Category Archives: Letter from Brussels

Stephen Dau writes from Brussels on the refugee crisis in Europe.

The Sum of Our Fears

By Stephen Dau

Abdul and his cousin, Raheem, sit in a bar in the Gare du Nord in Brussels, sipping tea and watching on wall-mounted televisions the ongoing, never-ending, ever-expanding coverage of last week’s shootings in Paris, in which gunmen and suicide bombers killed one hundred and twenty nine innocent people as they dined or watched a rock band or strolled down the street. This morning the police surrounded a building in St. Denis, north of Paris, and a televised gun battle has been raging for hours.

Abdul and Raheem are from Aleppo, in Syria, a city accustomed to gun battles, which has been largely destroyed during the civil war there. They won’t talk much about Syria, but they will say that they made it to Turkey early in the war, and worked there for years as laborers to earn enough money to pay smugglers to get them from Turkey to Greece, then onward, joining a stream of migrants heading to Northern Europe. They were lucky when they arrived in Brussels, and spent only two nights outside in a tent before being registered and admitted to a shelter run by the Red Cross.

Somewhere outside the train station a jackhammer starts up, and they both startle at the sound of it. After Paris, while much of the world stares at screens with some vague, hypothetical fear of gunmen storming wherever they’re “sheltering in place,” Abdul and Raheem are possessed of the much more palpable fear of the xenophobic backlash everyone seems to know is coming.

“Europe doesn’t want us,” says Abdul. “Not now. They say one of (the gunmen) had a Syrian passport, came through Greece. It is a betrayal. I cannot believe it. Someone who made that journey with us, who suffered what we did, and now he has betrayed all of us.” He nods his head toward the television. “America doesn’t want us, and these assholes want to kill us. We are fucked. Truly.”

Raheem says something in Arabic, and Abdul nods and translates.

“The guy who organized this, he is not from Syria,” he says. He points out the front of the train station. “He is from right over there.”

The “over there” he is pointing toward is Molenbeek, a neighborhood only a thousand meters away, across the canal that runs down the western side of Brussel’s city center. Because several of the Paris attackers lived in or spent time there, Molenbeek has suddenly been in the news a lot. The Washington Post called it a “Jihadi Hotspot.” Politico called it “Europe’s Terror Capital.” The New York Times called it “The Islamic State’s rear base.” In a bald-faced moment of open incitement, French journalist Eric Zemmour said, “Instead of sending our planes to Syria, we should bomb Molenbeek.”

But even a short walk around Molenbeek reveals these words, like so many words being used in the news these days, to be hyperbole. While there are rough patches of chipped plaster and unpainted windowsills, much of the neighborhood is quite pleasant, with tree-lined streets and impressive architecture and an abundance of public parks. Molenbeek, it turns out, is simply not that bad. The rate of violent crime in Molenbeek, while high by European standards, is still far below the averages of most major American cities. Pedestrians walking the sidewalks are composed of a wide range of ethnicities, with Africans and Asians and Caucasians in equal measure to the Moroccans and Algerians and Egyptians. There are halal butchers and Stella Artois bars. There are hookah joints and discotheques. There are girls wearing hijabs and girls wearing short skirts, and a few wearing both. What Molenbeek is, it readily becomes apparent, is a neighborhood of immigrants. It is a neighborhood possessed of varying degrees of acceptance and rejection of the local culture, various levels of assimilation. In this way, it is like any immigrant neighborhood in the world, any city’s Chinatown or Little Italy. It’s no wonder they hid out here, plotted here. They probably just felt comfortable.

If, as many of the media outlets seem to be saying, Molenbeek produces terrorists, it produces them only in the same way that South Boston produced Whitey Bulgar, or Little Five Points produced Al Capone. The difference is that rather than criminal enterprises bent on enrichment, this is a gang of jihadis that has subsumed religion in its nihilistic drive to impose sharia law on the world. It’s a religious mafia. But the dynamics are the same: the drive to escape poverty and humiliation; the local intimidation; and, occasionally, the admiration.

“I’m going to clean up Molenbeek,” said Belgium’s interior minister Jan Jambon the day after the Paris massacre, as if “cleaning up” Molenbeek would solve everything. As if Molenbeek was the problem. Molenbeek has become a kind of shorthand for what you do when you can’t do anything else.

This evening, in Molenbeek’s main town square, the Place Communal, about two thousand residents are trying to do something else. They have gathered for a peace vigil in response to the Paris attacks. The neighborhood’s name has been chalked onto the cobblestones, the “O” drawn as a peace sign, and the square is illuminated by hundreds of candles. At one point in the evening, Mohamed Abdeslam, the brother of two of the Paris attackers, steps onto his balcony, which overlooks the square, and places a row of lit candles in support of the rally.

One of the people gathered in the square below is Kareem, the son of immigrants from Morocco, who, like most residents, is not pleased with the neighborhood’s reputation.

“It’s like now we’re dirty, or something,” he says, switching fluidly back and forth between French and English. “Like we must be cleaned. And I say, if you want to clean us with good schools and jobs, go ahead. We need it. But if you want to clean us like garbage from your drains? Don’t be so insulting. Nor so blind.”

As for the militants who carried out the attacks in Paris?

“They are idiots,” says Kareem. “They come from nothing and they have nothing and they just want to be famous. You have the same thing in the United States, non? Idiots who get hold of guns and kill a lot of people.”

There’s something perversely comforting in thinking about it this way, something familiar, imagining Dylan Klebold supplied with money from pilfered oil and looted antiquities, imagining Seung-Hui Cho as the suicidal emissary of a rogue state. But this is what terrorism does: it forces you to search for comforting parallels, dares you not to throw your hands in the air and say, “We’re all fucked.”

“They think they can get famous by killing people in the name of Islam,” says Kareem. “They think they can force us to fight each other.” He looks around at the square, at the people gathered there, at the candles and the displays of solidarity and commiseration and grief.

“Look at all of this,” he says, shaking his head. “I am not sure. But I do not think that they are right.”

The Holdouts

By Stephen Dau

The refugee camp in the center of Brussels is nearly gone. The police have formed a cordon and are making preparations to clear it by force, should that prove necessary. They have erected a six-foot-tall wire fence around the entire park and are inviting the fifty or so people left inside the fence to leave. Outside the fence, a small crowd has gathered to watch the proceedings. From there, everyone can see how this is going to go. It’s almost over.

Inside the fence is a group of several dozen people who are called different things by different people, the words used saying as much about the categorizers as the categorized. They are homeless people, the at-risk, the sans-abri in French. They are the undocumented, the wrong-documented, the illegal immigrants, the aliens, the étrangers en situation irrégulière, the clandestin. They are the sans-papier. They have come to the park, and stayed in the park, to protest their situation, to demand regularization. Naturalization. Legalization. Amnesty. They have been present in the park from the beginning, and are vowing not to leave. The police are there to make sure they do.

