Brussels: thinking refugees #6

Is Brussels unique in its growing gap between those who help migrants by offering homestays, and those who’d lock them up or send them back. Or is it just another European city and country struggling to deal with the migrant crisis? Matt Hardy from Engage London takes an overview

Telling graffiti on the Military School in central Brussels which is now being used to house refugees. Photo inspired by workshops during the Engage Europe summer school at IHECS (c) Engage London/Matt Hardy

Brussels is the capital of Belgium, the home of European Politics and the famous Manneken Pis fountain. It’s also home to a refugee crisis, rising homelessness and a growing divide between rich and poor.

A cornerstone of the EU rule book is that an asylum seeker should seek protection from the first EU country they arrive at, and not travel onwards — a phenomenon known as “secondary movement”. (Financial Times)

But who and how should be helping? In Brussels, the home city of European politics, locals are currently breaking the law to help undocumented migrants. Thanks to Facebook – Platforme Citoyen (which has 47,000 members) every evening at the Parc Maximilien, near the Gare du Nord station, up to 400 migrants gather wait for the hundreds of Belgians who will offer them an overnight home stay. They do this to outwit officials after mass arrests of undocumented people sleeping in the park. It’s been happening since the Calais jungle in France, where 6,000 migrants lived, was shut down. Most of these asylum seekers don’t want to stay in Belgium, their goal is to reach the UK.

This film from Aljazeera explains more.

In Brussels this citizen initiative may change as soon as a new detention centre is built as the right wing coalition government’s plan is for these migrants to be housed there.

Nearly 500 miles east of Brussels is Berlin, the capital city of Germany. Germany is home to a conservative coalition government, led by Angela Merkel, which is currently on the verge of reshaping the European viewpoint on refugees.  On the same day that the Engage London team, which included two former child refugees, left Brussels, Merkel was at the European Parliament arguing the case for sending asylum seekers back to their entry point into Europe, shifting the political crisis south.

Whose responsibility?
Already the southern European countries of the continent such as Italy and Spain are on the receiving end of the countless refugee boats that are entering Europe from north Africa.

The inhabitants of the boats? Those fleeing persecution, war and those searching for a better life from their war-torn and/or intolerant nations such as Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, South Sudan and Ethiopia.

Countries on the Mediterranean sea are beginning to close their boarders to such ships, believing that countries further inland aren’t doing their share of offering asylum.

And they are right. Recently Merkel and her prop-up coalition (Christian Democratic Union with the smaller Christian Social Union)announced a new migrant plan that includes transit zones (detention centres in all but name) in southern Germany, designed to deport “ineligible asylum seekers”. These are the very sort of centres the European Commission condemned Donald Trump for opening in the US which deliberately split babies and children from their parents and family members.

New direction
Detention centres in Germany will forcerefugees to go elsewhere. A panicked Austria (which took in many refugees during the Bosnian conflict of 1992-95) already has plans to close their borders to stop the refugees from settling in the land-locked state. This would go against the free movement of people policy valued so highly by the European Commission, and they are unlikely to be the last country to put in place such measures.

The culmination of these decisions? The refugees will head for France, Belgium and Britain because other countries are closed.

It’s clearly more complex than what’s outlined above. But the point is clear; Germany, Austria and Italy have already put measures in place to deter migrants. Will Belgium do the same? Brussels is a city of hope and prosperity to some, and the final destination for others but to everyone, it’s a city that needs to do more to protect its growing diverse population.

  • See the Facebook page, Citizen Hosting Platform (Platforme Citoyen) which has and follow the hashtag #HelpIsNoCrime
  • Keep up to date with Matt Hardy via twitter @matthardyjourno and @thepoliticosuk

Engage London has approx 27 members – a lucky eight were able to attend the Brussels summer school at IHECS from 24-28 June. They were Pilion Trust’s Rahim Amin, Favour Ekengwu, Naomi Gahie, Charlie Tshibangu and City’s journalism undergrads Matt Hardy, Alun Macer-Wright, Diana Serenli, Meagan Walker. Big thanks to Engage Europe for creating this opportunity.


The Facebook group that enables Belgians to offer homestays to migrants.


