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Opinion: Schaerbeek refugee squat is an example of self-organisation and civil commitment

Demonstration in support of refugees in Brussels - Belga
18:02 20/12/2022
Belgian philosopher and activist Lieven De Cauter calls for the federal government to “wake up” and respect asylum seekers’ human rights

Palais des Droits is a squat in Rue des Palais in Brussels, home to 700 asylum seekers over the past six weeks. They have the right to live in Belgium as they’re in possession of document ‘annexe 26’, but the state is not providing them with accommodation. They have filed a class action complaint with the European Court of Human Rights, which has already condemned the Belgian state.

This is symptomatic of the refugee crisis becoming a permanent problem, and some see it as a conscious policy of failure aimed at appeasing right-wing voters. The situation is becoming quietly precarious. There are cases of scabies, tuberculosis and diphtheria among residents. If the squat was to be vacated, it is feared that these health conditions would spread.

However, this squat is not only a humanitarian disaster and an epidemiological risk, but also a small miracle. The some 700 people who are legally entitled to receive shelter from the Belgian state and are left to their own devices, have been organising themselves. Even though the conditions are extreme and the number of residents is staggering, everything is going reasonably well. That in itself is impressive.

A number of NGOs, such as Refugee Council Flanders and Doctors of the World are also involved and helping those most in need. Additional food and medical care is provided at the Hub, a site near Tour and Taxis that’s also home to the Red Cross, established in the aftermath of the infamous Maximilian Park refugee camp at North train station in 2015.

Meanwhile, a citizens' collective of around 50 people, who call themselves Les amis du Palais des Droits, are helping where they can. They’ve found plumbers who managed to get water running and heating working for free. Given the recent winter temperatures, this was excellent news.

The group is also in contact with the listed building’s architect and contractor. Designed by the famous Art Deco architect Michel Pollack, until some years ago it housed the tax authorities. Left vacant since then, it was due to be fitted out to accommodate 500 Ukrainian refugees. But in the meantime, asylum seekers from Burundi and then Afghan, urgently needed shelter.

There was talk that they would be would evicted on 19 December, but both the mayor of Schaerbeek, Cecile Jodogne, and Rudi Vervoort of the Brussels regional government, stated that they will not evict until an alternative is found.

Let's hope the federal government finally wakes up and takes its responsibility. Indignation about human rights in Qatar is hypocritical if we do not respect human rights in our own country.

Update: Belgium’s secretary of state for asylum and migration Nicole de Moor announced on Sunday that a first group of asylum seekers could leave the Rue des Palais site for the Fedasil refugee centre in Glons, Liège province.

This is an opinion piece that reflects the author’s own views.

Photo: Demonstration in support of asylum seekers by the citizen platform BelRefugees in Brussels, September 2022 © Belga/Antony Gevaert




Written by Lieven De Cauter