The platform for Belgium's international community

Search form

menu menu
  • Daily & Weekly newsletters
  • Buy & download The Bulletin
  • Comment on our articles

Migrant city: How has a long history of migration shaped Brussels?

21:31 29/07/2018
From 19th-century political exiles to Brits fleeing Brexit, the history of Brussels is also the story of immigrants. How does the capital give voice to those arrivals?

Think of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world, and hubs like Paris, London or New York probably spring to mind. Brussels? Not necessarily. And yet, with 184 nationalities represented in the capital – there are just under 200 states recognised by the United Nations – it’s the world’s second most cosmopolitan city after Dubai.

It was this striking fact that motivated last winter’s compelling exhibition Brussels: A Safe Haven? at the city’s Jewish Museum, which had previously been closed following a deadly terrorist attack in May 2014. “For us it was very important to reopen with an exhibition as universal, and topical, as possible,” says historian and curator Bruno Benvindo. “We wanted to remind people that the history of Jewish immigration is also the history of foreigners in general.”

A world city

Since Belgium gained independence in 1830, Brussels has morphed from the capital of Brabant to a thriving world city. A recurring theme: the ambiguous response to asylum-seekers. “The 1831 constitution was considered one of the most liberal in Europe, and throughout the 19th century Belgium had a reputation for openness,” explains Benvindo. But despite welcoming political exiles like Karl Marx and French citizens fleeing the Paris Commune, fewer than 4,000 foreigners obtained Belgian nationality between 1831 and 1910. “At the same time those foreigners were considered suspect, fuelling new surveillance techniques like fingerprinting,” says Benvindo.

Initially limited to those from neighbouring countries like England and France, immigrants’ birthplaces have gradually grown more exotic. “The Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB) was a motor that really attracted foreign communities like the Chinese, but also Brazilians and South Africans,” says Benvindo. Yet while the ULB, founded in 1834, actively courted foreigners, they weren’t encouraged to remain – their diplomas provided less access to the labour market than Belgians enjoyed.

During the inter-war period, persecution was a major catalyst, with the arrival of refugees fleeing authoritarian regimes in Spain and Italy, and Jews escaping anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe (some would be deported to camps like Auschwitz under the German occupation of World War Two). Numbers grew again owing to the post-war labour shortage. “Belgium had to be reconstructed, and there was a need for labourers to do jobs Belgians didn’t want to do,” explains Benvindo. “Conventions were signed with Greece, Spain and Italy, as well as Morocco and Turkey.”

That general trend has largely continued since the 1970s: as well as welcoming those fleeing military regimes in Latin America, the birth of the EU has ushered in the arrival of bureaucrats, Eastern Europeans taking advantage of their right to free movement and, in the past few years, Brits fearing the fallout of Brexit. Since 2012, however, amid a climate of fear surrounding migration, immigration numbers have steadily fallen. Tightened visa rules have particularly affected family reunification, with the refusal rate for such applications hitting 63% in 2016.

Getting beyond these statistics and giving migrants a voice was one aim of Brussels: A Safe Haven?, with curators digging through the State Archives to piece together individual destinies – and dedicating one third of the exhibition space to video interviews with immigrants today. “‘The migrant’ doesn’t exist,” explains Benvindo. “If you say ‘migrant’ today you might think of an Iraqi refugee, but it could also be a woman born in Poland who comes here to work at the European Commission. What’s interesting too is to see which nationalities are represented in Brussels. If you asked someone in the street, few would say the French are the most numerous, but there are far more French people than Moroccans in Brussels today.”

Enter the Eurocrats

The EU’s effect on the city’s demographic is immense. “At the start, 300 eurocrats arrived here,” says social scientist and Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) professor Eric Corijn. “Now there are nearly 40,000 people working for the EU. If you calculate the spin-offs, and that these people fall in love sometimes, there are more than 200,000 people in Brussels because of that institution.”

For Corijn, documenting such radical population shifts – through a dedicated museum – is a necessity. The idea actually had bipartisan support back in 2001 as a counterpoint to a European history museum, with Tour & Taxis earmarked as a site. But while the House of European History opened to acclaim in the European quarter in 2017, charting ‘the search for a better life in an increasingly united Europe’, the immigration museum has dropped off the radar. The current climate is seemingly more amenable to an emigration museum like Antwerp’s Red Star Line, with its focus on those leaving for America.

Time is running out, however. “From a purely museological point of view, the first generations of recent migrants after World War Two are old,” says Corijn. “If you want testimonies, you have to do it now. The same goes for the Turkish and Moroccan labour immigrants, and the first EU expats, who are all retired now.”

The stranger is the solution

More positively, in 2017, to mark the city’s diverse make-up, Visit Brussels held a themed year of events and exhibitions under the Mixity banner, including the Jewish Museum show.

There are, Corijn admits, big obstacles to creating an inclusive storyline for Brussels: as first- or second-generation immigrants, large swathes of the population have no direct Belgian references, while Brussels itself is caught between the monolingual Walloon and francophone regimes. Yet it’s this rich profusion of origins and languages that makes up the super-diverse city’s fabric – and could help to position the European capital as a global node, avoiding problematic notions of nationhood. “That’s why I’d prefer a museum of diversity to a museum of immigration,” says Corijn. “For me the stranger is not the problem; the stranger is the solution.”

Brussels by numbers

  • Around 30% of the Brussels population are foreign nationals 
  • 184 nationalities living in Brussels, second only to Dubai
  • 60% of foreign nationals come from one of the 27 other EU member states
  • 100,000 Brussels citizens with residents’ cards arrived within the past three years 
  • 100,000-150,000 estimated undocumented migrants across the whole of Belgium

This article first appeared in The Bulletin Spring 2018

Written by Clodagh Kinsella