Every day, a massive effort to help migrants here starts with complex choreography at a park in the heart of the city.
Toward evening, volunteers converge on Maximilian Park, a spot in an area of the city center that is home to office high-rises and that has become a hub for migrant traffic. The volunteers pass out steaming cups of Moroccan mint tea. Migrants, almost all of them men, many of them from sub-Saharan Africa, chat with each other in a mixture of Arabic, Swahili, English, French and Italian. Organizers divide the men into loose lines and then pair them with people offering rides, who in turn shuttle them to additional volunteers who have pledged beds and food.
In this way, Belgian citizens help more than 500 migrants find shelter each night, countering their government’s tough line on migration.
But Belgian authorities may make this outreach riskier.
Since the middle of last year, police forces have sometimes raided the Brussels park as volunteers were picking up migrants, leading to direct confrontations between the sides.
Now, Belgium’s state secretary for asylum policy and migration, Theo Francken, has proposed a law that would allow the police — under a judge’s order — to raid private homes to deport people whose asylum requests have been denied. The proposal has echoes of French efforts to prosecute French citizens for harboring migrants, although Belgian authorities say they are not targeting people offering assistance.
“It is a matter of public order and security,” Prime Minister Charles Michel told lawmakers recently. “In a lot of cases, persons harbored by citizens do not wish to apply for asylum. In other cases, it is people whose asylum request was rejected.”
So far, the volunteers have not deviated from their mission.
“We aim to create a model, a humanitarian hub that can be helpful for migrants,” said Medhi Kassou, 34, who quit his job in marketing to coordinate the volunteer effort, which recalls an ant hive in its nightly routine.
Collectively, the group has provided 55,000 nights of accommodation for migrants since last summer. More than 36,000 people have joined its coordination group on Facebook.
The volunteer coordinators have also partnered with local and international organizations to give medical and psychological care as well as legal advice, taking over a suite of offices connected to a nearby train station to offer services during the day.
Organizers say their efforts have spared migrants from having to sleep outdoors, and, if mirrored elsewhere, could help to prevent the rise of the grim tent cities seen in other countries that are contending with waves of people seeking better lives in Europe.
Most of the migrants helped by the volunteers hope to continue to Britain, where they think they can find better-paying jobs and a more welcoming community. For that reason, few of them apply for asylum in Belgium; applying would limit their ability to move on.
“I want to go to the U.K.,” said Ibrahim, a Libyan migrant who was waiting at Maximilian Park for a ride to a shelter one recent night and did not want to give his family name because he feared authorities might target him. He said that he had relatives in Britain and that he had passed through Italy and France on his northward journey.
Sometimes he stays a few days with the same family. Mostly, he has hopped from home to home. The main point is shelter, not socializing, he said, adding that without the volunteers’ efforts, he would have been on the street since arriving in Belgium in October.
Belgians “are very kind,” said Youssef, another Libyan migrant who also spoke on the condition that his family name not be published. He said he decided to leave home because of the violence in his country that started in 2011, the year the Arab Spring began.
One pair of volunteers said they appreciated how simple it was to become involved in the campaign to help migrants. They filled out an online form, waited for a phone call and sent off a Facebook message. “Easy and practical,” said Samuel Baylet, 28, who is an aide at the European Parliament. He and his girlfriend, Jane Weber, an architect, have been offering the living room futon and couch in their one-bedroom apartment about one night a week since November.
Baylet said their visitors’ needs are basic: a WiFi connection, a power socket to charge phones, and a shower. Sometimes, the migrants, who usually arrive at the apartment about 10 p.m., have a meal before heading to bed. Baylet and Weber cook vegetarian meals to steer clear of religion-based dietary restrictions.
“Compared to other volunteers, it is very little,” Baylet said, “but we feel good doing it.”