In truth, the situation in the park had become untenable weeks ago. The onset of the Belgian rains had sparked an increase in the number of bronchial infections being treated in the Médecins du Monde facility. Rats had been spotted raiding the kitchen. The sans-papier had taken over a large area in the center of the camp. Prostitutes had begun strolling its fringes. There were at least two reports of rape.

Early last week, the Plateforme Citoyenne, the Facebook-organized group of volunteers which had set up the camp and had been running it since its inception, suddenly declared they were leaving. In a statement, the group said that it no longer wished to act as an “alibi for government inaction.” The statement said that nearby warehouse space had been acquired, into which the Plateforme’s operations were being moved.

The Plateforme had originally been created with a flat organizational structure that encouraged broad citizen participation. But over time it had become increasingly hierarchical, as a core group of volunteers spent vastly more time on the ground in the park and therefore commanded greater sway over the group’s actions. The decision to abandon the camp was made by a tiny clutch of insiders. Their announcement sparked an immediate backlash that threatened to split the group, with many volunteers declaring their intention to stay. It seemed to them as if the Plateforme was trying to become a real NGO, with office space and facilities and a distinct corporate culture, like Google for refugees. They smelled a sellout.

It had been obvious for some time that the city was planning to clear the camp, and may have given the Plateforme an ultimatum. Some even suspected that the warehouse space had been a quid-pro-quo in return for abandoning the park. The Plateforme, for its part, seemed eager to assure everyone that it was not giving up the fight, merely moving to better quarters. All this week a large whiteboard sat outside the administrative tent, reading, in French, Dutch, English and Arabic, “We don’t give up! We move…”

The effort to reduce the camp’s population began almost as soon as the camp itself began. From the start, as many women and children as could be accommodated were taken from the camp and housed in shelters, many run by Caritas, a Catholic relief charity. Additionally, five hundred beds were opened in a nearby office building, this number gradually increasing to about seven hundred and fifty and facilities added: showers, food. Together with the onset of the weather, these efforts gradually reduced the camp’s population from a high of over a thousand to about two hundred and fifty by early last week.

Beyond the health and safety concerns, there were security concerns. Access to the camp in the park was entirely unregulated, allowing anyone and everyone to come and go with ease. But to get into one of the shelters, you needed a paper given out by the Office for Foreigners when you registered there. This ensured that only “legitimate” refugees had access to the shelters.

An interesting notion, legitimate refugees.

Inside the fence, the camp’s population now includes about a dozen people who recently traveled to Europe in the mass migration from Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan, but whose asylum claims have been denied by the Belgian government. They began their journeys as refugees, arrived in Belgium as refugees, but with a single administrative act, a judgement rendered by a bureaucrat, they are now categorized, without recourse, as illegal immigrants. Sans-papiers. They are not permitted to work. They are not entitled to social benefits. From a legal perspective, they are non-entities. They do not exist. They join a substantial class of individuals in Belgium so situated, sometimes for multiple generations.

The refugee crisis has always been highlighted by a long-running tension between humanity and bureaucracy. Bureaucracies thrive on categorization, definition, and certainty, but the camp was begun in a display compassion, tolerance, and creativity. Humanity provided the foundational impulse behind the camp, but needed to invent a bureaucracy to administer it. While it’s probably an oversimplification to say that humanity created the camp and bureaucracy destroyed it, it’s also not too far from the truth.

Two days after the Plateforme announced they were leaving, they began to do so, putting out a call for two hundred volunteers to aid the effort. All day Tuesday lines of yellow-vested volunteers shuttled back and forth between the park and the newly acquired warehouse beside the canal. That night only a hundred and fifty people slept in the park. The next night it was down to about a hundred. Thursday morning a pair of bulldozers showed up and unceremoniously razed the kitchen, which had been painstakingly built over the course of the previous month from recycled palette wood. By noon nothing was left of the kitchen but two dumpsters loaded with debris, donated refrigerators lying on their sides beside them.

This morning a six-foot-high metal fence was erected around the entire park and everyone in it, save an eight foot gap that served as both an exit and an entrance. The park feels intimidating now, surrounded by a fence and a police cordon. It feels like a place you don’t want to go into. It feels like an arena, or a firing range, someplace better observed from a safe distance.

The police have given the holdouts until five o’clock to clear the park, while the police themselves have been given until seven to talk them out. After that they will be ordered to clear the park by force.

You have to feel for the police, especially in Brussels. More so than in other European capitals, they suffer abuse, and occasionally projectiles, hurled at them by innumerable protests and demonstrations. Just a week ago, dairy farmers from all over Europe converged on Brussels, using their tractors to clog the roads, hurling raw eggs at police in riot gear, and using combine harvesters to spray hay all over the ranks of policemen before setting the hay on fire. All this to protest low milk prices. A week later, the police will be pelted with paving stones and fight running street battles with a group of anarchists that infiltrates an anti-austerity rally.

Now, in the park, someone has found a megaphone and begins using it to shout in the faces of the police. A group of fifty holdouts marches over to the fence that separates them from the police cordon and begins singing protest songs. It has become a demonstration. The megaphone goes dead, so they continue chanting without it. Then someone gets it working again and the megaphone squawks to life. The songs begin anew, the chanting, the shouting, everyone trying to get everyone else fired up.

The operation to clear the park is an impressive example of restraint and de-escalation. None of the police officers is armed with anything more lethal than pepper spray, and even this is never used. Two canine units patrol at a distance, careful not to incite anyone by coming too close. At six o’clock the chief of police wanders into the enclosed area and speaks with the holdouts, who now number about fifty. In threes and fours they wander over and pick up their bags and file out through the opening left in the wire fence. For most of them, arrest would mean almost instant deportation. Unlike the dairy farmers, who wield the political power of their union, the sans-papiers are caught between their anger and their legal non-existence.

The chief of police spends more than an hour talking to the last few dozen people in the park. Person by person they begin picking up sacks and duffels and plastic shopping bags and filing out, leaving behind several tents and a plywood shack that last week housed Sans-Papiers Freedom Radio. The moment they’re out of the fence, two massive dump trucks roll in and city maintenance workers begin filling them with detritus.

“The park will be like new come morning,” says one of the police officers in the cordon.

By seven thirty it’s over. A place that a week ago contained hundreds of tents housing more than a thousand migrants, administrative offices, a medical facility, a radio station, storage areas and a working kitchen, are nothing more than trees, newly-planted grass, a packed stone path, a football pitch, and pigeons.

Outside the fence, the sans-papier and the homeless, the last group of holdouts, watches the dismantling of the camp with an air of resignation. The camp had been in the news nearly everyday for the past month. It had provided them with their own platform from which to air their grievances. For as long as the camp existed, they existed. Now, the camp no longer exists.

Someone in the group seems to remember he is holding a megaphone and flicks it on. He raises it to his lips and begins chanting. He is quickly joined by the rest. The sans-papier are here to stay. Someone unfurls a banner and it is held up in front of the group. It says “The sans-papier continue the fight.”

