Ukrainian refugees also sleep on station benches: “A family of eight slept there for three days”

After a long journey that took her from the Russian border via Krakow and Tournai to the registration center for Ukrainian refugees at Brussels South Station, Elena (42) was told last week by Fedasil employees that Belgium has no place to receive her. “They asked if I had Belgian friends or acquaintances or if I could find a place to sleep myself,” she says in the corridor of an emergency shelter of the Brussels homeless organization Samusocial.

“I said no. They said they couldn’t help me, that all places are full and I would have to look for myself. That was a shock,” says Elena. She did receive Samusocial’s contact details from the employees in the registration centre. That is how she ended up in a building in Koekelberg. Initially, this served to receive Ukrainians in dire need who arrived when the registration counter was closed. “But recently more and more people are returning to our doorstep, even after registering,” says Magali Pratte of Samusocial.

Because the building with twenty places is often overcrowded as a result, the non-profit association, in consultation with the NMBS, also puts Ukrainian people to sleep in the Eurostar terminal at South Station. The railway company confirms that. “Over the past two months, 75 Ukrainian refugees have had to spend the night there,” says Pratte. “In chairs, on benches or on the floor, under blankets that we give them. A family of eight slept there for three days. They may not be on the street, in fact they are homeless.”

Overcrowded

For many asylum seekers in Belgium, spending time on the street has been the harsh reality for many months. It is new for Ukrainian refugees. Since the beginning of the war, they have been given a status of temporary protection and they follow a different track than other refugees. Solidarity was also great: Belgian families took people in under the motto #PlekVrij and emergency villages were set up for the first time since the Second World War. But nine months later Ukrainians are still sleeping in stations.

According to the usual procedure, after registering with the Immigration Office, they would be allocated a reception place by Fedasil in one of the three regions – usually after a stopover at the Ariane transit center in Woluwe. In the first half of October, Fedasil housed another 250 Ukrainians there, none since. The center is overcrowded, because the flow to the regions is tight. Moreover, it is now also used to receive asylum seekers – so that the two tracks still cross each other. “What are we telling Ukrainians who ask for shelter today? That they should approach the OCMWs directly”, says Lies Gilis of Fedasil.

According to Samusocial, about forty Ukrainians get that message every day. A few weeks ago, the Association of Flemish Cities and Municipalities reported in the newspaper De Morgen about “more and more municipalities where people suddenly show up unplanned at their doors”, looking for a place to sleep at random.

Especially in Wallonia, hardly any places are becoming available, says Gilis. In Flanders, according to the government’s housing tool, there are still about 650 available, yet Fedasil always gets the lid on the nose when the local authorities call. According to Minister of Housing Matthias Diependaele (N-VA), this is because the administrations “reserve places for Ukrainians who already reside on their territory”. In doing so, they anticipate an outflow from reception families: as the war drags on, they increasingly put an end to their commitment.

Customization

The two emergency villages in Antwerp and Mechelen have (for now) reached their maximum capacity. In short: the time of oversupply is over. Finding places, says Diependaele, now requires “customization” – something his administration is “constantly working on. New places are released every week”. But that takes more time.

Meanwhile, Ukrainians remain on the street. Samusocial is very concerned. With winter approaching, its facilities will fill up even faster with homeless Brussels residents, asylum seekers and now also Ukrainians looking for a warm night.

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