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  • Writer's pictureRory O'Keeffe, Koraki

Fiddling while cities collapse – ignoring reality creates imaginary ‘refugee and reception crises'

One thing the EU and UK are not short of is empty properties. In fact, from houses and shops to factories and office blocks, buildings sit idle while people are forced to sleep on our streets and governments complain of ‘refugee crises’. In Brussels, a tent city sprawls across the city streets. It is merely the latest example of how we are allowing ignorance and lack of imagination to cause people to suffer.

A tent ‘city’ in central Brussels has grown from 30 to more than 150 tents after Belgian police decided to raid and ‘close’ a squat in which several families and individuals were sleeping.

It is far from clear why the police undertook this act, especially in February, when everyone in Belgium is well aware that the country is experiencing what is (actually incorrectly) referred to as a ‘reception and accommodation crisis’ for refugees.

It is of course a self-inflicted ‘crisis’ if it is one at all: there are more than enough empty buildings in Brussels alone to shelter the men, women and children who have arrived in Belgium seeking safe places to live, learn and work. But the police are sent to force people who have found one of them onto the streets.

If it were not so obvious what is going on – the prioritisation of ownership of unused buildings over the health and lives of actual people, probably combined with at least some desire to ‘discourage’ people from attempting to flee persecution and death – one would be forgiven for asking what the hell is happening, and how.

The ‘city’ begins at the entrance to the Petit Chateau, where there is an office of the Belgian asylum service. Some of those staying in the tents have in fact been granted asylum but have been offered no place to stay.

The most recent squat to be emptied was at Paleizenstraat in Schaarbeek, and it is widely agreed that the conditions in this empty building were ‘unhygienic and unsafe’.

But the answer to this – as literally no-one seems to have mentioned so far – is surely to improve conditions in these empty buildings, so people can live there and they are not simply left to deteriorate and collapse, rather than forcing everyone in them onto the freezing cold streets and allowing that collapse to continue as before.

The Belgian government reports that it moved 160 people at the squat to a ‘reception centre’ but others note that while this may be true, the closing of the squat went so badly that ‘some blankets caught on fire’ and many people were left to find places to sleep on the street, even as their own possessions were locked inside the squat – effectively stolen from them, to be used by nobody.

Local residents and volunteers were forced to step in, in the end, and are the sole reason most of the people on the streets were even able to sleep in tents.

Flemish Refugee Action reports that there are currently 3,000 people waiting for places in reception centres (in fact, looking for any decent place to sleep). It notes that there are 581 municipalities in Belgium, meaning that if each agreed to take just five of those people, the ‘waiting list’ would be eliminated.

There is absolutely no decent reason why this – moving just five people into empty properties in each of Belgium’s 581 municipalities – has not already been done.

And while we have noted this in Brussels, because this is where the latest iteration of this situation has taken place, the Belgian capital, and indeed Belgium as a whole, is far from the only place this is true. In the UK, Greece, Spain, Italy, Germany, France, indeed in all European states, there is no ‘housing shortage’.

There are in fact more empty buildings than there are homeless people and refugees combined – we could give each of them an entire building each and have thousands of buildings left over.

Whether the reason we have not done so is lack of imagination, or lack of inclination, we must move soon to help people off our streets. And we must no longer simply accept it when a politician or campaigner claims there is a ‘crisis’ related to refugees and accommodation. There is neither.


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