The police chief comes over and tells them they have to move along, now. It’s all over, he says. Time to go. As they begin moving away en masse, the megaphone strikes up a song, and they all join in. It’s another protest number. It echos from the surrounding high rises, follows them as they march down the street, lingers behind them as they head reluctantly away from the park, singing their song into the night.

Neither a Beggar nor a Borrower

By Stephen Dau

Ali sits in a tent with his brother-in-law, who we’ll call Ahmed, scrolling through photos on his mobile phone. He is stocky and well-built and looks like a former soldier, which, as it turns out, is what he is. He refuses the offer, again, of a cup of tea, just like he refused an offer to be taken out for breakfast earlier that morning.

“I am not a beggar,” says Ali.

Ahmed, sitting in the corner, doesn’t say anything.

After nearly a full minute of scrolling on his phone, Ali’s face lights up. He’s found the picture he’s been looking for. It’s a photograph of a piece of paper, a certificate that looks a lot like the one your child’s elementary school might send home after a spelling bee. Underneath Ali’s name, it says:

“Kellogg Brown & Root, operation mission Iraq, MHE Department, takes pleasure in presenting this certificate of appreciation in gratitude for your professionalism and dedication to duty.”

The word “professionalism” is misspelled.

Ali flips through pictures some more, holding up the phone every few seconds. He has certificates and letters of recommendation from several previous employers, including KBR, PAE, and Sallyport, a Michael Baker International Company. Mostly they look hastily typed or photocopied. But one stands out. It’s on letterhead from the US Embassy in Iraq, a confirmation of employment in the State Department’s General Services office, and says that Ali has been “an excellent employee while employed there.”

He keeps flipping through the photographs on his phone.

He has pictures of himself in an American-supplied uniform from the four years he spent with the Legion Security Force. He has pictures of himself in front of the mechanical diggers and excavators he operated for a variety of American companies in Iraq after leaving the LSF. He takes pleasure in presenting these certificates, these credentials, this proof.

Ahmed, sitting in the corner, still doesn’t say anything.

Rumors have been floating around the camp, and the latest one has Ali scared. He has heard that everyone from Baghdad is being sent back to there en masse. Baghdad has been declared safe. On the question of whether or not any particular refugee will be granted asylum, those from Baghdad appear to not have a chance.

“I’ll show you something else,” says Ali. He looks over at Ahmed and says something in Arabic. Ahmed nods a tired nod, as though reluctantly giving permission.

The pictures he holds up next are horrific. It’s Ahmed, but it’s not Ahmed at the same time. His face is beaten and nearly unrecognizable. There are cuts above his eyes. His arms are black from bruises, and massive welts and lacerations cover his back. One might be tempted to wonder what techniques could possibly create such injuries.

“This is what happens in the safety of Baghdad,” says Ali.

This morning Ali is going to the offices of the International Organization for Migration. The IOM administers a program that aids refugees who choose to voluntarily repatriate themselves. The program gives them a plane ticket and a small cash stipend of 250 euro. But rumors are rife in the park, and Ali has heard that the IOM might be able to help him get to America, which, after working for America and American companies for the past seven years, is where he really wants to go. He has an appointment at IOM for nine o’clock this morning. Although “appointment” might be too strong a word. One of the volunteers in the park has called the IOM and then told Ali, somewhat cryptically, that he needs to be there at nine sharp.

At the IOM office it is clear that Ali is not expected. Nonetheless, the people there are kind and generous and sit down and talk with him for the better part of an hour. They explain that, contrary to what he heard in the park, the voluntary repatriation program is the only one they run in Belgium. They appear to really want to help. But they work for an organization, after all, with a mission and goals and procedures, and there is little they can do outside its rubric.

Trying to offer something else, something helpful, they mention that there is another program that helps the US government screen potential asylum candidates, but that it is run out of Iraq.

“I know,” says Ali. “I applied for it. But all they tell me when I call to check is that I must wait, and it has now been two years.”

In addition to the horrific beating Ahmed received, Ali is scared because one of the leaders of the same local militia that beat his brother-in-law has stopped him several times on the street, the last time telling him that if he was ever seen there again, he would be killed.

So he left, taking the same route most of the asylum seekers have taken, through Turkey and across Greece and Macedonia and through Hungary and Austria and Germany and now to Brussels, where he has met up with his brother-in-law and another friend of theirs. The journey cost him five thousand dollars, much of it in fees paid to human traffickers. Only after arriving did he learn that the asylum process here can take months, even years. He has left behind a wife and two young children. Here are their pictures. Aren’t they beautiful?

“They don’t have any money,” he says, referring to his family, “and my wife is now sick. She just tells me yesterday.”

The people at IOM tell him that he might also be eligible for re-integration assistance, which could include job training and a stipend of up to two thousand dollars if he returns to Iraq. In response, Ali stares at the table top. He is a tough man, but it looks like he might cry.

“It is very dangerous,” he says. “Baghdad is very dangerous.”

A consensus is reached around the table that at this point Ali appears to have two options from which to choose: he can formally undertake the asylum application process in Belgium, which gives him a roughly ten percent chance of success, and which requires him to leave his young family to fend for themselves in Baghdad for what could well turn out to be years, or he can accept the offer of repatriation, which will get him a plane ticket back to Iraq this week, two hundred and fifty euro at the airport, and the possibility, but not the guarantee, of a stipend and job training.

Out on the street after the meeting, Ali is quiet. He stares at the ground as he walks. When he looks up he has tears in his eyes.

“I die four times every day I don’t see my kids,” he says. He shakes his head. “Tell me, if you were me, what would you do?”




Politics as Usual

By Stephen Dau

Working for an NGO is a little bit like running for elected office: no matter what high-minded goals you hoped to achieve, nor what level of idealism got you involved in the first place, you generally spend most of your time raising money. Crisis breeds opportunity; visibility equals funding. Donations to charitable organizations vary with the news cycle. To not have your name associated with a humanitarian event that is getting daily play on television is practically the equivalent of malfeasance.

The first turf battle to play out in the refugee camp in the center of Brussels came after only a few days, when SAMU Social, the social services organization that has been working with homeless, addicted and otherwise marginalized people in Brussels day in and day out for the past fifteen years, attempted to take over the operation of the camp from the Citizens Platform for the Support of Refugees, a group of ordinary citizens who had organized on Facebook and were by all measures doing a remarkable job of looking after the needs of the refugees in the park. Accounts of what actually happened on that Monday afternoon a few weeks ago vary. Some say there was merely a heated exchange between the two groups over who was running the show, others that there was nearly a fistfight. It was short lived, however, and today the two groups are working together in a cordial, if occasionally tense, relationship. They get along well enough that some of the Platform volunteers even work occasional shifts in the SAMU tent. It was a different story when Oxfam showed up a week in with, as one volunteer put it, “a few boxes of clothes and wanted to put up this huge sign at the front of the camp.” (Long story short: they didn’t.)

