Last Thursday, I visited a refugee camp in the financial district of Brussels, with Swedish MEP Malin Björk and several members of the Belgian movement of solidarity with migrants. The scene couldn't have been more representative of Europe's current situation: hundreds of refugees living in a makeshift camp, neglected by institutions, but supported by citizens. Meanwhile, they wait for their asylum petitions to be resolved in the ministerial building right in front of them, against a backdrop of skyscrapers, typical of this financial city. The camp is located only a few miles from the central headquarters of the European Commission and the European Council -- which hosted the meeting of 28 EU interior ministers on September 22, during which they finally reached an agreement on the Commission's proposal to expand the number of refugees to be relocated to 120,000.
The agreement is laden with fine print, plagued by horse-trading and devoid of the consensus and high-mindedness that would correspond to the largest migratory movement of recent decades. It is an agreement marked by slowness, insufficiency and voluntarism. The pace and scope of this agreement contrasts with the speed, comprehensiveness and power of European intervention when it comes to rescuing banks, not people. It contrasts with the binding, urgent and ambitious nature of the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) or austerity policies. It shows the discrepancy between the economic capacity and the political will of a European Union with bleeding borders.
We visited the refugee camp an hour after the European Parliament voted to support the Commission's proposal to increase quotas for refugees and distribute them according to the absorption capacity of member states.
The European Parliament's inability to coordinate and enforce a common policy regarding such a basic issue --respecting and guaranteeing human rights across the Union-- shows, once again, the democratic shortcomings of the current European project. What Union are we talking about if its legislature, the only one directly elected by European citizens, is simply another lobbying organization within the framework of the Brussels eurocracy?
But fortunately, Europe is not only the EU, or only this EU. It is the volunteers in the Refugees Welcome public platform, or the members of a coordinating body for undocumented migrants and refugees, that give life to this camp. These initiatives feature migrants that have lived in Brussels for some time, and who not only welcome the newcomers and appear in public without fear of being identified and arrested, but who also show their faces and roll up their sleeves because they know better than anyone that the refugees' fight is also their own. The same struggle. And they are the ones who, from day one, have taken charge of the quartermaster of the free kitchen and dining area in the camp, which also has an infirmary, a pantry, and a clothing store donated by locals. There is also a makeshift school where a few local teachers have started bringing their students, as part of an informal exchange between the children. Because we don't need Erasmus scholarships to spur change and solidarity from the ground up.
This is a camp where, thanks to self-organization, anonymous people have responded and reached places where public institutions do not reach --not through a lack of resources, as they are trying to make us believe, but rather due to a lack of trying. This is a refugee camp surrounded by luxurious financial and ministerial buildings: I can't think of a better image to portray the dystopia that the European dream is becoming.
During our visit, a Syrian refugee immediately approached us when he heard us speaking Spanish. He had studied in Madrid years ago. He then returned to Aleppo, and, when the war started, he fled with his family. He sought refuge in a camp in Turkey. From there, he crossed thousands of miles to Belgium, alone, hoping to obtain the refugee status that would allow him to bring his six children there safely, without risking the dangerous trip on which thousands die. But when they told him that family reunification excluded his two eldest daughters, his children took the same path that their father had taken to get here. Three months later, they finally met him in Brussels. Along the way, his children were beaten in Hungary, and forced to register there, which means that they can no longer apply for asylum in any other EU country, as stated by the current nonsensical Dublin Protocol.
People like him give life to this makeshift camp. They are another example of the kind of European solidarity that does not appear in institutional propaganda or in Juncker's vibrant, but ultimately empty, speeches. The same can be said of the welcoming initiatives across the continent that various municipalities are sponsoring, which are on track to becoming a substantial humanitarian network that can replace ministerial bureaucracy.
Faced with apathy or outright opposition from European states, it is essential to coordinate grassroots organizations in order to connect both the various European initiatives for shelter and the work being done by various citizen platforms. This would improve and optimize solidarity with refugees, and also buttress on-the-ground political change, which could herald a Europe that's different from the current dystopia of xenophobia and austerity. It's time to go on the offensive and build a citizen rescue plan based on these initiatives of solidarity and self-organization.
And the thing is that there is no need to walk along the barbed wire of a secluded border or to cross an icy forest or a dangerous sea to find these sort of experiences. No, they're right here, in the middle of central Europe. They are walking distance from the same organisms that produce the humanist and humanitarian propaganda that the EU hides behind in an attempt to mask its inner misery. A refugee camp is located in the Brussels financial center, right next to the headquarters of lobbying organizations, multinational corporations, and NGOs. This creates an image of the consequences of war, misery and deprivation, knocking on the door of the symbolic heart of the European project. It sounds so ridiculous; one could mistake it for a lie. But there it is. It is real. And it's knocking on our door.
This post first appeared on HuffPost Spain and was translated into English.