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167 squatters in limbo as authorities search for housing solution
167 squatters, the majority of whom are transit migrants, currently occupy an abandoned office building in Jette and neither the building’s owner nor the municipality knows what to do with them.
“Without alternative care, I don't want to put them on the street, but this is equally inhumane and dangerous,” said Ludo Van den Kerckhove, CEO of the non-profit organisation Action Damien which remains the legal owner of the building. The issue of where the homeless migrants should go has now been taken up by the municipality of Jette, the Brussels Capital Region and the federal government who are set to discuss the problem.
The first 15 squatters moved into a vacant Action Damien building in March. By the end of August, that number had risen to 90. Now the population inside has grown to 167. The fact that there has been no action taken to resolve the issue acts as a beacon to other homeless people who have swelled the numbers despite the unsafe living conditions within the building and an outbreak of COVID-19 amongst the squatters, five of whom have tested positive so far.
The building was bought by a developer at the start of the year, but the deed has yet to be signed meaning the property – much like those now living inside – remains in limbo. Until the deed is signed, it remains the property of Action Damien.
"In the meantime, we remain responsible", said Van den Kerckhove, "but the situation has completely grown over our head."
The 167 people are all single adult men, said Juliette Meunier, a member of Le Comité, a civic platform that was created at the start of the lockdown to help migrants from Brussels' Maximilian Park find shelter. She has been working as a mediator for the squatters since March. "We knew that about 40 people had moved into the building and immediately informed the owner, the police and the municipality of their presence," said Meunier.
Because of the moratorium on evictions during the corona crisis, Van den Kerckhove did not want to ask people to leave immediately. At that time there were only 15, he thought, even though Meunier claims there were 40 people squatting there. The Brussels-West police zone confirms that they have visited the building from time to time since March and that, in view of the moratorium, it has been decided to tolerate the inhabitants.
The squatters were told by the authorities that they constituted one ‘bubble’ and had to follow the necessary health measures. But by the time the moratorium expired at the end of August, the group was already a lot bigger. So, Action Damien asked Le Comité to resettle all residents by 11 September. It was then that some residents began to show symptoms of COVID-19.
“To make sure we wouldn't send anyone to the streets sick, staff from Doctors Without Borders came by to test seven residents with symptoms,” explains Meunier. “Five residents tested positive. They were quarantined for two weeks in a reception hotel and then returned.”
After that, the demand for voluntary departure was somewhat lost. Van den Kerckhove again urged the municipality to act, but in the meantime the inhabitants continued to flow in. Even Le Comité no longer has full control over who is staying there. Of the 167 people present, only 90 wanted to tell Meunier who they are. Of these, 60 people do not want to apply for asylum in Belgium. The remaining 30 did, but only two people were accepted. So, the others have been deported.
It was also revealed that some underage boys, between 11 and 13 years old, had been living there temporarily during the crisis, but they have since been moved into other places of care by Le Comité.
“Sometimes they really don't want to leave and become part of official structures,” said Meunier. “And during a pandemic, you don't put anyone on the street, period.” She wants to stress that the residents have organized themselves “incredibly well” and that they live together peacefully and conflict-free.
For the time being, Doctors Without Borders only wants to confirm that they were on the scene in September. “We have indeed identified COVID infections and seen that the building is not a healthy place for these people,” said their spokeswoman Céline Ronquetti. "We are now in talks with the municipality of Jette and with Doctors of the World to find a better solution together, both with regard to the pandemic and with the winter months ahead.”
Since moving in, the residents have reconnected the electricity themselves, but it remains an unsafe and unsanitary place, said owner Van den Kerckhove. "As the building was empty awaiting sale, the water and electricity supply were cut off,” he said. “The inhabitants have given themselves access to this themselves. It is now full of wires, exposed here and there with a fuse, on which kettles stand or mobile phones are charged,” he said. “If something goes wrong, there could be a fire, or someone could get electrocuted.”
Van den Kerckhove now feels he has his back against the wall. His insurer wants to stop the policy for the building by the end of this month if there is no solution. “I can't help but apply for eviction, because imagine an accident happening,” he said. “On the other hand, we remain a humanitarian NGO. My staff insists that there should be a humane alternative to take care of them.” The non-profit organisation has now issued an ultimatum to the municipality of Jette: they want a concrete solution to the situation.
On Monday, Jette mayor Hervé Doyen held a video conference with the police, the Public Centre for Social Welfare, the cabinets of Brussels minister-president Rudi Vervoort, health minister Alain Maron, housing secretary Housing Nawal Ben Hamou and the homeless shelter Bruss'Help. The results of that meeting are yet unknown.
The mayor hopes that the cabinet of federal secretary of state for asylum and migration Sammy Mahdi will also become involved.
Personally, Doyen only sees himself as a mediator. “The owner has never applied for eviction, so no legal proceedings have been initiated yet,” said the mayor. “The police and the prosecutor's office can't do anything yet. And neither can we as a municipality because it is a private building.”
The complex position Action Damien finds itself in is partly due to a lack of clear alternatives for the squatters in Brussels. According to Meunier, some residents arrived after the evacuation of another squat, the former gendarmerie barracks in Elsene, at the end of August. Others were even tipped off about the Jette squat by the police in Maximilian Park. “At least three residents have been forwarded on the recommendation of a police officer,” said Meunier. The Brussels-Ixelles police zone, responsible for the Maximilian Park, states that they are not aware of this.
Meunier said that the discussions which have been taking place since the send of September have come very late. “The municipality and the police had known about this situation since March and yet Minister Alain Maron was not involved until September,” she said. “That's way too late in the context of this whole story.”