But such divisions among the organizations on site are minor when compared with the political faults this crisis has opened, both within Belgium and across Europe. Like tremors lighting up a seismograph, the refugee influx highlights and exacerbates fault lines that already exist.

Attempting to fully understand Belgian politics is a quagmire for the foolhardy, but suffice to say that the country is divided into a Dutch-speaking north (Flanders) and a French speaking south (Wallonia), and that the two populations don’t much like each other. The Platform volunteers in the park are overwhelmingly French-speaking. The Secretary of State responsible for asylum seekers and refugees belongs to a conservative Flemish separatist party (the New Flemish Alliance, or N-VA).

(Although the term “conservative” here is relative. One measure of how far to the right the United States is compared to Belgium, and much of Europe, is that one of the debates over immigration here currently revolves not around whether to give full citizenship status to people granted asylum, but whether to do so after four years of residency, as the N-VA proposes, or immediately, as the French Socialists want.)

The fireworks began pretty quickly. During the first week of the camp’s existence Belgium’s Deputy Prime Minister, who is Flemish, demanded that the mayor of Brussels, who is a French speaking socialist, clear the refugees out of the park immediately. The mayor replied, grandiosely, since it’s not what had been proposed, that he would never send in troops against the “people of the park.” The mayor of Antwerp, who is also the president of the N-VA, called the mayor of Brussels “totally incompetent,” to have let the camp develop in the first place, and said that the reason the park was not being cleared was that it had become a “hot bed of extreme left activists”. The mayor of Brussels responded that the entire crisis has been created because the federal government has not done its job, i.e. allowing only two hundred and fifty asylum seekers to register each day, and failing to provide sufficient shelter for the rest.

Political pyrotechnics aside, it has been pretty obvious from the beginning that Belgium, like all of Europe, has two options in response to this crisis: increase its capacity to take in refugees and process asylum claims or slough off numbers of refugees, whether by shipping them to other, more receptive EU countries or back to wherever they came from. They appear to be doing both. Belgium recently announced that it would grant asylum to a little more than four thousand asylum seekers in the coming year. But with anywhere from forty to fifty thousand migrants in the country, this represents an acceptance rate of less than ten percent, the remainder being shipped back to their countries of origin. Also, it was announced last week that accommodation for eight thousand migrants will be added to the 28 thousand already created since the summer, these to house refugees between the time they register their asylum claim and the time their petition is formally adjudicated, which can be anywhere from three months to a year. Generally, these people are housed in camps run by the Red Cross, often located near airports, presumably to enable speedy deportations once asylum status has been denied.

The federal government is making concerted moves to clear the park, not with the stick of sending in troops, but with the carrot of providing facilities superior to camping in tents, like showers, food and warmth. Now that the weather is setting in, more and more refugees are packing their hand-me-down belongings into donated blue Ikea bags and moving indoors. In addition to being better, in the long term, for the refugees themselves (a point even the Platform volunteers acknowledge) the move inside will benefit the Center-Right coalition government by denying the park as a rallying point for “radical leftists,” as the mayor of Antwerp recently put it, and making the refugee situation less public. The scale of the migration caught the politicians off guard, but they are beginning to recover.

Across Europe the divisions are starker. Turkey has built a series of state-of-the-art refugee camps along its border with Syria, featuring three-room units for each family, with electricity and running water and a fully stocked supermarket where the residents (they are more residents than refugees, there) shop with debit cards funded monthly by the Turkish government. But these camps are only for Syrians. The Iraqis in Brussels talk about the level of discrimination they faced in Turkey, where they are payed below-market wages and kicked out of apartments the moment higher-paying tenants are found.

In Greece, many citizens go out of their way to help refugees who make it ashore after the human-trafficker roulette of the sea crossing, tacitly ignoring a recently passed law making it illegal to aid migrants. But in Greece, no political party has benefitted from the influx of foreigners so much as Golden Dawn, a party whose official symbol is a repurposed swastika.

Immediately to the north of Greece, Macedonia seems to be aware that all the refugees want to do is cross it, and seems to be facilitating that procession as rapidly as possible. Hungary probably understands that transit is all that is being sought from it, too, but has a grandstanding president who seems determined to make examples. (Many refugees in the camp in Brussels say that the people of Hungary are actually pretty nice. It’s only the government and the military and the border police and the roving bands of criminals who stalk the forests mugging those who have money and beating those who don’t who are mean.)

Serbia, too, seems to understand that it is simply an area of land to be traversed, but just can’t seem to help itself, and is impishly sending refugees the long way round, via its old adversary Croatia, as though playing a game of human hot potato. “We are like water,” said one refugee on the Serbian border with Hungary, “when we encounter a rock, we flow around it.”

Croatia, for its part, briefly stuck its head up over the dike last week and opened its border like a spillway, allowing migrants to pass unchecked around Hungary. But just as quickly, it realized the flow was a tsunami, and ducked back behind a dam of border controls.

Austria, for those refugees fortunate enough to make it there, is acting as a distribution center, the O’Hare Airport of this hub-and-spoke network, taking in and then sending on thousands of asylum seekers to France, Belgium, The Netherlands, and especially Germany. Germany. It’s where everyone wants to go who hasn’t wound up somewhere else. Germany recently announced that it would process eight hundred thousand asylum applications this year alone, and would take in up to half a million asylum seekers each year for the next five years. Germany, they all say. They want to go to Germany.

Germany is exorcizing its demons.

The refugees in the park seem to be excruciatingly aware of the geopolitics. Apparently the first group of them, the occupants of those fifteen lonely tents pitched in the park the beginning of September, wound up in Brussels purely by chance, their traffickers liking the odds here better, or blocked off from some other, preferred route, or simply running low on fuel and paranoid. Then that first group of arrivals radioed back down the line, FaceBooking and emailing and Twittering the under-ways and the yet-to-embarks that they were being received amicably, and the faucet was opened. But now they closely monitor the news, weigh options, plan contingencies.

But how great is the flow? It’s the question posed incessantly by the conservatives, the xenophobes, and the Prime Minister of Hungary. Will we not soon be inundated? The Muslim population of Europe now stands at about four percent of the total population. If Europe were to accept every single refugee currently seeking asylum on the continent, the total Muslim population of Europe would rise to about five percent. On such fine political and demographic calculations hinge, apparently, the political future of the European Union.

Simon Says

By Stephen Dau

This is the fourth in a series of “letters” on the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe.

He does not want you to take his picture. He does not want you to mention which village in Iraq he comes from. He doesn’t really even want you to use his real first name, even though it is a common one. He doesn’t want to say or do anything that might jeopardize his asylum application or endanger his family. What shall we call him, then?

“Call me Simon,” he says. “That’s what the American soldiers used to call me.”

