More than 34,000 people are members of the Facebook group Plateforme Citoyenne, which seeks to find shelter for migrants sleeping rough in Brussels. Each night, hundreds of volunteers from the group come to Maximilien Park to help coordinate homestays for the migrants there. Some of the volunteers host people in their guest rooms or on their couches. Others offer migrants a lift to a shelter. But this citizen movement has drawn the ire of the government, which has a tough policy on migrants.
Since large numbers of migrants started coming to Europe in 2015, Maximilien Park, which is located in the centre of Brussels, has become a meeting place for people on the move. Some migrants go to the park after filing asylum claims in a nearby government office. For others, who have their hopes set on a life in the United Kingdom, Brussels is just a stop and the park is a place to rest before attempting to sneak onto a truck bound for Britain.
The number of migrants in Brussels has been rising since October 2016, when French authorities dismantled the sprawling migrant camp known as the “Jungle” in Calais, which is located about 200 kilometres from the Belgian capital.
Every evening, the migrants in Maximilien Park are joined by a handful of volunteer organisers, about 20 drivers and around 100 hosts who are hell-bent on making sure that no migrant sleeps rough. Each night, they usually manage to help around 400 migrants find a warm place to sleep.
About 120 migrants a night stay in a dormitory run by Plateforme Citoyenne. The dormitory is about a 15-minute walk from the park and offers migrants a hot meal and a shower. The building is provided for free by the city of Brussels, while food and other expenses are paid for through donations.
The other 280 migrants end up sleeping as guests in private homes around the city.
"In France, people gave me the finger. But here in Belgium, no refugee sleeps in the streets”
Hassan W. (not his real name), 37, fled his home country of Sudan in 2016 after his entire family died when his home was bombed. Now he is trying to reach England. He says that French people treated him terribly while he was in France.
I crossed many different countries – Libya, Italy and France – before coming here. In those other countries, people didn’t like us migrants. When I was walking next to the road in France, people stopped to give me the finger. Here, in Brussels, no refugee [that comes to Maximilien Park] sleeps rough.
I’ve met four different Belgian families and I’ve stayed in contact with all of them. They were all really kind. When I go to their homes, they give me dinner and tea. They let me take a shower, wash my clothes and sleep. Often, we talk or cook or watch TV together.
Right now, I have a problem with my eyes that was caused by police tear gas [Editor’s note: On multiple occasions, the Belgian police have gone to the park to carry out mass arrests of migrants]. The woman who I am staying with tonight is going to help me go to see a doctor. There are many people like her and it is really heartwarming.
Hassan was staying with a Belgian woman named Nanou B. for two nights.
"Tonight, I have to go to choir practice, but he can stay at home no problem. I trust him completely,” she said.
"We give them our spare keys”
For the past few weeks, our Observer Sophie Villiers has been hosting at least one guest per night in her home in Namur, which is 70 kilometres from Brussels.
At first, I was just a member of the Facebook group. I wanted to participate, but my husband was sceptical. He said that he couldn’t let strangers into our home just like that.
When we heard that migrants had been rounded up by the police right in front of volunteers in October, we decided that it was time to help. At first my husband volunteered as a driver. Then we started to host someone once every three weeks. But for the past month we’ve hosted someone every night.
We have three children. Our eldest is 8. He asked to visit the park for himself and then asked us to do more to help. In general, the children really become attached to our guests.
Now, almost every evening, my husband drives to the park around 10pm. He drops off migrants with other families and gets back to our home around midnight with our guest.
We started up a little routine. We stock our spare room with supplies to make tea, sugar and dried fruit. We also leave out soap and other personal care items. When our guest arrives, we offer him something to drink and chat for a bit if he isn’t too tired. We also tell him he is free to use our shower and run a load of laundry. I usually let them sleep until about noon, when I have to go to work.
We let some of our regular guests stay at home, with or without the children. We’ve given some of them a spare key.
“For now, it is still legal in Belgium to host an undocumented migrant”
Yoon Daix is one of the most committed members of the Plateforme Collective. Several nights a week he is responsible for coordinating sleeping arrangements for the migrants.
I live about 15 minutes from Maximilien Park. In 2015, when the migration crisis really began, it was terrible to see what was going on.
I cleaned out half of my closets and I went to the park to hand out clothes. I also hosted a Syrian couple in my home. I loved the experience – it was extraordinary, fun and full of emotion.
It’s like I have a double life. During the day, I have a full-time job as a manager at a call centre. Every evening I’m at Maximilien Park, organising homestays.”
The excitement around our movement surprised us a lot. I think it is, in part, because it is still legal to offer shelter to undocumented people in Belgium, unlike in many other countries in Europe.
Our government tends to be very right wing and conservative, especially about migration policy. Many people want to show their opposition to these policies in a concrete way. It’s Belgians’ way of showing that they don’t agree.
Some of the momentum from the Brussels movement is spreading to France. An initiative called the Migraction network has started to spring up in the northern French towns of Calais and Lille. Members of the network say that they took inspiration from the Belgian movement and now try to organise weekend homestays for migrants.