More than 10,000 housing spaces have been made available to Ukrainian refugees in Belgium following the request from State Secretary for Migration Sammy Mahdi for residents and municipalities to offer temporary shelter.
Mahdi launched #Plekvrij (Free Space) on Monday, an initiative allowing people to voluntarily register to host refugees and communes to make municipal buildings and sports halls available for those waiting for a permanent place of residence, mapping these per municipality.
Some 8,000 spaces were registered as of Wednesday, and 499 of the 581 municipalities responded to Mahdi's call saying they are willing to offer help. "And meanwhile, the counter of #FreeSpace is at +10,000," he tweeted Thursday morning.
En ondertussen zit de teller van #plekvrij op +10.000 ❤️🇺🇦— Sammy Mahdi (@SammyMahdi) March 3, 2022
One Lithuanian lawyer in her late thirties who lives in Brussels with her husband and three children, Aiste Slezeviciute, is among those who signed up to accommodate Ukrainian refugees. "Given that I am originally from Lithuania and the fact I speak Russian, the news really shocked me deeply, because it's just that little bit closer to home."
She told The Brussels Times she started reaching out to Ukrainian friends asking what she and her family could do. She also contacted the Ukrainian embassy and registered as someone willing to help with housing. "We have two extra rooms, so we can help in this way."
She offered her help as a translator for refugees who don’t speak French or English to assist them with administration and logistics and stocked up on medicine to send to the war-torn country. "I went to pharmacies who kindly gave me discounts because I was buying paracetamol in bulk, so you can really see everyone is trying to help," she said.
Slezeviciute is particularly keen to help young people or parents with children to ensure they can continue going to school for some stability, adding that she is considering contacting schools to find out what system can be put in place to ensure the flow of migrant children to Belgian schools.
"I do think potentially the number of people in need of help will grow and that we will maybe be contacted to help, but at the moment we have done nothing concrete yet; however, I will continue to look for people we can help in the most meaningful way," she said.
More than one million refugees so far
The UN's High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, said on Thursday that in just one week, one million people fled Ukraine. "I have worked in refugee emergencies for almost 40 years, and rarely have I seen an exodus as rapid as this one," he said in a video statement.
The European Commission on Wednesday proposed to activate the Temporary Protection Directive, which will give people fleeing the war in Ukraine a residence permit, access to education and to the labour market without going through the usual asylum and reception procedure.
The EU home affairs ministers will examine this proposal at the Justice and Home Affairs Council on Thursday.
The Flemish government said forecasts show that Belgium and other European countries can expect large groups of people as early as next week in response, especially if the Council approves the proposal.
"Everywhere in Flanders, we are already seeing warm signs of solidarity and spontaneous help. But unfortunately, that will not be enough. We cannot expect our citizens to offer all Ukrainian refugees a permanent housing solution," a statement read.
Gent is solidair met Oekraïne 🇺🇦 @Stadgent steunt de oproep #Plekvrij van @SammyMahdi en maakt 50.000 euro aan noodhulp vrij. Burgers die een plek vrij hebben, of financiële of materiele hulp willen bieden, vinden info op de website van de stad ⬇️ https://t.co/n6gM2mLWqD— Isabelle Heyndrickx (@IsabelleHeyn) March 3, 2022
Tweet translation: "Ghent stands in solidarity with Ukraine and supports Sammy Mahdi's call and makes available €50,000 in emergency aid. Citizens who have a place free, or want to offer financial or material help, find info on the city's website."
"It is also necessary to provide collective accommodation together with the local authorities. There is a need for a quick, sustainable and structured offer," it added, calling on municipalities to structurally organise a possible supply of large-scale facilities and locations.
Flemish MP Brecht Warnez called on the Flemish government to open up the 57 vacant residential properties it owns to Ukrainian refugees.
Tweet translation: "Flemish people are already offering reception places en masse via #PlekVrij. At my request, Minister-President Jan Jambon announced that Flanders has 57 habitable houses that are currently empty. I call on the ministers to open these up to Ukrainian refugees."
The Brussels Hotels Association (BHA) told Belga News Agency that more than a hundred rooms have now been made available free of charge by the hotel sector in Brussels to accommodate Ukrainian refugees. It said that its inventory of available places will be regularly updated and sent to the various municipalities concerned.