Simon speaks softly and is not prone to exaggeration. He was an economics student when America invaded his country in 2003. He liked school. He got good grades. He had a job lined up after graduation. He was recently married. But the Iraqi economy, which had already been hobbled by decades of Western sanctions, collapsed entirely when the war started, and he found himself unemployed with few prospects. His English was pretty good, so he signed on as an interpreter for the US Army. He was hired in 2007 by Global Linguist Solutions, a subsidiary of DynCorp, one of the largest US defense service contractors.

“It was dangerous work,” says Simon. “Interpreters got killed all the time. If the militias ever recognized you…” his voice trails off. “It was hard. We had to wear bandanas over our faces, and sunglasses and helmets so no one could recognize us. My name tag even said ‘Simon’.”

“Simon,” was the name US troops often gave to their interpreters, or “‘terps,” as they were also called, as a sort of inside joke. Simon says. Get it?

When the US pulled out of Iraq in 2011, Simon tried to apply for a visa that would have allowed him and his wife and their infant daughter to emigrate to the US. Everyone could see what was going to happen after the pullout, he says. “All that is happening in Iraq right now was entirely predictable.”

But when he went to the US embassy to apply for the visa, he was told that he needed an employment verification certificate. So he contacted his former employer, GLS, to request it.

“It’s just this piece of paper,” he says, putting out his hands as though holding onto it. “But [GLS] told me they were no longer operating in my region, and that I would have to go to Baghdad to request it.”

By this time, GLS was in the process of pulling out of Iraq. They had been awarded a $4.6 billion contract by the Department of Defense in 2007, and now they were leaving, their money banked. At considerable personal risk and expense, Simon traveled to Baghdad to request his employment verification.

“The man at the office said they no longer had any of my paperwork. He told me it had all been burned for security reasons.

Simon showed the man his name tag and a copy of his employment contract and pay statements and even photographs of him working with US troops. He had kept all these things, even though possession of them could have gotten him killed by the militia groups that were dividing up Iraq after the US pullout.

“I asked the man what I could do, and he told me I could open an appeal file and obtain a case number. He sent me over to another office. At that office they said, ‘sure, we can give you a case number, we just need your employment verification.’ So, you understand me? To obtain a case number, I need an employment verification. To obtain an employment verification, I need a case number.”

It almost sounds like a joke, doesn’t it?

“Yes,” Simon says. “It’s a joke.”

He wearily shakes his head and holds up four fingers.

“Four years. This is a joke for four years.”

Problems of this sort are nothing new for GLS, which still operates out of Falls Church, Virginia. Even a cursory internet search reveals numerous instances in which GLS is reported to have shortchanged, mismanaged, or outright defrauded its local Iraqi staff.

Eventually Simon felt so threatened in Iraq that he decided to flee the country. He made his way to Europe, leaving his wife and infant daughter behind in the hope that he could bring them over later.

“It is a dangerous journey,” he says. “I didn’t want to put them through it.”

So he made his way north, through Iraq and Turkey and eventually to the Aegean coast.

“There,” he says, “I paid more than one thousand euro to these,” he searches around in his mind for the right word, “people. These traffickers.”

When it is pointed out to him that you could rent a boat in Turkey for less than half that price, and make your own way across the Aegean Sea, Simon flashes the only sign of anger he has shown all afternoon.

“Yes, you could,” he says. “But the Turkish mafia patrols the coast, looking for us. Any refugees they catch trying to go their own way,” he makes an imaginary gun with his hand and puts an imaginary bullet into his head. “They are protecting their market.”

After crossing the sea in an overcrowded rubber dinghy, Simon spent five days in the back of a truck that was packed so full of refugees that they had to stand the entire time.

“One night they let us out in the woods to walk around for twenty minutes, but only after several people fainted and we started banging on the sides of the truck.”

He looks away and eventually it becomes obvious that he is not going to say anything more about the truck ride.

“I have no idea what route they took driving us, but eventually we wound up in Brussels.”

He plans to file an application for asylum. But there are so many other applicants now that a thousand of them are camped in the park across the street from the Office for Foreigners, waiting while the staff there try to catch up with the backlog. For now, Simon lives in a tent pitched on a low rise in the northern part of the camp, which he shares with three other men.

Since arriving, he has become increasingly concerned. Rumors swirl around the camp. One rumor has it that everyone’s application is being stamped with the words “Dublin Agreement,” a reference to the European Union law that requires any asylum seeker to apply for asylum in the first EU country he or she entered. For many refugees, this could mean being sent back to Greece, where there are already tens of thousands of them waiting to be processed in squalid camps. Another rumor is that anyone coming from Southern or Eastern Iraq, as Simon does, is being immediately sent back, on the assumption, based largely on assurances by Iraqi President Haider al-Abadi, that everything is safe there now. But Simon scoffs at this notion.

“Nowhere is safe in Iraq,” he says. “Not for me. Not now.”

So he waits, joining thousands of other refugees all across the continent, a stream of humanity that seems to have no end in sight. He has been here four days already. Even if all goes well and he is granted temporary asylum status, he faces what could be a years-long wait to have his case formally adjudicated. His initial interview for asylum protection is scheduled for tomorrow.

Eventually, he says, he would still like to go to the US.

“I really like America,” he says. When he says this, he does so with utter sincerity. “America is such a great country!”

Rumor & Fact

By Stephen Dau

This is the third in a series of “letters” on the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe.

Wooden shipping pallets make modern commerce possible. They’re cheap. They’re perfectly dimensioned to fork-lift shrink-wrapped products into steel shipping containers, like an automated game of three-dimensional Tetris played endlessly across the world’s ports and warehouses. Millions of pallets are right now stacked bearing goods on the decks of freighters and in the backs of trucks. And after they’ve been used a time or two, they’re usually thrown away or burned.

Today, the most pervasive sounds in the refugee camp in the middle of Brussels are the high metal tapping of hammers on pry bars and the low wooden cracking of pallet boards being pried apart. In the tarped-over area that serves as a kitchen and food hall, rebuilt pallets are the tables and chairs, the storage shelves and serving counter. Pallet-wood picnic tables now dot the camp, and still the building continues. A request for pallets posted on Facebook yielded thousands. It’s satisfying, say the volunteers who do the work. Satisfying to tear apart out-usefulled things, even more so to build them anew. If whole buildings were to suddenly rise, each made entirely from pallet wood, no one in the camp would be much surprised.

For the past ten days the volunteers organized themselves online and cobbled together the camp, making things up as they went along, responding to what many of them see as the utter failure of their political class to deal with the mounting crisis. Now they are consolidating, creating an infrastructure to match their vision of a Europe that welcomes the dispossessed, rather than shunning them. There is a kitchen serving hot meals. There is a mobile phone charging station. There is a school and a small, open-air movie theater. There are plans to tap into the municipal water and sewage systems. More than simply a place to house refugees while they wait to register an asylum claim, the camp is quickly becoming a monument to a vision. It’s becoming a movement.