Brussels: workshops in pix #4

Photo collection from Engage London’s Rahim Amin illustrating the scope of what was offered at the Brussels workshop run by Engage Europe at IHECS in June

Meet Rahim

Rahim Amin at the Engage Europe summer school at IHECS in Brussels. He joined the radio/sound workshop, graffiti which involved long walks around Brussels and photography (c) Engage London/Matt Hardy

Graffiti workshops

Finding boundaries in the image (c) Engage London/Rahim Amin

Finding boundaries in the image (c) Engage London/Rahim Amin

Looking at boundaries (c) Engage London/Rahim Amin

Working on radio techniques – with a focus on sound

The lads in the studio with Rahim on the right (c) Engage London/Matt Hardy

#HearMeSpeak broadcasting in Brussels during the radio sound workshop

After the workshops

Rahim Amin in Brussels (c) Engage London/Matt Hardy







Engage London has approx 27 members – a lucky eight were able to attend the Brussels summer school at IHECS from 24-28 June. They were Pilion Trust’s Rahim Amin, Favour Ekengwu, Naomi Gahie, Charlie Tshibangu and City’s journalism undergrads Matt Hardy, Alun Macer-Wright, Diana Serenli, Meagan Walker. Big thanks to Engage Europe for creating this opportunity.

Brussels summer school NEED TO KNOW

Engage London includes more than 20 people on the #hearmespeak team. A lucky eight are going to Brussels for a summer school. Below are the final workshop choices and our code of conduct.

Brussels summer school preparation: Standing: Savas Panas, CEO Pilion Trust, Nicola Baird, journalist. Sitting: Rahim Amin, Favour Ekengwu, Naomi Gahie. (c) Engage London

We all picked workshops in advance and are looking forward to learning all sorts. Here are the workshop choices (three not four):

1 Brussels CODE OF CONDUCT created by Rahim, Favour and Naomi (but for everyone!)

  • Treat everyone with respect.
  • Professional behaviourthis is a workshop so think of it as work. It’s not a holiday. Be respectful in the workshops & be sure to get up in enough time to arrive at the workshops on time. If you are late for the start it interrupts everyone else. Don’t be that late person.
  • Professional behaviour for 24 hours a day, not just in the workshops. So in the hostel keep quiet at night so people can sleep.
  • You are ambassadors for Engage London.
  • #HearMeSpeak also means #ListenToOtherPeople
  • Any problems just speak to someone, especially Nicola and Savvas. The co-ordinators at IHECS are Laura and Esther.


2 TIPS to keep you safe and on time

  • Take the hostel address card when we check in. It’s easy to forget the address and location of a hotel!
  • Take a map of where the hostel is and keep it on you. If you get lost use this map to get ‘home’. Ideally stay with others from Engage Europe. But if you need to pop out on your own, tell someone.
  • You’re in a different country so there are different customs for food, language, swearing, smoking and drink. Pay attention to these differences.
  • Use caution with alcohol (Belgian beer is strong!)
  • Make friends with the Engage Europe teams from Germany, Romania, Belgium and Spain. Hopefully you’ll see them again in London (Oct) – or even Barcelona (Nov) or Brussels (Dec).


>Every day take a photo that tells a story and share on our WhatsApp.

We’ll use the best for a photo show back in London with the others. Please do not clog up the Engage London WhatsApp with selfies – we want photos that show what you are up to, not just your face!


Meet the Brussels team: Meagan Walker

Meagan Walker, 19-year-old journalism student from Worcestershire reflects on her move from the Midlands to study journalism at City. Interview by Romeo Nanub

Front: Meagan Walker, from City uni, with her interviewer, Romeo Nanub at Ringcross Community Centre during a recent Engage London blogging masterclass. (c) Engage London

Where are you from?
I’m from the Midlands, the middle of nowhere. It’s quiet, boring, old. There’s freedom and safety though.

What did you do in the countryside?
Horse riding, walks and bike rides down old railway tracks. I moved away from Worcestershire for the first time to go to uni to study journalism. I feel more at home in London because it’s more inclusive of people and diverse. It’s also the perfect place for my course.

What are your plans after graduating?
Now I work to live in London. But I want to feel more balanced because the living cost in London is too high, so after university I’m hoping to move to Australia to work.

Tell us a secret
I used to want to be a marine biologist, but I was scared of sharks. But now I’m a shark lover and advocate of shark conservation.

How did you find out about #hearmespeak?
A friend spoke about #hearmespeak at university. It made me realise I was privileged and wanted to share my skills and experience with others. I have a responsibility to give back because I’m lucky to be in this position.

