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EU ministers last week hailed a “historic” deal to provide immediate protection for Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war. But on the ground in Brussels, the reality is very different.
As large numbers of refugees arrive, Belgian authorities are overwhelmed, centers are already saturated and contradictory information is shared — leading to confusion among Ukrainians who have fled Russian President Vladimir Putin’s lethal invasion.
Ludmila is one of them. She was queuing in front of a former hospital near Brussels’ Porte de Hal, along with hundreds of other Ukrainian refugees hoping to be registered in Belgium and get temporary protection in the country.
Waiting in line on an unseasonably warm day, most people looked exhausted and lost. When asked if they speak English or French, responses ranged from tired looks to nods.
Ludmila is 34 and has a 4-year-old daughter who was sleeping in a nearby car. Originally from Kyiv, she escaped the city on the first day of the war. She stayed in western Ukraine for a week, before setting out for Western Europe. Asked how the process to get protection was going so far, she said that the organization has been “not very good.”
Registration gives Ukrainians temporary protection, provided they took their identity documents with them when they fled. With this registration, a Belgian municipality will issue the country’s “A” card, giving access to residency, social security, education and work.
“Of course, I want to live in Ukraine, and of course, I want to go back as soon as possible,” Ludmila said, adding that she needs access to medicines, insurance and schooling for her family. “After COVID, we also have problems with coughing,” she added.
The refugee center at the former Jules Bordet hospital in Brussels opened last week. Setting up toilets took days, said Erik Van Wolvelaer, a volunteer with Solidarity for Ukraine Belgium, who’s coordinating help and distributing food outside the center.
“The first day, people didn’t want to drink, because they were afraid of having to go to the bathroom, as they were stuck in this thing,” he said, pointing a finger at the long straight line of people waiting against a wall. “There are people who are afraid of passing out and not being able to get out of there easily.”
Ludmila had spent several long days in the line.
“We arrived on Monday and we stayed from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. with children, with parents. They have some troubles with headaches, with legs,” she said.
Ludmila added that there was confusion over the queues, and as she got near the entrance of the center to be registered, she and her family were sent back to the end of the line. “It was not normal, because we stand here for days, with children sleeping on us,” she said.
Van Wolvelaer said there are simple ways to improve the situation of Ukrainians queueing. An online registration system would help, for example.
That way, he said, “people know exactly where they need to be, what they need to bring, and how long it will take, and they can organize themselves with children and old people. Here, there is no organization possible.”
Belgium’s complicated political architecture hasn’t helped in handling the crisis.
While other countries around the bloc such as Italy and the Czech Republic have declared a state of emergency, Belgium is still figuring out how it will welcome an expected 200,000 refugees.
In principle, the federal government is in charge of acute care in the first days of a crisis. Then the regions take over, while only in exceptional cases — such as the 2021 Wallonian floods — does the federal side take over support on crisis management.
The current president of the Flemish nationalist N-VA party and mayor of Antwerp, Bart De Wever, has slammed the federal response, saying that it relied too much on the municipalities and local social services — while Sammy Mahdi, Belgium’s top migration official, and Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo have defended their efforts in a tough situation.
But on Thursday, De Croo convened his top ministers and regional leaders to take charge of the crisis response, as criticisms mount over the response formulated by Mahdi. Talking to the Belgian parliament Thursday, De Croo and Mahdi said that the federal government will handle the welcoming aspect, the registration and the emergency accommodation. The three regions — Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels — will be asked to set up large-capacity housing.
A bigger refugee center, near Heysel in Brussels, is expected to open Monday, where registrations would be fast-tracked and people can wait in more acceptable conditions. “Knowing Belgium, they will still find something to say that it is not possible,” said Van Wolvelaer, the volunteer.
Marta Barandiy, a founder of civil society organization Promote Ukraine, is facilitating administration between Brussels and Ukraine, and she points to failures of organization.
Local authorities are floundering, Barandiy said, as the number of refugees increases. A Belgian commune has even reached out to her to find out exactly which other municipalities in the region were already welcoming refugees.
Other Ukrainians joined the new arrivals to provide support, show solidarity and translate information.
Nina and Maxim arrived in Belgium eight years ago. They also fled Ukraine, when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. And for them, the wait is over. They were coming to pick up their residency cards nearby and now have the right to stay in Belgium indefinitely.
Speaking about their arrival in Belgium in 2014, Maxim said that “there were many Belgian people who did not believe us about the war. Many of them now say sorry. ‘Sorry. We thought you were economic tourists, but now we know you were right.’”
Talking fluently in French, Nina, now working for the Red Cross in the Luxembourg province, admitted getting a residency in Belgium was “a very difficult process morally and psychologically because you lose everything: traditions, family, celebrations.”
But for her, what’s happening now is “beautiful.”
“Belgium is a little magic,” Nina said. “It is well organized. You are not robots. It is step by step, and it needs time.
Victor Jack and Barbara Moens contributed reporting.