Despite that vision, the camp often feels like a high-proof distillation of reality, rather than any sort of idealized version of it. It’s a place where light and dark, generosity and greed exist side by side. Today, for example, a group of volunteers in yellow visibility vests is clearing gang members out of tents. The gangs have been stealing donated goods, which they then stash in the tents, waiting to move it out to nearby cars and vans under cover of darkness and sell it in thrift shops and flea markets. Once such a tent has been identified, ten or twelve volunteers surround it and ask the occupant, if there is an occupant, to leave. Then they empty it out, removing the contents back to the donation areas. It’s an exercise in miniature of raw power. Usually it doesn’t take much persuasion, but it also doesn’t seem to be a job many of the volunteers relish. They tend to be idealists, after all.

Because they are waiting to be registered, the refugees in the camp exist in a world outside the official legal system. Having yet to register, they are not yet asylum seekers. They are not immigrants. They are not temporary workers or students. Technically, they are what is known in French speaking countries as les sans papiers.Illegal immigrants. For years, organized groups of sans papiers have been agitating for regularization, for the granting of residence permits and working rights. They have taken over (or in many cases been invited into) churches and other buildings. They have staged hunger strikes. They have drawn attention to what they say is the sort of institutional racism that keeps many immigrants in Europe excluded from mainstream society, often for multiple generations. And herein lies the political lightning rod this refugee crisis presents to the European political establishment. Exactly as they have done in the United States, politicians here have staked out territory all over the immigration debate.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, a group of sans papiers—or, more precisely, a group claiming to be fighting for the rights of the sans papier—have set up an area prominently within the camp and plastered it with literature. Sitting with the group, a man who says he is from Morocco talks to anyone who will listen.

“Imagine” he says, “living like the people in this camp, but there is not attention paid to you, no TV cameras, and you’re destined to live like this for your whole life.”

“Are you sans papiers, then?” someone asks.

“No, no,” he says, with a smile. “I’m only here on vacation.”

The television cameras that were ubiquitous have mostly gone now, with only a single crew left prowling for stories. As the press thinned, so did much of the carnival atmosphere from last week, when so many people, refugees and volunteers alike, simply seemed eager to get themselves onto television. All day Sunday one man wore a sign that said, in English, “I’m Desperate, Hug Me.” Another, seemingly more heartfelt, walked around for hours with a sign expressing gratitude to Belgium.

But with the carnival atmosphere came the rumors, the chaos. It was virtually impossible to get a firm estimate of the number of people sheltering each night, nor of the number of people arriving each day. The camp’s borders are entirely porous, delineated with only tape. Attempts are now made to register arrivals and departures, but the numbers—seven hundred and fifty now in place, one hundred arrivals each day—are still rough estimates. Last week, one rumor held that the federal government was going to try to clear the park. Another was that the Belgian army was poised to take over. One refugee says he has heard that Syrian intelligence operatives are present in the camp, keeping tabs.

The latest rumor is that the kitchen has run out of food. It’s not true, but it’s enough to cause a passing panic. Volunteers stand on the counter top and try to assure an agitated group of fifty hungry men that more food is being prepared. Picture a different country, with different resources, and it’s easy to see how the situation could quickly deteriorate.

One rumor proved true this past Monday when, in one of the buildings next to the park, called the World Trade Center, the federal government opened a five-hundred bed sleeping facility. Only fourteen people took advantage of it, which prompted Theo Francken, Belgium’s Secretary for Asylum and Migration, to comment, “They obviously don’t want it. The tent camp is apparently more comfortable. Perhaps we should have offered them a hotel?”

But even a cursory visit to the camp reveals the reasons why refugees might be hesitant to move into the shelter. For one thing, the WTC shelter is available only at night, meaning anyone sleeping in it would have to pack up their meager belingings and risk losing their tent space. For another, there is a community, of a sort, in the park now, support and camaraderie. In part, Theo Francken was right: the park is more comfortable. But his ignorance reflects another, darker side of the crises playing out across Europe. On Tuesday a journalist with a Hungarian television station was filmed kicking and tripping migrants, including a young girl. The Facebook page of the Plateforme Soutien, while filled overwhelmingly with messages of support and encouragement, is also marred by offers to donate pork to the mostly muslim refugees, and crude jokes about women in Hijabs.

“What are you going to do?” says one volunteer of the internet commenters. “It’s the internet. It’s full of assholes.”

Which is not to say there aren’t problems at the camp, too. Security and sanitation remain ongoing concerns. The presence of so many immigrants threatens to provoke a backlash against them, but this is an issue across Europe, not only in Belgium. And the core group of volunteers are exhausted. Many of them have been here every day since it started. Some have slept on site. They’re tired and often seem stretched thin. Yet overwhelmingly they are staying positive.

“We are inspired by these people who have come,” says one volunteer, a doctor from Leuven. “We’re giving to them, but they’re also giving to us.”

Then he tells the story of a man who arrived in the camp over the weekend, an English teacher from Syria. He had been crossing the Aegean Sea in a packed boat when it sank. He swam all night before eventually being picked up.

“When you’re stuck in the water and you don’t know where you are, what can you do?” he said. “You keep swimming.”

The camp is a place that alternately reinforces cynicism and removes all capacity for it.

“What are the cynics and the racists in the face of all this?” says another volunteer. “They’re nothing. I’m proud of what we’re doing here.”

After she finishes sorting piles of donated clothes, she’s planning to go over to the other side of the camp, pick up a hammer, and help the people who are trying to turn old pallets into a village.

Blurred Lines

By Stephen Dau

This is the second in a series of “letters” on the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe.

It’s Sunday afternoon, which means that it’s time for a General Assembly. The largest and best organized group operating in the refugee camp in Brussels is called the Plateforme Citoyenne de Soutien aux Réfugiés Bruxelles. The Plateforme is so well organized that even though they have not yet been in existence for a week, they are already holding a plenary. There were some questions as to the time and place of the meeting, finding a space large enough, whether to hold it in the refugee camp itself, or at some other location, but by four o’clock on Sunday afternoon these questions are resolved, and nearly a thousand people descend on the large plaza in front of the Gare du Nord, which is about a block from the camp.

Signs have been placed around the plaza. A speaker system has been set up to amplify announcements. Accommodations are made for Dutch and English speakers, but the working language is French. Within half an hour, the thousand people–who, it must be remembered, are not professional relief workers, but novice volunteers–have broken into working groups. There’s a working group for logistics and a working group for mobilization and a working group for cooking. Each volunteer chooses which working group he or she wishes to join. This being Brussels, which is home to most of the EU governing structure, the best attended working groups appear to be “lobbying” and “communication.” The least attended appears to be “finance,” even though this word has been helpfully translated into English on the signs as “Money.” These are smart people, after all. They know a mire when they see one.

The working groups are just getting down to business when the speakers crackle to life. It has been suggested that an additional working group be formed, this one on “Psychology.” Many of the refugees have had difficult journeys, it is assumed. Efforts should be launched for their counseling.

