“It’s not ‘we don’t need’ or ‘we cannot handle’, it’s ‘we don’t want’.”
On Saturday morning 21 March, I read the following on the twitter feed of Alain Maron, the Brussels minister for social integration and health: “#Transmigrants without housing are particularly exposed to the #corona pandemic. A housing solution was urgently required!” He triumphantly announced a two-tier solution: a Brussels hostel would make available 120 beds and citizen-run shelter La Porte d’Ulysse would start welcoming 350 people both during the day and at night.
Since then, the Brussels municipalities of Etterbeek and Forest have also requisitioned hotels and relief organisations Samusocial, Doctors without Borders and the Red Cross will together soon provide about 184 beds for people without homes who suffer coronavirus symptoms. This is all great news indeed — due mainly to the admirable efforts and investments of private individuals and NGOs. But what good is a couple of hundred places when thousands of people in Brussels are estimated to lack a roof over their head, their living conditions making them particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus?
On Friday 13 March, a day before federal measures came into force to stop the spread of COVID-19 in Belgium, Doctors of the World already warned that these measures were utterly incompatible with the reality of people who simply do not have a home in which to self-quarantine. On Tuesday 17, Le Petit-Château, the Brussels registration centre for asylum seekers closed until further notice. Since then, people wishing to apply for asylum in Belgium can no longer register. No emergency accommodation was provided.
Organisations such as the NGO coalition 11.11.11, Amnesty International Flanders, Human Rights League Belgium, socio-cultural movement Orbit, the Anti-Poverty Network and Flemish Refugee Action denounced a government which “in these uncertain times abandons vulnerable people like asylum seekers and the homeless, while at the same time calling on the general public to show solidarity with each other.”
Because nobody can currently be deported, on Thursday 19 March the Belgian Immigration Office decided to remove 300 people from detention centres. Once again, no emergency accommodation was provided. The same day, Brussels police, assisted by dogs, chased about 100 people without housing from the Maximilien Park for violating the assembly ban. Volunteers were fined for offering accommodation and distributing food.
After several years of research into EU border and mobility management, I am no longer surprised by the lack of political realism and decisiveness when it comes to people whom the state does not recognise as citizens (and who therefore are not entitled to civil rights, but only to non-binding ‘universal human rights’). Western countries like Belgium have a long history of cloaking such impotence under a veil of humanitarianism.
The reports of the 1938 Évian Conference speak volumes. This very first ‘refugee summit’ in Europe took place a couple of months before the November Pogroms of 1938, which saw hundreds of Jews murdered and thousands of Jewish houses, stores, synagogues and cemeteries destroyed. At the conference, all delegates first bent over backwards to recount the lamentable fate of German and Austrian Jews, only to later explain in the finest detail why their countries were currently not in a position to accept refugees.
A headline in the Nazi newspaper Völkischer Beobachter sneered: “Keiner will Sie haben” [Nobody wants them]. 80 Years later this headline echoed through a scarcely candid interview I did with an anonymous asylum and migration official working for an EU institution: “We no longer want those refugees. It’s not ‘we do not need’ or ‘we cannot handle’, it’s ‘we don’t want’.”
The overcrowded camps, the bilateral agreements with authoritarian regimes and the condoning of illegal pushback operations are no aberrations, but precisely the core of our EU border regime, in which violence and humanitarianism invariably go hand in hand.
In this respect, the Belgian federal and regional governments’ calls for ‘heart-warming solidarity’ among citizens do not contradict their utter lack of adequate care for people whom they do not recognise as citizens. This hyper-selective interpretation of the notion of ‘solidarity’ again became blatantly clear to me when I tried to register as a volunteer via the recently launched platforms ‘Flandershelps’ and ‘Brusselshelps’.
However indispensable, most categories of volunteer work available are reminiscent of the middle-class sentimentalism that permeates social media these days – from balcony operettas (which require a balcony to begin with) and window applause in support of aid workers (whose work has been all but economised out of existence) to self-reflexive isolation diaries (authored in a second residence in the countryside). On ‘Brusselshelps’, the category of voluntary work that is at the forefront today with over 450 subscriptions is the walking of dogs whose Brussels owners can momentarily not leave their homes.
Nowhere does the webpage mention the people who queued up in vain at a closed registration centre, who were chased from a public park or removed from a detention centre. When will we, as citizens and governments, start showing genuine solidarity and take full responsibility for the situation? Or are we really going to wait until it explodes into the next humanitarian crisis?
Until we can once more fill our newspapers with the paralysing, lamentable images of the endless suffering of people?
People who — we fail to recognise — are not wandering around homeless in Brussels for some abstract, contextless reason.
People whose fate — we fail to recognise — is inextricably linked to ours, through our colonial histories and the postcolonial power relations that inform our EU border policies and international visa policies.
People who — we fail to recognise — are on the losing end of a structural inequality which we collectively maintain in these times of ‘heartwarming solidarity’.
Thomas Bellinck is artist and doctoral researcher at KASK / School of Arts of University College, Ghent.
This article was originally published in dutch on the 26th of March 2020 on Knack.be.
UPDATE 31/03/2020: Since this text first appeared, another Brussels hotel has made available 250 more beds, while the Government of the Brussels-Capital Region has now earmarked €4 million to temporarily support the homeless sector.
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