A tent village of refugees hoping for a fresh start has sprung up in Brussels, the capital of the European Union, where ordinary people are helping out in place of largely absent Belgian authorities.
It is basic but works – a young Iraqi man gingerly holding a bandaged hand waits to be seen by doctors, while two concerned citizens unload nappies from the back of a car for babies in the camp.
Some 300 tents of all shapes and sizes have been put up in Maximilien Park in the shadow of shining new office blocks, not far from the gritty Gare du Nord area where prostitutes ply their trade and drug addicts look for their next fix.
It’s not pretty but it’s much better than the dangers faced in Syria or Iraq where civil war and turmoil have killed hundreds of thousands, and forced millions more to risk life and limb on a perilous journey to Europe.
“If Belgium decides to send us back to Iraq, my wife and I, we have decided to kill ourselves,” one man told AFP.
Trained as an engineer in Baghdad, married to a psychologist, the clearly nervous man in his thirties prefers not to give his name. He hopes to win refugee status, giving him the documents and security needed to plan a new life.
Like hundreds of men, women and children who have turned up here, he has found sanctuary in the camp which does not seem so grim in the bright sunshine of early autumn.
Long wait for asylum
Just two miles (three kilometres) away are the gleaming glass and steel headquarters of the European Union, where suit-wearing bureaucrats have spent months failing to come up with a solution to the worst refugee crisis since World War II.
In the meantime the refugees – who have come from Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Eritrea and Afghanistan – are left to wait. It can take up to five days to submit their asylum application to the “Foreigners’ Office” set up by Belgian authorities.
The office can only deal with 250 people a day, meaning that those turned away without a place to stay have little option but to hang around the station or the small park in the hope of better luck next time.
At first, local people came to provide food or a tent on an ad hoc basis but they then got organised, setting up a “citizens’ platform” on Facebook which now counts some 18,000 members. It took them only a few days to put up the tent village.
They then set to work distributing food and clothing; put together a medical post and a kitchen, as well as offering help and advice to the endless flow of new arrivals.
Families with children drop by to bring toys and food, or to offer a helping hand.
“I even saw a man in a suit and tie emptying the rubbish bins,” said Zained, a Belgian of Iraqi origin who acts as an interpreter in the camp.
Government response ‘shameful’
“I am proud to see how quickly all this was organised but I am outraged too,” said local man Jean Pletinckx.
“To see a refugee camp here, that is for countries which do not have the resources to cope. It is the last thing we should be seeing in Europe,” Pletinckx told AFP.
In the face of such criticism, reflected in the media, the government was forced into action.
Theo Francken, deputy minister in charge of immigration, announced the authorities would provide 500 camp beds in an office block near the Foreigners’ Office.
But this emergency centre is open only at night, has no washing facilities and people are not allowed to eat there.
“It is totally inadequate and shameful,” Pletinckx said.
Since opening on Monday, only about 20 people have used it each night, prompting the right-wing Francken to berate refugees who he said “prefer their luxury tents” and only make constant demands.
His blunt words enraged opposition parties and supporters of the refugees. Indifferent to the uproar, a Syrian woman who left the Syrian port city of Latakia a month ago and has just arrived in Brussels ponders the future as she sits on a bench in Maximilien.
“Here, you feel that there is some humanity,” she smiles, recounting how in Greece she was separated from her two sons, aged 18 and 21, who were fleeing compulsory service in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army.
The reception “is fantastic,” she says, expressing the hope she will be reunited with her sons in the coming days.