One block away, the refugee camp has grown dramatically. Last Tuesday, the camp consisted of fifteen tents in the park in front of the Office for Foreigners. By Thursday, there were more than a hundred tents, mostly the thin, summertime dome tents families use to go camping. On Friday, three people from Médecins Sans Frontières, which is not even officially working at the camp, hauled in forty eight heavy duty emergency tents, with thermally insulated floors and walls and internal partitions. Within an hour they had taught available volunteers how to set them up. By nightfall on Friday the park was beginning to look less like a recreational campground and more like a proper refugee camp, the kind one might see on television.

Today the changes are even more dramatic. A rough estimate calculates nearly four hundred tents present in the park, in some areas pitched so closely together that it is impossible to walk between them. Large tarpaulins are tied together and strung between trees. Wooden pallets are being pried apart and turned into everything: tables and benches, shelves, counter tops. Pallet boards have been fastened six meters end-to-end and used to prop up the tarps, like the pole in a circus tent. Propane stoves have been set up. Canvas lean-tos, which last week had been used as shelters, now house a volunteer information office, a refugee reception area, and a logistics and coordination center.

The refugees keep coming. One guess holds that there are between one hundred and three hundred new arrivals each day. They simply appear, no one seems to know how or whence, materializing on the street with the entirety of their worldly possessions in bags on their backs. There are no formal intake procedures, and very little in the way of registration, aside from a list Médecins du Monde keeps detailing those who have received medical attention. Estimates of the total number of people in the camp vary, from seven hundred and fifty on the low end to fifteen hundred on the high end.

Back in the plaza, the working groups have outlined plans for a lobbying strategy and a focused communications effort. The long-term issues involved in the feeding and sanitation of a refugee camp have been discussed, and mitigation measures planned. The finance working group has run into some trouble while trying to work out how to get pocket money to refugees while not running afoul of accounting regulations. The Plateforme isn’t a formal charitable organization, after all. It’s just a bunch of people who met up on Facebook.

Most of Brussels carries on about its regular business, largely oblivious to what’s going on in the park, aside from the occasional news report. But the existence of the refugee camp seems to have energized the more charitably inclined residents of Brussels, and of Europe more broadly. Public opinion seems to have tipped. Germany has announced that it is prepared to take in as many as eight hundred thousands new immigrants. Juha Sipila, the President of Finland, has offered the use of his home to shelter refugees. The Pope has opened the Vatican to them. Groups of Germans have begun gathering in train stations, cheering refugees who make it in, like marathoners crossing a finish line.

Entirely by coincidence, the Plateforme’s General Assembly in the plaza has coincided with the annual staging of the Brussels Color Run. People covered in what looks like vibrant chalk dust filter through the busily engaged working groups like pixies buzzing a church service. Some of them stop and begin chatting with the Plateforme volunteers. A few sit down on the ground. It seems like perhaps they might be interested in helping out.

At the camp a school has been set up, and volunteers teach children French and English and Dutch and play games and paint faces. Children play football for hours and chase each other around the camp. Even grown men have begun to play.

The donations have been organized. What had once been piles of shoes and sweaters and trousers strewn on the ground are now carefully sorted and labeled and placed in tents behind fences, where people queue to request needed items, rather than scavenging around through the piles. Donated food is available everywhere. Kebabs and flatbread and baguettes and bottled water. The Al Islam charity brings hundreds of halal dinners of chicken and rice every day. Local mosques provide huge vats of couscous and mutton. Word has gone out that donations are no longer needed. Volunteers line up at the volunteer registration office, even when they are told that volunteering, at this point, means donning rubber gloves and cleaning out the toilets. The storage tents at the camp are full. The warehouses of charitable organizations around Belgium are full. The basements of churches and community centers are full.

Underneath the joy and the plenty, tension lurks. The same energy and altruism that has energized volunteers and comforted refugees is now being bent toward other purposes. People who have not yet heard that donations are no longer needed are still donating. They drive in from The Netherlands, from Germany, from Northern France. They rent moving trucks and fill them with donations. In Brussels, local gangs are alert to the excess, and have begun lurking at the edges of the camp, swarming the cars and trucks when they stop, hauling off their contents to resell at flea markets and night shops. Volunteers in yellow vests are sent out to shoo them away. Always adaptable, some of the gang members go to the volunteer booth and obtain yellow vests of their own.

In another part of the camp a group of volunteers gathers around a small tent. There was a boy in the tent yesterday, a teenager who had arrived at the camp alone, without parents or siblings, who would speak to no one and who laid in the tent all day crying. Today the tent is empty and stinks of urine, and no one knows where to boy is. Other volunteers circulate a picture of a child who has gone missing, her mother frantic.

There is so much food around, and it is so freely available, that the city’s homeless population has begun migrating to the camp. Groups of men with red faces and cold, bloodshot eyes sit on the low hill overlooking the tents and swill beer. Marijuana smoke wafts through the groups of kids playing football. The sign at the entrance to the camp that directed people to the Plateforme’s Facebook page has been replaced by one that says “Slaughter Capitalism.” A group of undocumented migrants, les sans papiers, teaches the refugee kids protest songs. The edges are blurring. Refugees are now offering food to the homeless people. It’s becoming difficult to tell who is a refugee, who is a second- or third-generation immigrant, who is homeless, who is a gang member, who is a volunteer. The camp is quickly becoming a gathering point for anyone who can fit the sum total of their worldly possessions into a trash bag.

Despite all this, the mood in the camp is generally upbeat. Occasionally, in places, it is even joyous. The recent arrivals are still nervous, still distrusting, still scared. They sit exhausted in the dust and look off into the middle distance. They gather their possessions around them in trash bags and stare death at anyone who approaches. But those who have been here for a few days have begun to lighten. There is food. There is shelter. There is singing and dancing, and even a drum to beat out a rhythm. The refugees are beginning to resemble a tribe that is celebrating its arrival in the promised land. One volunteer observes that it is all starting to feel a little bit like Glastonbury.

This Is a Refugee Camp

By Stephen Dau

This is the first in a series of “letters” on the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe.

This is a refugee camp. It’s a bright, sunny morning and the camp is just visible through the trees, with splotches of the reds and greens and blues of recreational dome tents and tarpaulins scattered among the tall brown tree trunks.  The refugee camp is located in a lightly wooded park in the center of Brussels, surrounded by glass-and-steel skyscrapers and a three-building apartment block. There’s a football pitch. There’s a basketball court. The park looks and feels a bit like Bryant Park, in Manhattan, except that it’s a little run-down and there is no skating rink. Also, it’s a refugee camp. That’s impossible! one might think. There hasn’t been a refugee camp in a major European city since, when? The Second World War, right? And yet here it is. 2015. A refugee camp in the middle of Brussels.

From a distance, the refugee camp in the middle of Brussels looks a little bit like a campground. It’s wooded. There are tents. There are no open campfires, but that’s true of lots of campgrounds in Europe. A closer look at this particular campground, though, reveals piles of clothes in the grass, and tarps stretched over clothes lines, and large, military looking tents with the words Médecins du Monde and Médecins Sans Frontières printed on their sides and lots of people, men mostly, though not exclusively, standing around as though waiting for something. A small group of women and children bunch together, in the middle of the camp, surrounded by mingling men.