  • Meagan Walker is one of the eight students Engage London hopes will go to Brussels for the Engage Europe workshops during June 2018.
  • Read Meagan’s blog at
  • This is Romeo Nanub’s first interview for Engage London – he was introduced to the project via the Pilion Trust and has been joining the blogging masterclasses. Sadly he’s not available for the Brussels trip. We all loved this interview so much that Romeo was then invited to write a feature/review for the Pavement – a bimonthly magazine for homeless Londoners.

Planning at Thomas More University, Mechelen, Belgium

15 March 2018: Engage Europe colleagues, co-ordinated by Laura and Esther from IHECS (Brussels), met at Thomas More University, Mechelen, Belgium. Report from City, University of London team.

Yarn bombing by old houses along the River Dyle in Mechelen, Belgium (c) Engage London

Q: Where is Mechelen?
Mechelen is in Belgium – quite close! London to Brussels via Eurostar takes just two hours. From Brux Midi station (Brux Midi is the station’s French name; in Flemish it’s Brux Zuid and in English Brussels South) it’s about 20 minutes on another train to Mechelen.

Q: Tell me the basics
Mechelen is midway between Brussels and Antwerp. It’s both a tourist magnet and a university town (a little like York in the UK). The centre boasts the huge 13th century St Rumbold’s cathedral. Facing it is a large city-centre square lined with cafes. At busy commuting times there seems to be an urban ballet performed in the square as bikes weave around pedestrians.

About two years ago Mechelen was traffic-calmed, prioritising people and bikes, over vehicles. As a result us Londoners found it really quiet in the centre. You can actually hear the big Belgian bikes bouncing over the cobbles. Cars can come into the centre in the evening to park in the underground car park beneath the city square. There are buses, but they aren’t red.

Walking and cycling are nice ways to travel around Mechelen to reach Thomas More University. (c) Engage London

Have you heard of this Belgian city?

  • MECHELEN is where Anne Boleyn (1504-36), who famously lost her head to Henry VIII, spent a part of her childhood.
  • Charles V (1500-1558), known as the Holy Roman Emperor (basically he was King of Spain and Italy and parts of Germany until he abdicated to retire to a monastery in 1556) was brought up in Mechelen until he was 17.
  • Mechelen did have a protective city wall and 12 gates. There’s one still standing, known as The Brusselpoort.
  • In the central square the city palace is still used. It is known as the Hof van Busleyden. Years ago philosophers Erasmus and Thomas More both visited this palace, possibly sharing their ideas.
  • Upsettingly Mechelen’s good train links are why between August 1942 – July 1944 the invading German Nazis chose it as a collecting point for the 25,000 Jews and Roma they sent by train to Auschwitz-Birkeneau. At the end of the war when the concentration camp was liberated only 1,240 were still alive (reference).


Engage teams from six universities: Laura (IHECS, Belgium), Anne (Belgium), Esther (IHECS, Belgium), Kiron (Germany), Barbara (London), Caroline (London), Charo (Spain), Cristina (Spain, not in pic), Ovidiu (Romania), Alexandra (Romania) and Nicola (not in pic). (c) Engage London

Engage Europe at Mechelen 
Thomas More University, one of Engage Europe project’s academic partner institutions, is on the ring road. At this centre a team from universities in the European towns of Brussels (IHECS, Laura & Esther), Barcelona (Charo & Cristina), Tübingen (Kiron), Cluj (Alexandra and Ovidiu) and our host Mechelen (Anne) provided updates on their Engage work.

Representatives from City, which is based in Islington, London, shared a powerpoint, film and the gallery on our blog to introduce the young people from the Pilion Trust. Our Hear Me Speak film got a round of applause, so thank you again everyone involved in creating it, in front or behind the camera.

To date radio, podcasts and photography have been the most popular ways around Europe to share media skills and give the young people’s perspectives a voice. Find out more by looking at the partner blogs, see here.

Alexandra from Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca shares Engage Romania’s radio work with Roma, young people with disabilities and also Down’s Syndrome. (c) Engage London

Next meetings during 2018 will all involve practical media collaborations (eg, radio, photography and more). Planned activities include a summer school from 25-27 June (Brussels) and workshops in Cluj-Napoca (24 May-1 June), London (date TBC) and Barcelona (date TBC). We’re so excited for London!

Graffiti on the train at Mechlen. In Brussels we saw brilliant designs everywhere. (c) Engage London