ventures with Belgian companies so that Indian products can be freely sold in the EU. India needs to have a strong presence in Brussels – a presence that can connect Indian entrepreneurs to tap the full potential of agro-processing in India, development of renewable energy e.g. biomass, wind and solar, leather and textile industries. India needs competent industrialists as well as diplomats to represent its interest in the EU.