– Growing numbers of ethnic Roma have been making their way to Belgium from south-east Europe, with many ending up sleeping in parks and railway stations as winter approaches.
To alleviate this homelessness problem, one municipality in the Greater Brussels region has just opened an emergency reception centre for Roma asylum-seekers, including children, who were living rough. The facility in Schaerbeek houses 10 families from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Kosovo.
All of them told recent UNHCR visitors similar stories about what drove them to flee their homes, including abject poverty, discrimination, physical abuse and the failure of local authorities to protect them. “Will this never stop for us Roma?,” asked one man. “My grandfather suffered under Hitler, my father under communism and I had to run from nationalism,” he added.
Before being moved to Schaerbeek, the Roma families had spent several weeks sleeping in the Brussels North train station and a park. They had lodged asylum claims and should, in theory, have been placed in centres run by the federal authorities. But Belgium has no more space for new arrivals.
This is not the first year that this problem has occurred, Cécile Jodogne, mayor of Schaerbeek, told UNHCR. “As a municipal authority we have neither the competence nor the budget to deal with asylum-seekers, but we had to act for humanitarian reasons.”
With the weather getting steadily colder, the Schaerbeek authorities provided a building where the Roma families from south-east Europe can stay during the winter months. The authorities will later review the situation.
Schaerbeek has also attracted Roma from member states of the European Union (EU), including Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Romania and Slovakia, whose asylum claims will not be granted, as they are EU citizens, municipal officials said.
The exact number of Roma asylum-seekers in Belgium and other EU countries is not know, thought the figure is believed to be increasing. Most hail from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
Many people in Europe believe the Roma are motivated to move from their areas of origin by economic reasons, but European Union statistics show that some suffer from discrimination and persecution in their areas of origin. This is why some of them receive protection status.
The Roma families staying in the Schaerbeek centre said they were grateful to the municipal authorities and were happy to have a roof over their heads as well as heating and warm water.
They also have access to medical care while their children get French lessons so they can enrol at a local school. “Here, I hope I can send my children to school without fear,” a mother of four told UNHCR.
Mayor Jodogne, while noting that “these people are in a dreadful situation and we are assisting out of human concern,” stressed that “their problems cannot be resolved on a municipal level.”
Meanwhile, UNHCR in Brussels continues to urge the Belgian federal authorities to introduce a more flexible reception system that can deal with the ebb and flow of Roma arrivals.
As far as the increase in Roma migration is concerned, UNHCR seeks to work with governments as well as the EU to address the multifaceted problem of social exclusion, poverty, discrimination and, in some cases, persecution.