Belgium scrambles to welcome Ukrainian refugees – POLITICO

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EU ministers last week hailed a “historic” deal to provide immediate protection for Ukrainian refugees fleeing war. But on the ground in Brussels, the reality is very different.

As large numbers of refugees arrived, Belgian authorities were overwhelmed, centers were saturated and conflicting information was shared – leading to confusion among Ukrainians who had fled the deadly invasion. people of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Ludmila is one of them. She is queuing in front of an old hospital near Brussels’ Porte de Hal, along with hundreds of other Ukrainian refugees in the hope of being registered in Belgium and given temporary protection in the country.

Waiting in line on an unusually warm day, most people looked exhausted and lost. When asked if they spoke English or French, the responses ranged from looking tired to nodding.

Ludmila is 34 years old and has a 4-year-old daughter 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 leaving for Western Europe. When asked how the process to get protection has gone so far, she said the organization has been “not very good.”

Registration give Ukrainians are given temporary protection, as long as they bring identification when fleeing. With this registration, a Belgian municipality will issue the country’s “A” card, allowing access to residency, social security, education and work.

“Of course, I want to live in Ukraine, and of course, I want to return as soon as possible,” said Ludmila, adding that she needs access to medicine, insurance and schooling for her family. “After COVID, we also had problems with coughs,” she added.

The refugee center at the old Jules Bordet hospital in Brussels opened last week. Erik Van Wolvelaer, a Solidarity for Ukraine, Belgium volunteer who is coordinating help and food distribution outside the centre, said setting up the toilets took days.

“The first day, people didn’t want to drink for fear of having to go to the bathroom, because they got stuck in this thing,” he said, pointing at the long line of people waiting against a Wall. “There are people who are afraid of fainting and can’t get out of it easily.”

Ludmila spent many long days in the ranks.

“We arrived on a Monday and we stayed from 8:30am to 6pm with the kids, with the parents. They have some trouble with headaches, with legs,” she said.

Ludmila added that there had been confusion in the queue, and when she approached the entrance of the center to check in, she and her family were brought back to the back of the line. “It’s not normal, because we stand here for days, with kids sleeping on top of us,” she said.

Van Wolvelaer says there are simple ways to improve the queue situation for Ukrainians. For example, an online registration system would be helpful.

That way, he says, “people know exactly where they need to go, what they need to bring and how long it will take, and they can organize themselves with children and the elderly. Here, there can be no organization at all.”

Political Disputes

Belgium’s complex political architecture did nothing to resolve the crisis.

While other countries in the bloc such as Italy and the Czech Republic have declared a state of emergency, Belgium is still looking to receive an expected 200,000 people. refugees.

In principle, the federal government is responsible for acute care in the first days of the crisis. Then the regions took over, while only in exceptional circumstances – such as the Wallonian floods of 2021 – did the federal side take over. crisis management support.

The incumbent chairman of the Flemish nationalist N-VA party and Antwerp mayor, Bart De Wever, downplayed the federal response, saying it relies too heavily on autonomous cities and services. local society – while Sammy MahdiBelgium’s top migration official, and Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo defended their efforts in a difficult situation.

But on Thursday, De Croo summoned his top ministers and regional leaders to take charge of the crisis response, as criticism grew over the response given by Mahdi. . Speaking to the Belgian parliament on Thursday, De Croo and Mahdi speak that the federal government will handle the welcome, check-in, and emergency accommodation aspect. Three regions – Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels – will be required to establish large capacity housing.

A larger refugee center, near Heysel in Brussels, is expected to open on Monday, where registrations will be tracked quickly and people can wait in more tolerable conditions. Van Wolvelaer, a volunteer, said: “Knowing Belgium, they will still find something to say that it is impossible.

Marta Barandiy, founder of civil society organization Promoting Ukraineis facilitating management between Brussels and Ukraine, and she points to organizational failures.

Local authorities are confused, Barandiy said, as the number of refugees grows. One Belgian commune even contacted her to find out exactly which other municipalities in the region have welcomed refugees.

Belgian Magic

Other Ukrainians joined the newcomers to offer support, show solidarity and translate information.

Nina and Maxim came to Belgium 8 years ago. They also fled Ukraine, when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. And for them, the wait was over. They came to collect their residence cards nearby and now have the right to stay in Belgium indefinitely.

Speaking of their arrival in Belgium in 2014, Maxim said that “there are a lot of Belgians who don’t believe us about the war. Many of them now say sorry. ‘Sorry. We thought you were the economy tourist, but now we know you were right. ‘”

Fluent in French, Nina, who now works for the Red Cross in the province of Luxembourg, admits getting residency in Belgium is “a very difficult process morally and psychologically because you lose everything. : tradition, family, celebration.”

But for her, what’s happening now is “beautiful”.

“Belgium is a bit of magic,” Nina said. “It is well organised. You are not a robot. It’s step by step, and it takes time.

Victor Jack and Barbara Moens contributed reporting. Belgium scrambles to welcome Ukrainian refugees - POLITICO

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