There has been some debate, lately, about whether the refugees living in the refugee camp in the middle of Brussels are actually refugees, or if maybe they should be referred to as migrants. The British and American press tend to call them migrants. Mostly, that’s because migrants can be dealt with through existing bureaucratic structures. Migrants are safe. Migrants are business as usual. But refugees constitute an emergency. The French press knows this is an emergency. The French press calls them refugees. Migrants seek opportunity. Refugees flee wars. These people are clearly refugees.

Belgium doesn’t really have a refugee problem. Italy has a refugee problem. Greece has a refugee problem. Calais has a refugee problem. Hungary likes to think that it has a refugee problem, except that it doesn’t, because none of the refugees really want to stay in Hungary since, as many of them will tell you if you ask, Hungary sucks. Belgium doesn’t really have a refugee problem, either. Belgium, typically, has an administrative problem. A bureaucratic problem. The problem is that the Office for Foreigners, which is where all the refugees who make it to Belgium have to go to register after they arrive, in hopes of securing asylum status and its accompanying promise of residence permission and housing subsidies and perhaps even language classes and job training, or, as you or I would call it, subsistence, announced this week that they would process no more than 250 applications per day. That’s as many as can possibly be handled over the course of a normal workday, it was said. It’s understandable, really. The Office for Foreigners is small. The staff are bureaucrats. They’re overwhelmed. There are probably union rules involved. Expecting anything more from them is like turning up at the Department of Motor Vehicles and expecting mercy. Still, the fact that the Foreign Office will only process 250 refugees a day means that 1000 refugees are camped in the refugee camp in the park across the street from their offices, waiting their turn.

As far as refugee camps go, it’s not too bad. People are smiling. They’re eating. They’re smoking cigarettes. They’re searching through piles of clothing for something their size and style. Families are huddled around their tents, talking, eating, talking some more. An old man plays a recorder. A volunteer reads a book to two kids, one of whom does not seem that into it. Someone finds a football–someone always finds a football–and several of the guys begin kicking it around. One of the volunteers, a girl in a yellow vest, intercepts the ball and begins kicking it, too. The boys seem skeptical at first, but then she nutmegs one of them, and in no time she is sending in crosses that earn respect.

There are other people, too, in the refugee camp, aside from the refugees. For one, there are journalists. There are a lot of journalists. There are journalists everywhere. There seem to be more journalists, per capita, in the refugee camp in the middle of Brussels than there are at many major sporting or political events. In large part, this is because a refugee camp located in the middle of Brussels is very easy to get to. There are print journalists and radio journalists and photojournalists and television journalists, and they wander around equipped and configured in whatever formations their particular discipline of journalism requires. There are the double-SLR slinging photographers and the wedge-shaped TV cohorts: reporter, with cameraman and sound engineer flanking. There are the one-man-bands of radio, chatting into microphones shaped like ice cream cones. Several journalists carry nothing more than an iPhone, the end-all, be-all tool of the shoe stringer. There are also the lonely, somewhat befuddled print journalists, dealing only in words, possessed of nothing more than a notebook and a pencil and they, as often as not, are the ones who tell the best stories.

Besides the refugees waiting for something and the journalists, there are also some other people. Some of these people wear the fluorescent yellow visibility vests that many cyclists here wear, but with name tags duct taped to their chests, and they have walkie-talkies and clipboards and they stride purposefully around and will tell newcomers to the camp how they can be helpful, if said newcomer is so inclined, and they will tell the many people who show up with boxes and garbage bags of food and clothing and medicine where to put and how to arrange those items and they appear to know what they are talking about. How nice, one might be tempted to think, that there are trained people here to oversee the running of this refugee camp so incongruously located in the center of Brussels. How good that the operation is being run by professionals.

Except that they are not professionals. Most of these people have never been anywhere near a refugee camp in their lives. They are students and housewives and actors and waitresses and managers and electricians. They are members of groups that have been organized via social media, groups with names like Plateforme Citoyenne de Soutien aux Réfugiés Bruxelles and Community Support for Refugees in Belgium, groups that did not even exist a week ago, but which now have tens of thousands of members on Facebook. Absent any official government coordination of the situation, they are the only thing constituting an authority in the camp. These people, all of them volunteers, are some of the nicest, friendliest people one could ever hope to meet, especially in Belgium, which is not exactly known for its niceness and friendliness. But a simple inquiry reveals, underneath that niceness and friendliness, an unmistakable anger.

“I’m here because I’m pissed off,” one of them says. “I’m here because our government is not doing anything to help these people.”

Someone else, overhearing the conversation, says, “I’m here because I’ve spent the past ten years feeling powerless, and I’m tired of it.”

“I’m here,” says someone else, “because the only way to defeat inhumanity is with humanity.”

Then everyone stops to look at something. The television cameras have all been trained on what looks to be some major event around a small folding table in the middle of the camp. It’s impossible to see what it is though, because so many cameras have stopped to video it. No one can see past the large cameras, and everyone’s curiosity is piqued. Finally, a different angle, a different view, and someone realizes that all the cameras, in their hyper-vigilent pursuit of symbolic moments, are recording footage of soup being ladled from a pot into a bowl. This is what passes for drama in what is essentially a large, open-air waiting room. When a child begins crying in his mother’s arms, the cameras click like paparazzi snapping glimpses of royal children.

It’s often mentioned at the refugee camp in the middle of Brussels that the refugee camp in the middle of Brussels is only one of hundreds of refugee camps all over Europe, most of them offering their refugees far worse conditions than this one, as at Calais, and Lesbos, and Keleti Station. What largely goes unsaid here is that the refugees who have made it this far are lucky. What goes unsaid is that some in government claim the problem is that conditions are simply too good here, that the refugees have it easy, and need to be discouraged from coming in the first place. Just this week David Cameron said that letting in more asylum seekers would do nothing to address the underlying problems driving the migration. And he’s right. The underlying problems driving migration are war and repression and economic ruin and the Roman-arena fascist freak show that is ISIS. The underlying problems will take a generation, or more, to sort out. But the immediate problem? The immediate problem is that right now there are a thousand refugees camped out at a refugee camp at a park in the middle of Brussels, and hundreds of thousands more in other camps around the continent. Admitting more refugees will do everything to resolve that.

Eventually one of the volunteers removes his bright yellow vest and yawns and stretches. It’s getting late, he says. As it often does in Belgium, the weather has shifted. The sky has clouded over. There’s a chill in the air. One of the volunteers has begun shaking with cold and fatigue, and someone offers hand warmers and a jacket. A few volunteers have offered to stay in the park overnight, pitching their tents alongside those of the refugees. But most of them are going home, now. They’re cold. They’re tired. They’re hungry. And by now it has begun to rain.