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Brussels kids’ refugee center set to shut, amid sluggish Belgian response to funding plea

Dozens of migrant children are at risk of soon living on Brussels’ streets, as a leading humanitarian group plans to shut a refugee center this week.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) will close the center amid a funding dispute in a bid to pressure the Belgian government to take it over and provide a long-term solution for the country’s rising number of unaccompanied migrant children.

Belgium’s federal government has promised funding to continue the project and set up a permanent center, with ministers expected to take a decision Friday on whether to provide the cash.

The migration response has been a recurring issue for Belgium. It tore apart the coalition government last year as hundreds of migrants occupied a Brussels church. More recently, authorities were left scrambling to accommodate a huge influx of Ukrainian refugees in the weeks after Russia launched its brutal invasion.

MSF had paid for the refugee center itself since October 2021, but has now exhausted its ability to continue funding the project — and advocates for children are deeply unimpressed with the government’s handling of the situation.

Bernard De Vos, the general delegate for children’s rights in Brussels and Wallonia, said the government response has been a “debacle,” even if it finally coughs up the funding.

“For months and months, they have been promised refinancing for this project, and nothing has happened,” he said. “The federal government was slow to consolidate a project to which it committed.” 

Located in a Brussels hotel, the refugee center initially opened on a temporary basis in October last year and will officially close at the end of this week, though some children have already left. A solution has been found for some — many of whom arrived from the Horn of Africa and the Maghreb, often en route to final destinations outside Belgium — but it’s unclear what will happen to the remaining 40. 

The center was initially set up to shelter transiting children during Belgium’s freezing winter months, but the project was extended as arrival numbers continued to rise.

“In a way, the situation today is not different from last October. The only difference is that with the end of this program, there is no longer a suitable structure for migrants in transit,” said Julien Buha Colette, head of mission at MSF Belgium.

For Belgium’s newly appointed migration and asylum chief Nicole de Moor, finding a home for the children is an early test.

Speaking to Belgian press last week, de Moor vowed that the government would unlock funds for the project. “We will also work together with NGOs because it is a target group of young people who are very difficult to approach. They don’t trust the authorities because they are in contact with criminal smugglers who tell them falsehoods,” she said. 

Authorities are also planning to make a new building available, but the opening date is unclear. 

If funding is provided, MSF’s Buha Colette said the project will resume at the beginning of September. 

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