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Stories from Parc Maximilien (II)

“Refugee trends” and beauty contests

The Belgian federal government asks for the evacuation of the Maximilien Parc camp. Politicians accuse each other of permissiveness. Volunteer say alternative offered by the administration is an “excuse to say they are doing something”.

AUTHOR Joëlle Philippe BRUSSELS 22 SEPTEMBER 2015 10:08 h GMT+1
maximilien park, refugees, br A view of the entrance of the Maximilien park camp. During the day it is open to everyone. The sign says: “We accept no donations anymore for now. Please follow our demands posted on Facebook. Thank you”. / J. Philippe

“Everybody is now humanitarian”, complained the Deputy Prime Minister of Belgium Alexander De Croo in an interview for Le Soir, the main francophone newspaper, on Sunday 13 September.

“Let’s see who gives more”, as he alluded to the post of the minister of education on her blog, calling for solidarity, to the offerings of a Flemish organization to give work to the refugees and of course, to the amount of volunteers flooding on Parc Maximilien.

Maybe there is some truth in the reproaches of Mr. De Croo; everybody seems to be showing off on social media about what they have been doing for the asylum seekers.


A group of asylum seekers resting at mid-day. Behind them the slogan says: “Without papers and refugees are the same: a problem of papers”. / J. Philippe

In addition, the crisis is the perfect political opportunity to criticise the adversary. Théo Francken, the Secretary of State for Migration, accuses the refugee camp of being a “stronghold for left-wing activists” who “manipulate refugees for their political gain”.

Mr. Francken, probably feeling attacked on several fronts, is also in an open (verbal) conflict with the mayor of Brussels, Yvan Mayeur whom he accuses of looking away and of permissiveness. Mr. Mayeur, socialist, accuses the right-wing Federal Government of not doing its job.

The Belgian Prime Minister, Charles Michel, was worried about the dimension of the conflict and summoned them both for dialogue last week.



Mr. De Croo explained in the same interview that the government is actually doing something: “If we only open 250 files a day it is because that is our maximum capacity to do our job well”. This has been said by other representatives in the government, especially by Mr. Francken, who was interviewed by Le Soir the next weekend, Sunday 20 September. After the file is open, the asylum seekers are relocated and taken in charge, although they still often have to wait for some days until they are hosted.


The main “street” of the Maximilien park camp. There is a volunteer welcome desk, a legal “department” and a translation desk. / J. Philippe

The government is a bit ashamed of what is going on in Parc Maximilien. “It looks more like a market or a music festival”, said Mr. De Croo and he deplored the fact that the refugees refused to sleep in the space offered in a WTC tower.

Five hundred people can be hosted there but apparently they were only allowed to go during the night. Another objection was the fact that there were no toilets and no meals served. Asylum seekers prefer to stay in the park where there are activities, a football pitch, and, yes, it looks like a market rather than a dormitory.

Last week, however, it rained. As the tents were sinking deep into the mud, some refugees decided to get into the WTC tower, which is now open day and night, has showers and meals are served.

But the tower is far from being full. Privacy is another reason: the tents provide individual hosting. Families sleep together in big tents, and single men have their own. “We have to realize that they often come from different cultures, background and even religion”, says Maryam, a volunteer who speaks Arabic. “They do not want to share their intimacy with others”.

In any case, Mr. De Croo was adamant: when an alternative is provided, it should not be refused and he pointed at Mr. Mayeur.

“The city Council is responsible for public order”, said Mr. De Croo. “It is not worthy of a European capital, the camp should be evacuated”.

Mr. Francken, for his part, has been repeating the same over and over: they are looking for more places to receive people, although so far only the WTC tower has been opened and this past weekend several families have arrived to the camp.



Max, one of the main responsible on the camp now, seems to agree with Mr. De Croo. They simply have different ideas on how the camp should be evacuated. Max is really professional in his management tasks and these past days he has been trying to put trained people in logistics positions while he has taken almost all the external communication tasks: “It is my third refugee camp this year; I have been in Palestine twice”. In his “normal” life he works as a spokesperson, which explains his ability to answer in length to my questions.

For him, the WTC tower is not a solution, because the conditions are not good enough and insists on the fact that the government is not listening to them. “The WTC is an excuse to say they are doing something”.


: A volunteer translator being interviewed by a Belgian reporter. The media have general been supportive of the camp. / J. Philippe

Some media (and people on social media) start to say that the camp is not evacuated because now it is also hosting homeless people and migrants who could not apply for asylum, since they come from “safe” countries and would be considered as economic migrants.

Max concedes that it is hard to make the difference between migrants and refugees. “The fact is they are here, and we need to take care of them”, but “in two weeks we should not be here anymore”. Max talks of practical reasons: “We have no more space to safely receive more refugees; there should be room between tents! And since the camp is not legal, there is no insurance for any of the volunteers. What if an accident happens?”

“We have invited Francken to come to the camp” says Yohan, a young guy in his thirties with a beard who is from the lobbying group, “he said ok”. That was days ago. He laughs bitterly and adds: “He is waiting for a political opportunity”.

Read the first article of this series: “Before winter starts”




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