Citizens organise aid for refugees in Europe’s capital

News

The European Union’s Justice and Home Affairs Ministers are meeting in Brussels this Monday for an Extraordinary Council to work out practical solutions and take urgent political decisions in the face of what the European Commissioner for Migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos has described as “the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War”.

Less than four kilometres from the Justus Lipsius building where the council meeting is being held, the situation described by Avramopoulos is being played out every day: hundreds of people from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan crowd around the Belgian Foreign Office, in the heart of the European capital, to register their application for asylum.

In August alone, the Belgian authorities recorded 4,500 applications for asylum. It is clearly more than usual, but the statistics show that it is not a first for the small kingdom. In the year 2000, after the Kosovo War, 40,000 people applied for refugee status in Belgium, twice as many as today.

Maximilien Park, right opposite the Office des étrangers (Foreign Office) in central Brussels, has been turned into a veritable refugee camp, where new arrivals flood in night and day.

Although the first few days were particularly difficult for the dispossessed refugees, forced to sleep under an open sky and left to their own devices by the Belgian institutions, the citizens organised their solidarity with lightening speed.

In just a few days, the residents of Brussels, and the rest of the country, managed to set up an effective support system using social media and with the help of associations such as Médecins du Monde (Doctors of the World), the Red Cross and the human rights NGO SAMU Social. Tents, blankets, clothing and sleeping bags have been provided for the migrants and refugees camping outdoors. Food is distributed three times a day, toilets and showers have been installed, as well as a medical service, and citizens arrive several times a day, their arms and their cars loaded with donations.

This massive response to the appeals for donations was so huge that the collections had to be stopped urgently and people were asked to stop going to Maximilien Park with material contributions; the situation was becoming unmanageable for the volunteers sorting through and cleaning them.

“We’ve never seen anything like it,” said Malou Gay, deputy director of Ciré (Coordination and initiatives for refugees and foreigner), in an interview with Equal Times. “It’s exceptional what’s happening, I have never seen such solidarity in 20 years of doing this job,” she added.

This "outburst of solidarity” is motivated, according to Gay, by a desire to emulate the mobilisation of citizens in Germany, and because “people can see what is happening in eastern Europe and want to reassert their European values”.

Among the asylum seekers living in the improvised camp is Ahmed* and his wife, who travelled from Iraq via the Balkans to Hungary. Since he collaborated with the American army, Ahmed says he became the target of threats and blackmail by the local mafia in Baghdad.

“They started pressurising me to sell my house for a pittance. They wanted to chase us out. The threats got worse. One day they wrote on the wall ‘Leave or you will die’. We were very frightened and we understood that we had to leave”.

Rokaya*, his wife, still bears the scars of the violence by the Macedonian police on her arms, and her feet are injured from so much walking.

 

The state’s responsibility

The associations point out that while this mass mobilisation is very welcome, it must not disguise the fact that the Belgian state has a responsibility towards the asylum seekers, including those who have not yet registered at the Foreign Office and are camping in the park.

According to estimates by the Citizen’ Platform there are about 1000 people camping in the park, but the Foreign Office will only agree to register 250 people a day “because of staffing levels, local capacity and for security reasons,” Dominique Ernould, the institution’s spokesperson told Equal Times.

“It’s an ideological stand,” retorts Gay. The associations feel the government is dragging its feet and are threatening to file a complaint with the European Commission if political leaders do nothing to a speed up the registration of asylum seekers.

Luc Leboeuf, a legal expert specialising in European asylum law at the Catholic University of Louvain, notes that under the terms of “the European directive on the reception of applicants member states must provide assistance to asylum seekers who have not yet been recognised as refugees, including before they have registered their application. Reception capacity has to be increased and waiting times reduced”.

Théo Francken, Secretary of State for Migration and Asylum decided, under pressure from citizens and the media, to open up 500 ‘pre-reception’ places close to Maximilien Park, but the refugees aren’t exactly flocking in. On the first evening, a mere 14 refugees spent the night there. The problem, Gay believes, is the contrast between what the citizens were providing and what the government was offering.

“In the park there is a medical service, meals, sanitary facilities, legal advice, everything you would expect a reception service to provide. It has turned into a real refugee camp. The building provided by the Federal government, on the other hand, has only 500 beds, which is not enough, and toilets but no showers, and it is only open in the evening. Why would they go there?”

Furthermore, the government building will only accept asylum seekers who have queued up outside the Foreign Office and received a ticket, which does not solve the problems of those who have just arrived.

“It is not enough, and it is not what we expect of the government,” says Ciré’s deputy director.

And with the camp volunteers suspecting a ‘government ploy’ to present the refugees as ‘ungrateful freeloaders’, Francken, a member of the right-wing N-VA party, whose anti-immigration stance has been clearly established, wrote a tweet accusing the refugees of find the tents ‘more comfortable’.

When asked by Equal Times to comment on proposals by his party’s leader, Bart De Wever, to create a ’special status’ for refugees and asylum seekers, the Francken cabinet replied that “in the current situation we have to analyse all possible to solutions (…) and see what can be done”.

Leboeuf, for his part warned that as the refugees would have the same rights as Belgian citizens once they had been officially recognised, a special status would be “against the law”.

 

European Crisis

In his State of the Union address to the European Parliament on Wednesday, the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker asked Member States to agree to the European plan for sharing the 160,000 refugees that had arrived in Greece, Italy and Hungary.

It is a higher figure than previously announced and is bound to provoke lively debates at the 14 September meeting. Francken had already denounced the Commission’s plan, describing it as ‘unbalanced’.

Solidarity will doubtless be the stumbling block at the extraordinary Council meeting, with Germany advocating a policy of openness towards the refugees, while other countries like Spain and the United Kingdom are far more hesitant, or in the case of many Eastern European countries are firmly opposed to any form of quota.

“The European countries should agree to a vast resettlement programme, like they did in the past for Bosnia when they were well prepared, instead of this painfully slow process we see today,” says Leboeuf.

Those views are echoed by Ciré. Gay believes that a distribution plan will render the Dublin III regulation, “which has to be changed or removed”, null and void automatically.

Under the terms of this regulation: “Where it is established [...]that an applicant has irregularly crossed the border into a member state by land, sea or air having come from a third country, the member state thus entered shall be responsible for examining the application for international protection. That responsibility shall cease 12 months after the date on which the irregular border crossing took place.”

The Ministers of Justice and Home Affairs will also discuss establishing ‘hotspots’ in the countries of origin, transit or arrival (Middle East/Africa, the Balkans, Italy/Greece) to ‘sort’ the asylum seekers in advance.

The proposal is already causing divisions: the EU’s High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, has warned that to do this would require “enormous resources from our side”.

 

*Not their real names.